TAGINE DREAMS

Chicken, olive, preserved lemon and vegetables tagine




I really discovered the tagine (or tajine), or rather the tagines since there are an infinite number of them, more than 40 years ago, during the 1977 Summer. Then a student in a business school in Paris, my school sent me to Morocco for a compulsory 2-month or so internship in a Moroccan bank in Casablanca. Moroccan banks are as boring as French banks, or as anywhere in the world, I assume. Even though this was not the most exciting occupation, there were some advantages in working there. First of all, I stayed a much longer time in the country (3 months altogether) than the normal "tourist" time. Then, I got to know, and friend with, some Moroccan people whom I was working with, or whom I met through my colleagues in the bank. Thus, I was invited at a traditional Moroccan wedding in the medina (old city) of Salé, near Rabat, I discovered the traditional squab pastilla or almond paste stuffed pastries named cornes de gazelle in the best possible places of Casablanca, I spent the Ramadan with a Moroccan family in the old city of Fes, etc. As a result, although I didn't fall in love with the bank industry, I did with the country!


And I had my first authentic tagine. With a fellow student, we rented a Renault 4L, a cheap and very rustic car, to drive down to the South Morocco, Ouarzazate, the Draa valley and the Dades gorges... Leaving Marrakesh, we drove through the Atlas mountains and the tizi (pass) n'Tichka. As there were not that many motels on the route at this time, and/or since we didn't have that much money, we asked farmers the permission to set up our tent and to spend the night on their fields. Moroccan hospitality is not a legend. I had the opportunity to check it at multiple occasions. This is how we were invited to share a farm tagine, cooked on a wood fire. Everybody -almost everybody as, sorry ladies, women were not authorized to be with foreigners- was eating in the same dishware, the conical and iconic tagine, grabbing the food with the hand and a piece of flat bread. I don't remember exactly what was in it, some vegetables and pieces of cheap cut of lamb and/or chicken, but this has been the best tagine I have ever had. You know, cooking is much more than recipes... 




Today -there are so many things to say about tagines, this will be the topic of several other blogs- I would like to feature the most famous and one of the best tagines, combining the acidity of the lemon, the astringency of the olives and the sweetness of the onion and other vegetables... Every time I prepare it, this is a hit. The chicken / preserved lemon / olive tagine of course. Or one version of this tagine that allows many variations: on top of the basic ingredients, I added artichoke hearts, fennel, and carrots.


Ingredients (6 servings)

  • 1 beautiful chicken or 2-3 lbs of chicken, either breasts, thighs, drumsticks. Personally, I prefer to buy a whole chicken so that I can make a broth with the carcass. But it works perfectly with detailed pieces, which is the case here: boned and skinned thighs and drumsticks, cut in medium size pieces (don't forget that the traditional " silverware" to eat the tagine is normally... the hand and a piece of flat bread!)  it is normally  
  • 4 tsp. (3 for the marinade, 1 for the final touch) of raz-el-hanout, the iconic Moroccan spice blend that you can buy in any good spice shops or make yourself (I will address this in a future story). If you cannot find it, mix 1 tsp. of turmeric, ginger, cumin and cayenne, and 1/2 tsp. of cinnamon (all in powder).
  • 1 red onion thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, de-germed and crushed
  • Around 40 olives: the normal olives for tagines are those red/purple olives, but I like to add some green ones for their color, taste and texture (2/3 of red, 1/3 of green for instance)
  • 1 preserved organic lemon
  • a dozen of artichoke hearts, preserved or fresh
  • 3 carrots peeled and cut in segments
  • 2 or 3 fennel leaves, sliced or diced
  • Cilantro, chopped
  • 4 tbsp. of olive oil, 2 for the marinade and 3 for cooking


Recipe

  • If you don't have a preserved lemon, start by making one with this quick technique: put a whole organic lemon in salted water and put it to boil for a minimum 60 to 90 minutes, which will give you the time to prepare the tagine till you need the lemon
  • Put the marinade olive oil and the raz-el-hanout blend in a dish, add the chicken pieces and turn them till they are all nicely coated with the marinade. Let marinate for 15/20 minutes
  • Put 2 tbsp. of olive oil in a tagine dish, or a cast iron pot if you don't have a tagine dish, and heat it up on medium low at maximum (traditional tagine dishware do not support high temperature) and gently cook the onion till translucent
  • Add the chicken, the carrots, the fennel leaves, the artichokes (if fresh) and the garlic, salt moderately (because of the olives), and let simmer for 45 to 60 minutes at low medium, lid on
  • If you use a tagine dish, don't forget to put water in the circular cup on top of the conical lid, so you don't burn your finger when handling the lid
  • After around 30 minutes, add the olives and the artichokes (if preserved)
  • Around 5 minutes before serving, add the remaining tea spoon of raz-el-hanout and the cilantro, gently stir up the whole and add the preserved lemon that you would have cut in thin slices or dices. Personally, I take away the internal skins, but I keep the pulp. You can also squeeze haf a lemon all around the dish for additional acidity.

Serve classically in individual plates...
or serve in the cooking dish for everybody to grab food with the hand, like in those Atlas farms!

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