I’ve been dreaming about going to Morocco for a few years now, but then again, I dream about traveling everywhere. But there’s something about the North African nation of Morocco that keeps it coming back to my daydreams.
Maybe it’s my undying love for Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca.
Or the ancient, glorious maze of streets that comprise Marrakesh and the vast desert beyond it that beckons visitors to hop on a camel and explore.
Or maybe it’s the exotic cuisine that really gets me.
Moroccan food has Arab, Mediterranean, Moorish and Berber influences, but it’s taken on a mind of its own. Spices are used extensively, especially saffron, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and coriander, and olives, lemons, oranges, mint and couscous are all commonplace. I’ve seen images of its markets, littered with giant conical piles of fragrant herbs and spices, nuts and dried fruits. The images alone make my heart (and stomach) yearn for a faraway place I’ve never seen before.
I’d heard of tagine—a North African dish named after the special vessel in which it’s cooked—but I’d never experienced one myself. Meals prepared in a tagine are usually slow-cooked stews or braises with lamb, beef or chicken and various vegetables, olives and dried or fresh fruits. Couscous is usually served as an accompaniment. Now that sounds like food I could get used to.
So with all these dreams of Morocco running through my mind, I decided to make a tagine in my slow cooker about nine months ago. And it was an epic failure, at least in my opinion. My good friend Carol is also a big fan of tagines—and of my cooking—and she promised to buy me a real tagine whenever she got the money together.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. Doug asked me to marry him and then a few days later I arrived at home to find a giant box from Amazon.com on my doorstep, just begging for me to open it. What in the world did I order? I kept asking myself. I hadn’t ordered anything: Carol had sent me a gorgeous red ceramic tagine from Emile Henry—and a much-needed pie server—as an engagement/half-birthday gift.
EEK! I jumped around my house, rejoicing like a toddler who had just gotten his first set of Big Wheels. The tagine is incredibly gorgeous and it perfectly matches the rest of my kitchen, too! (Note: Below the tagine is actually at Doug’s house, not mine. Too bad, it matches the feature wall!)
The tagine vessel itself has two parts: a base that is flat and circular with low sides and a conical cover that rests inside during cooking. The cone- or dome-like shape of the tagine encourages condensation to fall back into the base of the dish, producing very tender meat with aromatic vegetables and a delicious pan sauce.
Of course, I had to make something in it as soon as I was able, so this past Saturday I made Emeril Lagasse’s North African Chicken Tagine for Doug and his roommates, and we were all pretty much blown away by the results. The chicken was incredibly tender and moist, and the spice blend gives the vegetables and resulting sauce such an intense, heavenly flavor. The raisins and preserved lemons aren’t sweet like you expect; instead they help to round out the flavor of the spices and play games on your palate. If you don’t have a tagine, you can make this dish in a heavy-bottomed cast iron or ceramic skillet instead, so don’t fret that you won’t be able to experience the magic.
Either way, this Moroccan Chicken Tagine will transport you to an exotic place so very far away. And sometimes, that’s really all you need.
Moroccan Chicken Tagine
This recipe is adapted from one by Emeril Lagasse. We don’t like mint so we used parsley instead, and we were out of almonds so we skipped that part, although I’m sure they would give the dish a lovely crunch. You can cut up the chicken yourself (good practice!) or buy it already cut up at the grocery store to save time. This recipe serves 6. Oh, and there’s a super easy recipe for preserved lemons below. Or you can buy your own from the grocery story or an Indian market. Click here to download a copy of this recipe.
1 tsp. saffron threads
1 Tbs. warm water
1 Tbs. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp. ground cumin
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
1 (3½ to 4 pound) roasting chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 sticks cinnamon
2 bay leaves
1 cup thinly sliced yellow onion
1 Tbs. minced garlic
2 cups chicken stock
½ cup golden raisins
1/3 cup rough chopped preserved lemon (see recipe below)
¼ cup rough chopped green olives
¼ cup toasted almond slivers
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Cooked couscous, for serving
Prepare the spices. Combine the saffron threads and water in a small bowl and allow to steep. In another small bowl, combine the kosher salt, black pepper, cumin and cardamom. Mix well, and season the chicken pieces on both sides with the spice blend.
Cook chicken. Set a tagine or Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add half of the chicken pieces, skin side down, and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate and set aside while you cook the remaining chicken pieces. Remove and set aside.
Build and cook the tagine. Add the cinnamon sticks and bay leaves to the tagine and cook, stirring, for 20 seconds.
Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly caramelized, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic to the pan and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add the stock, saffron, raisins, preserved lemons and olives to the pan and bring to a boil.
Return the chicken to the pan, skin side down. Return the sauce to a boil, cover the tagine, and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, covered, for 15 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces to the other side and add the almonds. Continue to cook, covered, until the meat is very tender, 15 to 20 minutes longer. Garnish the chicken with the mint and serve over warm couscous in shallow bowls
Quick Preserved Lemons
This recipe by Kitty Morse originally appeared in the June 2004 issue of Cooking Light. Here’s what she had to say: “Preserving lemons typically takes 4 to 6 weeks to acquire the right consistency and flavor. However, this quick method bypasses the lengthy preservation time and is a great substitute for the real thing. Use the rind to accent a variety of dishes, from seafood to vegetable stir-fries. Mash the pulp in a sauce or a stew, or use it to baste chicken or lamb. These can be made several days ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. To distribute the flavor, chop before adding to a dish.”
1 cup water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 lemons, washed and quartered
Combine water and salt in a small saucepan; bring to a boil. Add lemons; cook 30 minutes or until liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup and lemon rind is tender. Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.