Chicken tagine: A succulent Middle East stew that's a symphony of spices, vegetables + a secret ingredient
By Daniel Neman
Along with couscous, it is one of the foods that define the entire region. Preserved lemons are one of those ingredients that, the first time you try it, you ask, "What is that taste?" It is definitely like a lemon, but it has been wonderfully intensified. It's like a SuperLemon.
Preserved lemons are readily available at Middle Eastern groceries, international groceries and specialty stores, but why buy them when you can make them yourself? All it takes are lemons, salt and patience.
Patience, because it takes a month for the salt to work its magic on the lemons. But during those four weeks your anticipation builds. You think about the taste that will await you when the lemons are ready, you start planning how to use them. You may even start to think that you are building them up too much in your mind.
Don't worry about it. Preserved lemons exceed your expectations.
Preserved lemons create strong pops of flavor anywhere they are added; they are the ultimate condiment in that they work as an accent in support of the main part of the dish.
They are also incredibly versatile. Their skin can be used to add zip to hummus (typically, only the skin is used; the pulp is usually discarded). They could add an unforeseen element to grilled vegetables or be included in a stunning vinaigrette. They can add zest, as it were, to a salad or even be used in dessert, as we shall see. Some local restaurants offer them on pizzas.
But if there is one dish to which preserved lemons are forever connected, it is chicken tagine from Morocco. Traditionally, tagine (the food) is cooked in a tagine, an earthenware pot shaped like an upside-down funnel. The tagine pot is said to produce the best flavor in a tagine, but they can be pricey and have few or no other uses.
In their place, you can use a heavy skillet with a lid or even a shallow casserole dish that is suitable for the top of a stove.
A chicken tagine is basically a stew, with the most tender and delicious meat. What makes it a tagine are the spices: garlic, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and cilantro, all cooked over a bed of thinly sliced red onions. All it needs are a couple of elements to provide a profile-altering counterpoint. A couple of handfuls of purple olives add salt and visual appeal, while the preserved lemons yield delicious bursts of piquant lemon flavor.
CHICKEN TAGINE WITH PRESERVED LEMON
MAKES: 4 servings
• 1 teaspoon saffron threads
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
• 1 (3 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into quarters
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 medium red onions, sliced lengthwise
• 2 teaspoons ground ginger
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
• 1 teaspoon lime juice
• 4 tablespoons chopped cilantro, divided
• 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
• 2 preserved lemons
• 1/2 cup purple Moroccan or Greek olives
1. Lightly toast saffron in a dry, small, heavy skillet over moderately low heat, shaking skillet, until just fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a small dish, let cool, then crumble with fingers.
2. With a mortar and pestle, mash chopped garlic and ½ teaspoon salt to a paste.
3. In a large bowl, toss chicken with oil, onions, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, lime juice, 3 tablespoons of the cilantro, the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, pepper and reserved saffron.
4. Separate the chicken from the onions and spread the spiced onions across the bottom of a 12-inch tagine, 12-inch heavy, covered skillet or a shallow, covered casserole. Place the chicken on top. Cut the preserved lemons into quarters and scrape the pulp from the peel. Coarsely chop the pulp and sprinkle over the chicken. Cut the peel into ½-inch pieces, and reserve.
5. Add 3/4 cup water to tagine, skillet or casserole, cover and bring to a simmer. Cook 30 minutes, until chicken is almost cooked through. Check occasionally toward end of cooking time to be sure tagine is not dry, adding more water if necessary to keep meat from burning and sticking to pot. Add olives and simmer, covered, 10 minutes longer until chicken is cooked through. Just before serving, sprinkle with preserved lemon peel, remaining cilantro and salt to taste.
Per serving: 600 calories; 38g fat; 9g saturated fat; 165mg cholesterol; 55g protein; 10g carbohydrate; 3g sugar; 3g fiber; 1,155mg sodium; 80mg calcium.
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