As we continue to embrace the Mediterranean diet for all of its healthful and flavorful properties, Moroccan cuisine has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. Spice blends now adorn the gourmet market shelves alongside jars of preserved lemons; tagine pots are now readily available for purchase in most upscale cookware shops and culinary magazines showcase recipes for this North African fare.
Scent is one of the first senses to detect a Moroccan dish being prepared, as the cuisine is loaded with spices which can include saffron, turmeric, cumin, ginger, cinnamon and paprika. Ras el Hanout is a blend of spices, which is commonly used to season Moroccan dishes. Herbs typically used in Moroccan cooking include cilantro and parsley.
Moroccan food makes use of nuts and such fruits as raisins, dates, apricots and preserved lemons. Preserved lemons are simply lemons, usually Meyer lemons, which have been cut, heavily salted and then jarred with their own juice for four to six weeks. Once rinsed and added to various dishes such as tagines, they impart a distinctive flavor that melds well with the spices.
The tagine has two definitions. It is a thick pot, traditionally clay or earthenware, in the form of a base with a conical lid. The ingredients simmer within the vessel, the condensation sliding down the interior of the lid to return to the pot, thus keeping the food moist. It is traditionally used to make, well, a tagine, which is a Moroccan stew of meat or poultry, spices, preserved lemons and vegetables. The stew is typically served with couscous, semolina pasta shaped like small granules.
Couscous is a staple throughout North Africa. Ingredients added to the couscous vary from country to country, Moroccans favoring the use of saffron. You can add any Mediterranean flare to season couscous, from chopped tomatoes to almonds and golden raisins to saffron and diced zucchini. Couscous is a quick side dish that can be made as simply or as exotic as you crave.
Other Mediterranean touches to Moroccan cooking include olives, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil.
Originating in neighboring Tunisia, harissa is a hot sauce made from hot chili peppers, spices and olive oil and is used as a condiment at the Moroccan table.
If you don’t have a tagine pot, a heavy Dutch oven with a lid will work just as well. If you become completely taken with Moroccan food and wish to add to your cookware collection, Le Creuset now makes a tagine. Alternatively, some shops have beautifully designed tagines in exotic patterns. For my fellow Long Island foodie shoppers, one such store is called Loaves and Fishes, located in Bridgehampton, New York. There are many recipes for chicken tagine, but they are all very similar, all using cilantro, parsley, onions, garlic, and the usual suspect list of spices and preserved lemons. Some tagines add artichoke hearts, some call for olives. Some include tomatoes and carrots, others throw chick peas into the mix. Some recipes call for both stovetop and oven cooking, others require no firing up of the oven at all. The nice touch that I have come up with in my recipe is the addition of almond-stuffed green olives, which you can find at the olive bar of a well-stocked supermarket.
Chicken Tagine with Lemons and Almond-Stuffed Olives
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
1 ½ teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
2 whole preserved lemons, rinsed
8 chicken thighs (bone-in, skins on)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 bouquet of parsley and cilantro (stems with leaves) tied with kitchen string
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
1 ½ cups chicken stock
½ pound almond-stuffed green olives
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 cup couscous
1 1/3 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
Combine the ginger, cumin, paprika, salt, pepper, finely chopped onion, olive oil and garlic in a bowl or plastic sealable bag. Add the chicken, mix to coat. Marinate in the refrigerator over night.
Preheat oven to 400-degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a tagine pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the contents from the marinade bowl or bag into the pot, scraping as much of the marinade spices into the pot as possible. Stir for about two minutes, add the second chopped onion and stir for another minute. Add the bouquet, saffron and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, cover, and place into the oven for 50 minutes. Remove the pot from the oven, remove the chicken and arrange on a platter. Add the lemons to the pot and boil the mixture over medium-high heat until reduced slightly. Remove the bouquet, then stir in the olives and chopped cilantro and parsley. Allow to cook for another five to ten minutes.
Meanwhile, place the 1 1/3 cup chicken stock, 1 teaspoon olive oil and ½ teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir in couscous, remove from heat, cover and allow to sit for five minutes.
Pour sauce over the chicken and serve with couscous.
The flavors of the sauce will permeate the couscous nicely, but again, you can make couscous interesting by adding any stir-ins that you come up with. Dice some zucchini and allow it to steam with the couscous; or stir in some chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Stir in some golden raisins and slivered almonds. Whatever you choose, I personally am a big fan of saffron so I use it with any of these combinations. Saffron is expensive, but it goes a long way. You only need about a quarter of a teaspoon for the above couscous recipe. It is easily found in thread form in the spice section of well-stocked supermarkets. Now that you’ve been inspired, warm up your next dinner table with the aromatic and colorful palette that Moroccan cuisine has to offer.