Chicken Tajine with Lemons & Olives

August 25, 2012

Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
~Marcel Proust

Another remembrance rekindled.  This time from La Table de Fès, an inauspicious restaurant morocain on la rue Sainte-Beuve in Paris’ 6eme arrondissement, festooned with a painted teal & white facade and a curtained, rather dark interior with woodwork and simple white clothed tables.  A room teeming with the aromas of intoxicating Moroccan spices.  The chicken tajine with preserved lemons, braised vegetables, and couscous there were beyond superlative, nearly peerless.   In this quaint haunt, the quirky plump proprietress took us on an engaging imaginary voyage over Moroccan landscapes by way of our plates.  While the 20eme is home to many north African immigrants and chez Omar is considered quite branché (“in”), fond memories of sublime food were born at La Table de Fès.  Not just a place, but a new way of seeing.

Little doubt that I will fail at replicating this enchanting dish, but here goes…

CHICKEN TAJINE WITH PRESERVED LEMONS & OLIVES

1 medium cinnamon stick, broken some
1 t whole black peppercorns
1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 t red pepper flakes

1/2 T turmeric
1/2 T paprika dulce or agridulce

3 T+ extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 C fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron
4-6 chicken leg-thigh quarters, trimmed of excess fat

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
2 preserved lemons (see below)
3/4 C green and red olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine

Toast cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom pods, and pepper flakes in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. Allow to reach room temperature, then in a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Place in a small bowl and add turmeric and paprika and mix well.

In a large baking dish or casserole, mix the oil, spices, garlic, ginger, cilantro, bay leaves and saffron. Add chicken, rubbing, massaging the marinade over all the pieces. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or preferably overnight.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and reserve marinade and bring to room temperature. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or tagine or large casserole over medium high heat add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put in chicken pieces until lightly brown on both sides, about 5 minutes each. Add onions and cook until translucent and just starting to lightly brown, about 4 minutes. Scoop out flesh and discard and then rinse the preserved lemons. Cut peel into strips and add to pan. Add reserved marinade, olives, currants, chicken stock, and wine. Cover and cook over medium heat until chicken is done, about 30-35 minutes. Discard bay leaf and taste to adjust seasoning.

Place chicken on a platter or individual plates. Spoon juices with the preserved lemon, olives, and onions over chicken and serve accompanied by plain couscous or couscous with apricots (see below).

Preserved Lemons

6 lemons, scrubbed and cleaned
3 C+ sea salt
Cold water

Fill the bottom of a large, hinged glass jar with 1 cup of salt. Slice off the end of each lemon.  Cut the lemons into quarters lengthwise twice, but do not slice all the way through, so the lemon remains intact on one end. Open up the lemon and pack copious amounts of salt inside. Arrange three of the lemons on top of the first layer of salt and then add a second cup of salt. Add the last three lemons and then pour in the last cup of salt on top of the lemons. Press down the fruit so the juices release and then fill the rest of the jar with water just until it covers the lemons. Tightly close the jar and store in a cool, dark place for at least one month until the lemon peel has softened. Occasionally turn the jar upside down and gently shake so the salt redistributes.

When ready to use, just remove the pulp and use the peel only. Make sure to rinse off the almost translucent peel to remove excess salt before adding to the dish. Preserved lemons can be stored for up to 4 months in the refrigerator.

Couscous with Apricots

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander, toasted & ground

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.

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