What is a Tagine?
The Tagine is both a typical moroccan earthenware pot and the dish that is cooked inside. The base is shallow and the particular cone-shaped lid is designed to favours condensations (due to the larger surface and the higher top, see image - for those interested in the science of tagine there is an interesting reddit discussion here) so that the lost of moisture from the inside is very limited.
This makes stews cooked in a tagine incredibly moist even when using less liquid - and if you think that it was used by the bedouins in the desert, and cooked over an open fire, it is clear why retaining all the moisture was super-important!
Moroccan Chicken Tagine
Tagine represent Moroccan cuisine probably even more than couscous, and many variations of this dish exist: with lamb, goat, mutton, fish or vegetables, that are generally accompanied by aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic, carrots, ginger), dried fruits and spices. This one has chicken as the main ingredient, and its mildness is ideal because it lets all the other flavours shine. The combination of preserved lemons and olives (acid-salty) create a distinctive, memorable taste, while cinnamon and saffron give a subtle sweet earthy note to the dish.
NOTES on INGREDIENTS
- Chicken should be free-range or organic, or even better bought from a farmer that you know treats his chicken well
- Saffron is the most adulterated spice in the world (that's normal because it is also the most expensive), so buy whole thread and not the pre-ground stuff
- Preserved lemons are easy to make at home, just use untreated lemons when they are abundant (in the winter)
HOW TO MAKE PRESERVED LEMONS
- Enough organic (or untreated lemons) to fill 3/4 of a mason jar of your choice (but you can do a lot, they can be kept for a year)
- Remove the stalk from the lemons and wash and clean them from any impurity they could have on the peel, then dry them.
- Make two cross cuts on the lemon's longer side stopping just before the pedicel and put inside a small handful of coarse salt (do not worry about measuring the salt, just put more than what seem enough, and what stay inside the lemon is ok).
- When all the lemons are stuffed with salt put them inside the well cleaned jar and press a little (with a clean pestle, or the back of a tablespoon) to extract some juice from the lemons. Put the lid on
- Wait for a few days till the lemons release enough juice to completely cover the lemons; if the liquid is not enough you should add juice from a few more lemons. The liquid must cover the lemons for the fermentation to happen, if not mold can develop on the surface of the uncovered fruits.
- The last step is just patience, because the lemons will be ready after a month in a cool dark cupboard. Verify once in a while that they are well submerged, and press them down if needed
The first step is salting the legs and wings, at least an hour in advance or even the night before: giving the salt enough time to diffuse into the meat make the meat not only more flavorful, but also moister and more tender (this is a thing a learned not much time ago, and it really is a life changer: all cuts of meat benefit from being salted well in advance of the cooking process)
While the chicken pieces are taking in the salt, in an earthenware casserole (or tagine if you have it), slowly sweat two roughly chopped onions, two cloves of garlic and an inch of ginger, in olive oil until translucent.
Raise the flame and add the chicken (skin side down) and brown for a few minutes, until the skin become a little crispy, then add a finely cut preserved lemon and a handful of olives (mine were made from my family olive trees in Sardinia), some threads of saffron (powdered or infused in water - I use sardinian saffron of the best quality, and it really makes a difference) and a small stick of cinnamon (cinnamomum zeylanicum) that will give a subtle sweetness to the dish.
Then add enough water, or homemade chicken broth, to cover the bottom of the casserole halfway up the chicken pieces, cover tightly and let it simmer slowly over the tiniest flame (or better in an oven preheated to 120°C) for two ot three hours.
While it cooks you can go doing your business, but the smell that comes out of the tagine will call you after an hour or so; then just smell the deliciously warming lemony-saffrony aroma that diffuses when you remove the lid... it is worth the wait and your whole kitchen with smell like a Moroccan heaven!
Serve it over rice (and sprinkle some finely chopped cilantro to garnish if you like) and enjoy!
This post was updated on February 24th, 2019