This is a tagine. A tagine is a North African cooking pot. It is also the name of the stew cooked inside the cooking pot, a stew of meat (usually cheap cuts) spiced up with almost anything – olives, apples, raisins, quinces, apricots, cinnamon, figs, eggplants, ginger, cumin, saffron, turmeric, eggs, almonds, and especially preserved lemons.
Traditionally, a tagine (pot) is entirely ceramic and in Morocco is heated over a charcoal brazier called a mishmihr – often the only heat source in a Moroccan kitchen. A gas flame is generally too much for a ceramic tagine to handle, even with a heat diffuser. The conical lid keeps the stew moist by returning all the condensation to the flat bottom section, which is subsequently brought to the table as a serving dish.
But… it is debatable how practical a traditional tagine (pot) is in a modern Western kitchen. For a start, they seem to break easily – a local spice store that also imports unusual cooking implements told me they stopped selling tagines because half of them were already broken when they arrived. In Morocco, the attitude to a tagine is probably pretty similar to the attitude the Chinese hold towards a wok – after about two weeks of bashing about it will need replacing, but that’s no big deal because they’re available on every street corner for a handful of loose change. In my part of the world, where they are expensive novelty items, they don’t make such good economic sense.
Fortunately for us, Le Creuset comes to the rescue with an earthenware/cast iron hybrid. Sturdier than a traditional tagine, the iron base is comfortable on a stovetop and allows browning of the meat, something we in the West are fond of doing. Since I bought mine I’ve been experimenting with the ancient art of refrigerator cooking – that is, clearing out the refrigerator and seeing what kind of stew I can make. Most notable successes so far have involved lamb (with figs, with striped eggplant, and with chickpeas), but then I’m Australian and we Australians like our lamb. Seriously. We eat lamb chops for dinner. We barbecue it on spits. We roast a whole leg at Christmas. In Melbourne, souvlaki is practically the national dish. Perhaps there is a government incentive to get us addicted in childhood because wool is one of our top exports and we had to get rid of the rest of the sheep somehow. I don’t know. But that blue-red, stringy, sweat-smelling meat – we love it. Anyway, after that build up, here’s a recipe for chicken.
Chicken mqualli is an unusual combination of chicken with olives and preserved lemons. Preserved lemons – technically pickles – well, if you’ve never tried them, I urge you to change your ways. Their flavour is tart rather than sour, and intensely lemony. There should be a jar in every kitchen.
A bunch of lemons (most recipes I’ve seen recommend Meyer lemons, which are not, incidentally, true lemons, but a hybrid between a true lemon and a mandarin orange.)
A bunch of salt (you should use non-iodized salt, as is traditional for pickles. Iodine makes the pickling liquid dark and cloudy, which is unappetizing. I use sea salt from my local co-op.)
A pickling jar
Slice off the stem end of the lemons, then cut them as if you were cutting them in quarters lengthwise, but don’t cut all the way – the pointy end of the lemon should still hold the whole fruit together. Pack the cuts full of salt and push the lemons down into the bottom of the jar, sprinkling more salt on top. Keep cramming more salted lemons into the jar until you can’t squeeze any more in (it’s okay to tear a few in half to make them fit better). Sprinkle more salt on top, seal the jar and let it sit for a couple of days – by now the lemons should be covered with their own juice (thank you, osmosis!). If they are not, squeeze a few extra lemons and add the juice to the jar to ensure the pickles are covered. After about a month, the lemons are ready to use. All you want is the rind. Pull the segments apart and run them under cold water to remove the salt and clean out the pith and pulp (it will come away easily). You are left with a handsome section of pickled lemon rind. Dice or slice it, and see how many things you can think to add it to.
2 lb chicken thighs, bone in
Peanut oil and butter
2 large yellow onions
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 Tb chopped ginger
½ tsp cumin
½ tsp powdered chili pepper
1 preserved lemon, cut into eighths
20 or so green olives
Coriander or flat-leafed parsley to garnish
1. Although I adore chicken skin roasted, I don’t like it stewed, so I remove it. Cut as much meat off the thighs as possible, but don’t discard the bones. In your iron-bottomed tagine (or other cooking pot), heat the oil and butter until sizzling and brown the chicken (and bones) on all sides. Add the onion, the garlic, the ginger, cumin, chili pepper, and a cup of water. (You may need more water for a pot that is not a tagine. The lid of a tagine, due to its high conical shape, stays relatively cool and condenses liquid back into a stew more efficiently than a regular casserole lid.)
2. Cover the tagine and cook on a very low heat for 2 hours, turning the chicken a couple of times. If necessary, add more hot water. About 15 minutes before serving, pick the meat off the bones, and add the preserved lemon and olives.
3. Correct the seasoning and add lemon juice to taste, if necessary, and serve garnished with some thin strips of preserved lemon peel and coriander or parsley.
You don’t, of course, actually need a tagine to make this dish. You can get the same result using a casserole (another vessel with a meal named after it!), but, and maybe it’s just cookery-placebo, I find there’s something special about meat cooked in a tagine, something extra tender and scrumptious. And I like my tagine. So there.