One day, hopefully in the not too distant future (but probably not in the near future, unfortunately), I will turn off my computer. I will rise up from my desk, and the dissertation will be done. And then, I will get myself on a plane, and I will go to Morocco. I will go to the land of olives and preserved lemons and taste the marvelous couscous and tagines for myself.
I can’t remember what is was that first made me fall in love with Moroccan food. Was it the abundance of olives? Or perhaps the meats, slow-cooked until they are fall off the bone tender? Or perhaps the couscous, piled high in a fluffy mound in the center of a large platter, surrounding by a comforting stew of vegetables? Or perhaps it was this very dish, tender, moist chicken flavored with the briny bite of preserved lemons and salty olives.
Moroccans are perhaps the original slow cooks. No wok-searing, flash-frying here. To conserve cooking fuel, a tagine pot can be stuck into the dying embers of a fire. Flavor blooms with long, slow gentle heat. In contrast to the brazenness of South and Southeast Asian curries, the herbs and spices in Moroccan cuisine become just a warm, subtle backdrop, gently bathing the main meat or vegetable. In this dish, the lemons and olives wake the flavors: sour, bitter, earthy, warm. Tradition says to serve it with bread, but I love the combination of the slippery braised chicken in its unctuous sauce with jasmine rice.
I cook this chicken dish not out of any connection with my past, but to remind myself of my hopes and dreams for the future. I eat this my warming, slow-cooked chicken, and I can hope that it won’t be winter forever, I will make it through the semester, and I will finish my dissertation. And one day, I will eat this dish in Morocco. One day.
Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives
I resisted making my own preserved lemons for a long time, but I couldn’t find a source for them in my neighborhood, and I didn’t have time to go looking. The next time I was at the store, organic lemons were on sale, so I grabbed a bunch and brined them in one of my Mason jars left over from pickling. They take a month to mature, so if you have a desperate hankering for this dish, check your local Middle Eastern grocer for the tiny pickled Egyptian lemons.
The original recipe is for a whole chicken, but I don’t like white meat.
4 chicken leg quarters, separated into legs and thighs
6 cloves garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
a pinch saffron
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp powdered ginger (don’t substitute fresh)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/4 c. canola or peanut oil
2 large yellow onions, grated and drained in a colander
1/4 c. packed chopped cilantro
1/4 c. packed chopped parsley
1/2-3/4 c. olives*
1 preserved lemon, peel only, sliced finely
juice of 1/2-1 lemon
*You may use any brine-cured olive green or black. Don’t use those flavorless canned American olives. Be sure you like the taste of your olive all by itself. If they are bitter, you may blanch them in boiling water and drain.
The day before, pound the garlic in the mortar and pestle with the other spices. Moisten mixture with the oil. Pull the skin off the chicken and rub with garlic paste. Refrigerate overnight.
The next day, place chickens in a large, heavy pot, preferably enameled cast iron. Add grated onions, herbs and about 2 c. water. Bring to boil, cover and lower heat. Simmer 40 minutes.
When chicken is tender and falling off the bone, add olives and lemon peel. Continue cooking 10-15 minutes. When ready to serve, pull chicken and as many olives as you can out of the sauce and arrange on serving platter. Boil sauce vigorously until reduced and thickened. Taste and season with lemon juice and additional sauce if necessary. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.
Lemons (as many as will fit in your sterilized jar)
enough freshly squeezed lemon juice to cover lemons
Slice ends off of lemons, and cut lemons into quarters, but leave slices attached at the end. In other words, don’t slice all the way through lemons. Pack salt into the crevices of the cut lemons, and drop into sterilized jar. (Word of warning: I would start with a small jar.) Leave overnight, during which lemons will exude quite a bit of juice.
The next day, cover lemons with fresh lemon juice, seal and leave to ripen one month before use. These will keep indefinitely.
Sources: Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco
Claudia Rodin’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food