Goals, Dreams, and Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

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.

Preserved Lemons

Lemons (as many as will fit in your sterilized jar)
coarse salt
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



Filed under gluten-free, Middle Eastern/North African

18 responses to “Goals, Dreams, and Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

  1. Erica

    i am going to make this right away! it looks delicious! oh, wait – i guess i will be making it in one month when my lemons mature!

  2. Ruchira

    Hi Tisha,
    Well, now that I have finished my dissertation, my fond hope is to find time to try some of the recipes on your blog (and others that I have been storing away). But wait… now I have to find a job, revise and submit papers to journals, and learn to drive…?
    Well, one day…

  3. Erica

    ruchira! this recipe is actually perfect for you, because your lemons will have just about matured after you find a job, revise and submit papers to journals, and learn to drive!

    only 28 days left to go for mine!

  4. Erica, I’m so excited that you’re making this recipe. 27 days to go!

    Ruchira, Hmm. Maybe the reason that I’m not done yet is that I keep cooking! This recipe really isn’t that time consuming at all. Once you brine the lemons, you can use them for all sorts of things. My mom puts them in her Eggplant pickle, and has been known to eat them plain with rice. (She’s quite the pickle-lover, though.)

  5. Tisha,

    I hope much inspiration is fueling the dissertation writing!! I know all too well the hope of turning off the computer, completed dissertation saved….but such a time is still far far in the distance for me!

    Your blog is great. You should be a food writer. Stable incomes are overrated.

    Hope your teaching is going well!!

  6. Ruchira

    Hi Tisha and Erica,

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll pickle the lemons this week. I look forward to trying the recipe and eating — it sounds delicious. It reminds me of a chicken recipe from south India where the sauce includes yogurt and chopped cilantro and fenugreek leaves (but not olives or lemons, which I think will make this dish so differently delicious). As Geetu likes to say nowadays, Yummy!

  7. Hi Maria,
    Good to “hear” from you. Sounds like your diss is going well (from reading your blog). Keep your chin up.

    Hi Ruchira,
    That South Indian recipe sounds really good. My mom doesn’t cook with Methi leaves, but I don’t really know why. Maybe you can give me the recipe sometime?

  8. Erica

    dang…my lemons developed a mould. restart the clock!

  9. Weird. That’s never happened to me. Be sure you sterilize the jar in the oven–200 degrees for 20 minutes. When I did this with my mom, we never even bothered to do that, though. Also, put some extra salt in there, as it will be sure to kill all the germs. Hope your next batch turns out okay.

  10. Erica

    i screwed up and didn’t cover my lemons with enough juice – that is the reason for the mould. my problem is i didn’t read the recipe closely enough. i am an idiot!

  11. Erica

    ok, the lemons are in a jar, fully covered by juice. start the clock! for the last time!

  12. Moroccan food is etraordinary check out more Moroccan recipes at http://www.moroccan-recipes.com/

  13. Linda Jones

    Dear Tisha,
    I first discovered your inspiring site while searching for a unique twist on apple pie….yes, your pie has been multiple times with rave reviews each time! When I read your reason for making the Moroccan Chicken, I knew it would be the perfect dish for my pre Christmas guests who needed hope in the midst of a winter season in their lives. The warm, inviting aroma gave a sensory hug to all who entered my home that day. Genuine friendship coupled with comfort cuisine is enough to remind anyone that life is worth living abundantly even in the winter seasons! Thanks for your inspiration.

  14. Linda, I’m so glad you liked the recipe. Yes, this dish smells divine while cooking. Friends and comfort food make the cold and darkness infinitely more bearable!

  15. Looks great, nice presentation.

  16. Pingback: The Back Burner » Blog Archive » Moroccan Chicken with Lemon and Olives

  17. Mimi

    I’m a foodie and found your site when looking for a Moroccan Chicken recipe. I’m sure it’s a great recipe, but the photo is very unappetizing… I didn’t even recognize it as being chicken at first… the chicken looks gray and icky… Just thought I’d mention it as it undermines what I’m sure is a great recipe.

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