For foods that I didn’t grow up eating it can be hard to remember when I first tried them – my first avocado, cherries, fresh gnocchi, Phở, and Lo Mai Gai are all lost in the mists of memory, much as I love them all now. My first Moroccan meal however I remember very clearly as it was on my first and only (and at the moment likely to remain so for some time…) trip to Paris almost 20 years ago.
The part I can’t recall is how it went from that meal to becoming part of my repertoire. Nonetheless, tagines in particular have become a regular dinner, most commonly with chicken, but also meatballs, lamb or fish. I also make preserved lemons each year for use in Moroccan dishes as well as in dressings, with fish, or anywhere you want that salty lemon tang.
I was given a cookbook a few years later written by a Moroccan Australian chef, and that certainly helped to explain the cuisine, and contains the recipes I use for harissa, chermoula and the like. Part of the appeal is certainly that it’s such an interesting and flavourful cuisine with amazing spice combinations, as I think about the ras el hanout and za’atar in my spice drawer, and the harissa in the fridge!
This recipe is a mixture of a few, and is a bit of a template, like the chicken curry recipe. You could substitute the chicken with more veg, fish, or lamb, substitute the sweet potato and chickpeas for potato or pumpkin, substitute black for green olives, add dried fruit such as apricots, raisins, or prunes (especially with lamb), add eggplant, capsicum, artichokes, broad beans or quince (see artichoke and broad bean version above), or add eggs or toasted almonds at the end. They key features are the spiced sauce, preserved lemon, and herbs.
You maybe wondering about the tagine part and how the dish above clearly isn’t one! – I do have one, but it’s not flameproof, so I don’t always bother to transfer everything to the tagine for cooking in the oven, but it is lovely when I manage it.
- 800g-1kg chicken thighs
- 2 tsp cumin
- 2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp ginger
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 3 tsp paprika
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 1 large onion
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 pinch saffron stamens
- 500g cooked chickpeas (2 tins)
- 2 small sweet potatoes (approx 800g)
- 750ml chicken stock or water plus a stock cube or 1 tsp powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1 preserved lemon
- 1/2 cup green olives
- a handful each of flat leaf parsley and coriander
Cut the chicken into chunks (about 4-6 pieces per thigh). Mix together the dried spices (except saffron) and toss half through the chicken. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 160C. Heat oil in a large ovenproof pan (with a lid) over med-high heat. Spread the chicken in a single layer (do this in two batches if the pan is not big enough) and brown lightly on both sides. While the chicken is cooking, chop the garlic, slice the onion into wedges, and peel and cut the sweet potato into chunks. Soak the saffron in a couple of tablespoons of hot water.
Once the chicken is browned, add the onion and garlic, and remaining spices, and cook gently until the onion is starting to soften. Add the chickpeas, sweet potato, stock or water, and saffron. Stir, scraping the bottom of the pan to get all the caramelised bits. Season with the salt and pepper and bring to the boil.
Cover with the lid, transfer to the oven, and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the chicken is tender and succulent, and the sweet potato is dissolving around the edges. Scoop the flesh out of the lemon, and finely chop the peel. Add the lemon and olives to the tagine and check the seasoning. Top with the roughly chopped parsley and coriander. Serve with bread or couscous.