Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives

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British food culture intrigues me. It’s a center-of-the-universe kind of thing; Americans think our food celebrities (everyone from Anne Burrell to Guy Fieri) are universally famous, whereas, across the pond, there exists a whole other universe of equally prominent food figures that most Americans have never heard of. We have Mark Bittman, they have Nigel Slater. We have Rachael Ray, they have Nigella Lawson (though we had her here for a bit with “The Taste”). We have Paula Deen, they have Two Fat Ladies. You get the idea.

My very unpatriotic confession is this: I think I enjoy British food culture more than American food culture. There’s a certain sophistication, a certain panache that makes it ever-that-much-more charming (Gordon Ramsay notwithstanding). Recently, I added The Guardian’s food section to my RSS feed and I’m really digging it, though they update a tad too often.

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What’s nice, though, is that every so often a recipe buzzes by that completely grabs my attention. That was the case with this Chicken Tagine by Felicity Cloake (and don’t British food writers have the best names? She sounds like a character out of Harry Potter or Charles Dickens). Even though I don’t have an actual tagine, I have a large skillet with a lid that would work totally fine. And as for preserved lemons–which the recipe requires–I had a jar from Cookbook in Echo Park. I was all set.

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Here’s the miraculous thing about a tagine: you flavor onions with all kinds of good stuff–garlic, ginger, cinnamon, preserved lemon, saffron, lemon juice, parsley and cilantro–and then you nestle chicken thighs in there, topping them with pitted Kalamata olives, and you’re done. Put the lid on and an hour later the chicken’s totally infused with all those flavors and incredibly tender. And the sauce this produces–the SAUCE–you’ll want to drink it with a straw.

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Instead, I cooked up some couscous and flavored it with toasted almonds, golden raisins and scallions and set it aside. This was all for a dinner party I hosted for my friends John and Michael. What’s nice about a tagine and couscous is that it sits nicely on the stove, no heat underneath it, until you’re ready to eat; then crank up the heat under the tagine and get that sauce up to a simmer again. Once it’s there, dish out some couscous and pile the chicken and sauce on top. Look at my happy guests.

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Britain has given us many gifts over the years–The Beatles, The Monkees, Pippa’s hat–but food hasn’t been one of them until recently. Now British food culture’s giving American food culture a run for its money. And as this tagine proves, it’s worth paying attention to what they’re putting out there. It’s a far cry from a hamburger on a doughnut.

Recipe: Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives

Summary: Adapted from Felicity Cloake’s recipe in The Guardian.

Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 red onions, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 3 garlic cloves mashed into a paste with salt (use a mortar, or chop and press with the side of your knife)
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger (I used fresh grated ginger and enjoyed the results)
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron, in a little warm water
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 small preserved lemons (really look for these: they make a HUGE difference; or make them yourself)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • Small bunch of fresh cilantro
  • 6 chicken thighs (I bought them with bones and skin, then removed the skin myself…which I turned into a treat later on)
  • 3 tablespoons pitted Kalamata olives

Instructions

  1. Heat a tagine or heavy-bottomed skillet that has a lid on low heat and add the oil, followed by the onions and a pinch of salt. Allow the onions to cook for a bit until they’re translucent.
  2. Add the garlic, the ginger, saffron water, and cinnamon; followed by the lemon juice, the coarsely chopped pulp of one preserved lemon and the rind of both cut into slivers. Add the parsley and 2 tablespoons of chopped cilantro and toss it all together well with another pinch of salt.
  3. Arrange the chicken on top (pinch of salt here too) and scatter over the olives. Pour 3/4 cup of water into the pan, cover tightly and simmer very gently for 45 minutes until the chicken is cooked through.
  4. That’s it: you’ve got chicken tagine. Taste for seasoning and serve over cous cous, topped with chopped cilantro leaves.

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