On Tuesday I mentioned that I was working on a North African meal as the main course for a dinner party. Well the suspense is over, I’ll tell you what I did!! (Not that there was much suspense :) … and the title of this post gave it away anyway.) I made a tajine. A tajine is basically a braised, slow cooked dish–almost a stew. The term tajine is not only used to describe the meal, but also the cooking vessel. The cooking dish is a heavy clay dish with a large conical top. Don’t let not having the correct pot stop you from making this. I don’t have one. You can get away with just using a large pot. But if you do have one, then you can claim to be that much more authentic.
There are many, many ways to make this dish. They commonly include lamb or chicken, but vegetarian versions are popular too. I’ve even seen a few recipes that more closely resemble a ratatouille with a few Morrocan spices than anything else–that’s not a bad thing, just perhaps a touch less authentic. Speaking of authenticity, I can’t make terribly grand claims about my own–some of the spices and ingredients that are common in North Africa are not easily found in the US. Two things I really wanted but could not get a hold of are preserved lemons and Ras el hanout. It seems that preserved lemons aren’t common in America, most people didn’t even know what I was talking about. And Ras el hanout, well, in Arabic that means “top of the shop”. It’s basically a spice blend that is whatever the spice shop considers good–there isn’t even a set recipe! I’ll have to try to seek out some specialty shops in the future (I did try).
I do try to be as authentic as I can when I cook, but sometimes you just have to work with what you have. You can still easily find many other spices and herbs to bring the dish close to the original. Saffron, for example, is used in my version. Not all recipes call for it, but it does add a rich aroma and color to the dish. You can get a similar ruddy-yellow color using a bit of turmeric, but it won’t have the aroma. Cumin, coriander, lemon zest, garlic, paprika, ginger, parsley, and a bit of mint rounded out the rest of the spices and herbs I used. But it wasn’t just those that contributed to the flavors of the final dish. I already mentioned that some versions can seem like a ratatouille because of the heavy inclusion of vegetables, but that’s not all there is to it. The ingredients move beyond the realm of vegetables and into fruits to give a mild sweetness to the dish. I used dried apricots, but I have seen raisins, dates, prunes, and other things added to the dish. The sweetness can even be boosted with the inclusion of honey.
Serves 10. Recipe can be halved.
4 lbs chicken legs and thighs
1 lb (2ish) onion, cut into wedges
8 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsps grated lemon zest
1 tbsp coriander
2 tsp paprika
1.5 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 cup mint, chopped
1/2 cup parsley, chopped
1 1/2 lbs (about 6) carrot, cut into at least 1/2 by 1 inch chunks
4 or 5 vine ripened tomatoes, cut into about 1/2 inch thickness
2 lbs potatoes, cut into about 1/2 inch thickness
2 tbsps lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
1 red pepper, sliced
2 zucchini, sliced about 1/2 inch thick
1/2 dried apricots fruits
1. Sprinkle chicken with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add half of the chicken and saute until golden, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a temporary bowl. Repeat with the remaining chicken.
2. Add onions and a splash more of oil to the now empty pot. Saute onions over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, lemon zest, coriander, paprika, cumin, turmeric, ginger, parsley, mint. Mix well and saute for 3 minutes more. Transfer to a temporary bowl (you can use the same bowl as the chicken).
3. Meanwhile, heat about a 1/2 to 1 cup of chicken broth and add the saffron to it. Let that rest.
4. Add the carrots to the bottom of the pot, then the potatoes, chicken, tomatoes, red pepper, onions, apricots, lemon juice, and honey.
5. Add that broth to the pot and enough broth to make 2 cups of liquid in the pot. It’s OK if the liquid doesn’t cover all the ingredients (but it should cover the carrots, potatoes, and chicken to begin).
6. Cover and cook over medium to medium low heat for 30 minutes. Add the zucchini after 15 minutes. During the cooking, monitor the liquid lever to make sure there is always a bit of liquid in there. This should reduce to a super flavorful sauce (but it won’t thicken).
7. Serve garnished with some slivered almonds. Alternatively, this dish can actually benefit by some rest. The flavors will mingle and improve as the dish rests. I normally make this earlier in the day (or even the day before). Simply reheat on low for 10-15 minutes, until it’s heated through.
Like Tuesday’s lamb appetizers, I wanted something that I could serve without having to spend half the dinner party in the kitchen while my friends were eating. A tajine has a few things going for it to help with this. The biggest thing is that the flavors actually improve with a day of rest. So if you have to, you can actually make this a day or two in advance and just keep it in the fridge. All you have to do is heat it gently over med-low heat.