What’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about the food of Northern Africa and the Middle East? Colorful! The array of fragrant, exotic spices found in their open-air markets are used in abundance in native dishes and have become a trademark of their cuisines. Warming spices of turmeric, saffron, paprika, cinnamon, coriander and cumin are widely used in the aforementioned regions, and they create a harmonious experience for the eyes, nose and palate. Poultry, lamb, beef and goat are also staple proteins to the Arab diet and are often accompanied by rice and sometimes couscous. Replicating the cuisine from this part of the globe isn’t difficult at all and doesn’t require a trip to an exotic grocer — most ingredients can be easily found in the spice and World Flavors aisles at your local grocery store.
Now I’m sure a “tagine” (or “tajin”) may sound fancy and complicated to some, but it is simply a type of dish from North Africa. It gets its name from the cone-shaped clay pot with detachable base in which it is traditionally cooked and served in. For this recipe, a proper tagine pot isn’t required — a cast iron or heavy-bottomed pot with a lid will do just fine.
The following recipe for chicken tagine hails from Morocco, but the ingredients are commonly found in most cuisines from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula. It gets its bright yellow color from the addition of turmeric. Substituting beef or lamb for the chicken will work just fine, and feel free to play with different spices if you so choose — add a dash of cumin or coriander to the braising liquid, or even a pinch of saffron.
Traditionally, tagines are served with couscous: tiny pellets made from semolina flour (the same ingredient in traditional pasta) that are cooked by pouring boiling water over them and then allowed to steam for about 15 minutes. The couscous soaks up the lemony olive sauce, making it an ideal base for serving.
Lemony Chicken Tagine with Olives
Serves 4 (2 pieces per person)
1/4 cup lemon juice
8 bone-in chicken thighs and legs, skin removed (4 of each)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons canola, vegetable or grapeseed oil
2 cups roughly chopped onion (about 2 medium)
2 teaspoons minced peeled fresh ginger
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup pitted green olives, halved (about 12)
Zest of one lemon (sub chopped preserved lemon if you can find it)
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon paprika
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Combine lemon juice and chicken in a large zip-top plastic bag. Seal and marinate in the refrigerator 30 minutes. Remove chicken from the bag and discard marinade.
Pat chicken dry with paper towels. Mix together the salt, black pepper, turmeric, and cayenne, and dredge each piece in flour until evenly coated. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet with high sides or a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Shake off excess flour from chicken and brown it in batches, cooking for 3 minutes on each side or until lightly browned. Promptly remove the chicken from the pan and repeat procedure with remaining the chicken.
Add onion to pan and sauté until it just begins to soften. Add ginger and garlic, stir to keep it from burning it, and cook for a minute. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the broth, olives, zest, and cinnamon stick. Bring mixture to a heavy simmer (not boiling), reduce heat to low, cover with a lid, and simmer for about an hour or until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Halfway through cooking, remove the lid and let it simmer uncovered as this will allow the liquid to reduce and thicken up a bit.
To serve, discard the cinnamon stick and spoon some of the sauce over each portion. Sprinkle paprika and chopped cilantro on top. Serve over cooked couscous or rice.