Cooking Class: Moroccan-style chicken

There are so many poultry recipes in the North African cuisine, it's a shame to make only the one recipe you are familiar with.

Moroccan Chicken (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moroccan Chicken
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For years my familiarity with Moroccan style chicken was limited to grilled Moroccan – spiced chicken prepared by my relatives in Israel – and poached chicken that accompanied couscous at casual restaurants in Paris.
I realized that there was much more to the Moroccan chicken recipe repertoire when, in the early 1980s, I dined at Timgad, a Michelin-starred restaurant that was considered the best Moroccan restaurant in Paris at the time. There I sampled tasty tajines, or Moroccan stews made in a shallow clay pot, called a tajine, that has a cone-shaped lid. One chicken tajine came with a flavorful sauce that gained pungency from olives and preserved lemons. Another was a sweet chicken tajine with prunes and roasted almonds.
“There are so many chicken and other poultry dishes in Moroccan cuisine,” writes my friend Paula Wolfert in her new book The Food of Morocco, “I could write an entire book about the subject and still not include them all.”
Many of the techniques and flavorings used by Moroccan cooks are different from those I learned in cooking school in France. Wolfert makes Tangier-style fried chicken by marinating the pieces with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, ginger and cinnamon, then frying them after dipping them in beaten eggs, bread crumbs and again in beaten eggs. She steams whole chickens with saffron butter and serves them with a mixture of cumin, salt and cayenne pepper.
To make Marrakech-style double-cooked red chicken, she marinates the chicken in a garlic-cilantro-saffron paste, and then cooks it with grated onion, cumin, black pepper, ginger, cayenne, a generous amount of sweet paprika, which makes it red, and a little water. Finally she broils the chicken with more cumin and paprika until brown and serves it with its reduced sauce.
Unlike French chicken stews, for Moroccan tajines there is no need to sauté the chicken to brown it as a first step. For her sweet tajine of chicken with tomato jam, Wolfert marinates chicken thighs with crushed garlic, pepper, ginger, olive oil and saffron, and then cooks them with their marinade and grated onion, cilantro, cinnamon and a little water in a covered pan, later adding chopped ripe tomatoes and tomato paste. After removing the chicken, she simmers its tomato sauce slowly until thick and finishes it with honey and cinnamon. She serves the chicken in its sauce topped with toasted sesame seeds.
Her chicken tajine with eggplant-tomato jam has a tomato sauce cooked with mashed fried eggplant with cumin, paprika, cayenne and lemon juice instead of honey and cinnamon.
Because chicken with olives is such an important classic, Wolfert gives eight variations of the dish. To make chicken smothered with olives, she simmers chicken pieces slowly with grated onion, parsley, cilantro and a paste of olive oil, garlic, ground ginger, black pepper, cumin, paprika, saffron and water. Next, she bakes the chicken pieces on a baking sheet in a hot oven to crisp and brown the skin, while simmering the sauce with soaked pitted green-ripe olives until thick and flavoring it with lemon juice.
The distinctive flavors of fresh fennel and green aniseed offset the pungency of the preserved lemons and olives in another chicken-with-olives dish. In a third chicken and olive stew, Wolfert adds preserved lemons, lightly toasted nigella seeds, tomatoes and diced potatoes.
Moroccan chicken dishes have such bold flavors that they can be tasty even when they are made low in fat, as in the chicken in tomato pepper sauce below. Naturally, couscous is an ideal accompaniment for any of these dishes, as the rich sauce produced by the chicken goes so well with this tiny Moroccan pasta.
Broiled sweet peppers, cumin and generous amounts of garlic and cilantro make a flavorful base for this chicken’s sauce. For this savory dish, based on a Moroccan Jewish recipe, I bake the chicken pieces without their skin to make the entree low in fat. The chicken reheats beautifully in its sauce in a covered baking dish in a low oven.
✔ 3 sweet green peppers ✔ 1 large red bell pepper ✔ 5 large garlic cloves, peeled ✔ 1⁄2 cup small cilantro (fresh coriander) sprigs ✔ An 800-gr. (28-ounce) and a 400-gr. (14-ounce) can of tomatoes, drained ✔ 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil ✔ 1 Tbsp. sweet paprika ✔ 21⁄4 tsp. ground cumin ✔ Salt and freshly ground pepper ✔ Pinch of cayenne pepper or hot paprika (optional) ✔ 2 kg. (41⁄2 pounds) chicken pieces, preferably legs or thighs, skin removed ✔ 1 large onion, halved, sliced ✔ Cilantro sprigs for garnish
Broil green and red peppers, turning every 5 minutes, until their skins are blistered and charred, for a total of about 20 minutes. Transfer peppers to bowl and cover; or put in a plastic bag and close bag. Let stand 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, mince garlic in food processor, add 1⁄2 cup cilantro sprigs, and mince together. Add tomatoes and chop coarsely by pulsing.
Peel peppers using a paring knife. Halve peppers, discarding seeds and ribs, and cut in 1-cm. (1⁄2-inch) dice.
In a medium saute pan, warm oil over low heat. Add 11⁄2 tsp. paprika and 3⁄4 tsp cumin and mix well. Stir in tomato-garlic mixture, roasted bell peppers, salt and pepper. Bring sauce to a simmer. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, 10 minutes or until sauce thickens. Taste and adjust seasoning; add cayenne pepper if needed.
Preheat oven to 200ºC (400ºF). Put chicken pieces in a shallow roasting pan large enough to hold them in one layer. Season them on both sides with a little salt if desired, pepper, remaining 11⁄2 tsp. cumin and remaining 11⁄2 tsp. paprika. Rub spices into chicken pieces. Top chicken with sliced onion.
Cover chicken with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover, turn pieces over and bake 20 minutes. Add 1⁄3 cup hot water to pan juices. Spoon pepper sauce over chicken. Bake uncovered, basting once or twice, about 25 minutes or until chicken is tender and juices run clear when thickest part of a thigh piece is pierced with a sharp knife. Serve chicken with sauce. Garnish with cilantro sprigs.
Makes 8 servings
This recipe is from The Food of Morocco. Author Paula Wolfert first ate this dish in Meknes, sometimes called The City of Olives. “Djej m’chermel is a classic Moroccan chicken preparation,” writes Wolfert, “served in a sublime, intricately spiced, creamy, lemony sauce with a scattering of olives.” She recommends cooking it in a large wide casserole dish.
Wolfert notes that the ideal olive for most tajines “is often referred to as ‘red,’ though they’re actually closer in color to violet or red-brown.” She calls them “midway olives,” as they are halfway between green and black.
You can find preserved lemons at wellstocked supermarkets.
✔ 2 chickens, quartered, with their livers
✔ 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
✔ Salt (optional, see Note 1 below)
✔ 1 tsp. ground ginger
✔ 1 tsp. sweet paprika
✔ 1⁄4 tsp. ground cumin
✔ 1⁄4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
✔ 1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
✔ 3 large red onions, grated, rinsed and squeezed dry (about 21⁄2 cups)
✔ 1⁄4 tsp. ground turmeric
✔ 2 Tbsp. saffron water (see Note 2 below)
✔ 1⁄4 cup chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
✔ 1⁄4 cup chopped parsley
✔ 11⁄2 cups green-ripe, midway or red olives
✔ 2 preserved lemons, rinsed, pulp removed if desired, and quartered 2 to 3 lemons, halved
The day before: Rinse chickens and pat dry; trim away excess fat. Slide your fingers under the skin to loosen it from the flesh. Mix garlic with 1⁄4 to 1 tsp. salt, ginger, paprika, cumin, black pepper and oil and rub the mixture under and over the chicken skin. Mix the excess with the livers. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day: Place the chickens, livers and marinade in a large wide casserole dish. Add 1⁄2 cup of the grated onion, the turmeric, saffron water, herbs and 1⁄2 cup water and slowly heat almost to a boil. Cover and cook at a simmer for 30 minutes, turning chickens often in the sauce.
Remove chicken livers from casserole and finely mash them. Return to casserole along with the remaining onions. (This will give a good deal of heftiness to the sauce.) Add water if necessary and continue cooking, partially covered, for 20 minutes, or until chicken is very tender and flesh is just beginning to fall easily from the bone.
Meanwhile, rinse and pit olives. If they seem a little bitter, cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and drain. Set aside.
Add olives and preserved lemon quarters to the sauce.
Transfer chicken to a serving dish and spoon olives and lemons around them. Cover and keep warm. Reduce the sauce to 11⁄2 cups by boiling rapidly, uncovered. Add juice of 2 lemons to sauce. Then add salt to taste and more lemon juice, if desired.
Pour sauce over chicken and serve at once.
Note 1: Wolfert’s recipe calls for 1 tsp. salt in the spice mixture for rubbing the chicken in paragraph 2. Because kosher chickens have already been salted, use less or omit it, according to your preference.
Note 2: Saffron water: Dry 1⁄2 tsp. crumbled strands of saffron in a warm (not hot) skillet. Crush saffron again, then soak in 1 cup hot water. Store in a small jar in the refrigerator. This will keep for up to a week. For longer storage, quadruple the recipe quantities, pour the saffron water into a plastic ice-cube tray and freeze into cubes. Once they are frozen, shake out the cubes and store in a freezer bag. Each cube will be equivalent to 2 Tbsp. saffron water.
Faye Levy is the author of 'Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook' and of 'Feast from the Mideast.'