6:39 AM EST
Tajine de Poulet aux Olives et Pruneaux
As you may remember my brother served in the Légion étrangère where he befriended the personal chef of the Général de Brigade, Ahmed. Guess who just moved to Jersey City to try his hand at becoming the next Broadway sensation? While I cannot forgive Ahmed for his pedestrian taste in music I do respect his skills in the kitchen. After a few glasses of mint tea and a tedious discussion regarding the artistry of Nathan Lane (kill me now) I demanded his recipe for Tajine de Poulet aux Olives et Pruneaux, a wonderful French-Moroccan dish of braised chicken with olives and prunes. I got the recipe, all right: in the form of a song and dance number performed in the test kitchen. For you, my readers, I suffer! But it was worth it: the recipe is pretty damned good.
You don’t have to have a tajine (also spelled tagine) to cook one. Say what? The word tagine refers to A) the two-part conical cooking vessel found in Morocco and Tunisia and B) the dish cooked inside of one. I swear by my Emile Henry stewpot which, because it is made from glazed Burgundy clay, cooks tagines – in addition to braised meats – perfectly. Any heavy, lidded cooking vessel (e.g., Dutch oven) will work.
Overwhelmed by the abundance of spices at your local souk? You should be - Moroccans are veritable spice masters. However, there is one signature spice that you should become familiar with: ras al hanout (راس الحانوت). Like India’s garam masala or France’s herbs de Provence, ras al hanout is actually a blend of spices. Each spice vendor has a proprietary blend of around 30 different spices; the word ras al hanout actually means “best of the shop”. The foundation of ras al hanout typically consists of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, paprika, anise, sesame, coriander and saffron. You don’t have to travel to Marrakesh to get authentic Moroccan spices. I buy my ras al hanout at Kalustyan’s (123 Lexington Avenue, NYC), retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Dean & DeLuca carry it, and of course, it is easily found online. Pick some up. It is versatile, unique and delicious.
First we’ll brown the chick and vegetables on the stove top. Then we’ll deglaze the Dutch oven with sherry and finish the dish by cooking it low and slow in the oven.
• 1 whole roasting chicken
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tablespoons butter
• 4 shallots, chopped
• 1 large celery stalk, chopped
• 6 medium garlic cloves, smashed
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 1 bay leaf
• 6 large sprigs of thyme
• 2 tablespoons ras al hanout
• 1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
• 1/3 cup Manzanilla sherry (as dry as you can find)
• 1 cup prunes, pitted and halved
• 1 cup Beldi olives*, pitted
• Half a preserved lemon (optional)
Preheat the oven to 300°. Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken before rinsing it and patting it dry. Run the preserved lemon quarters (if it was prepared in quarters) under water, removing the flesh. Cut the softened peel into strips. Note: I realize preserved lemons aren’t easy to find. Feel free to use a fresh quartered lemon (peel and flesh).
Brown the Chicken
Heat the olive oil and butter in a Dutch oven set over medium-high flame. When the butter is melted and begins to brown a bit add the chicken, breast side down. When the breast has mostly browned carefully turn the chicken over and add the shallots, celery, garlic and salt around the chicken – it may be a bit tight but that’s fine. When the chicken’s back has browned remove the chicken from the Dutch oven. Add the bay leaf, thyme, ras al hanout and paprika to the Dutch oven and cook until the spices are rather dry, just a few minutes. Turn the heat up to high and deglaze the Dutch oven with the sherry. Return the chicken to the Dutch oven and add the prunes, olives and preserved lemon strips.
Bake the Bird
Place the lid on your Dutch oven and place it into the oven for about 90 minutes. Half way through the cooking check on the chicken and redistribute the prunes and olives. Remove the Dutch oven from the oven when the thickest part of the breast registers 160° and the thickest part of the thigh registers 175°. Let the Dutch oven stand, covered for at least 10 minutes (but better yet, 20) before carving. Serve chicken pieces with cooking juices and the cooked prunes and olives. Accompany with couscous, rice or a good baguette.
*Beldi olives are wrinkly black salt and oil-cured Moroccan olives. They have a wonderful chewiness and clean olive perfume. Find them if you can!