If I were asked what my favourite meal of all time is, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to tell you that it is chicken tagine. The taste alone is sublime and the exotic aroma from the spices lingers in my house for days after cooking and brings me back, each time that I walk in the door, to the labyrinthine medieval alleys and stalls of Marrakech souks. To further reminisce during the meal, I’ll usually bake some home-made pita bread and put out small, decorated tagine dishes of olives or apricots as well.
During my travels in Morocco, whether eating under a starry sky with the Bedouins in the Sahara, or crisping on a sunny rooftop patio restaurant, or basking in the unrivalled sensual delirium of the Marrakech Night Market, I dined on lamb or chicken tagine at least once daily – sometimes more. There is no other comparison to this meal.
Tagines have been around for centuries, though they have gained recent popularity in the West by such notable celebrity chefs as Jamie Oliver, who frequently used them as the Naked Chef. These Moroccan, or more specifically Berber-inspired, earthenware pots, consist of a round base and a conical top; and they come in single or multiple serving sizes. Tagines are not only aesthetically beautiful as a kitchen accoutrement or home decoration, they have also high functionality: during cooking, steam condenses inside the conical lid and then drips back down on the food and keeps it from drying out. The shallowness of the base is also very deliberate; it allows easy serving when eating with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand, as is customary in Morocco. The tagine refers to the pot itself, but also to the meal that is cooked in it.
I’ve tried my best here to duplicate the meal as I remember having it, though there are so many other great variations available online depending on what ingredients you have on hand. In Morocco, tagines are usually placed directly on the heating element to cook; whereas I prefer to precook some of the ingredients, including the chicken, in a frying pan, and then complete the bulk of the cooking with the tagine in the oven.
What you’ll need:
A 10-12 inch tagine, or large baking dish that you can cover tightly in aluminum foil
A frying pan or skillet
For the spice mixture:
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp allspice
1/4 tsp paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil
3 lb chicken, cut into 6 pieces, wings and backbone discarded – or you can buy as many cut pieces as you like (don’t remove skin or bones)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium onion, halved, then sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons mild honey
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
1/2 cup dried apricots, separated into halves
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds
1/2 cup dried, pitted prunes
1/2 cup Queen olives (you can probably use any variety, though these are my favourite for this recipe)
What to do:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
1. Stir together the spices and 1 tsp of the salt in large mixing bowl and then add 2 tbsp of oil. With your hands, place the chicken pieces in the bowl one at a time to coat evenly in the mixture. Set aside.
2. Heat butter and 1 tablespoon oil in frying pan over medium heat until hot but not smoking, then brown pieces of the chicken 3 or 4 at a time, skin sides down, turning over once after 6 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Brown remaining chicken in same manner, adding any spice mixture left in bowl.
3. In a little extra oil, add the onion and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to frying pan and cook, stirring frequently until soft, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, 3 minutes.
4. Transfer the chicken, onions and garlic to the tagine and add 1/2 cup water around the chicken pieces, as well as add any juices that had accumulated on plate. Place the lid on the tagine or if using a casserole dish, cover this tightly with aluminum foil. Place in oven for 40-45 minutes (depending on how much chicken you used, it could be a little longer).
5. While the chicken cooks, bring the honey, remaining cup water, cinnamon stick and apricots to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce heat and simmer until apricots are very tender (add more water if required). Once apricots are soft and tender, simmer until liquid is reduced to a glaze, about 10 to 15 minutes.
6. While apricots are cooking, heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in the frying pan over medium heat and cook almonds. Stir occasionally, until just golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer a paper towel to drain.
7. Ten minutes before chicken is done, add apricot mixture to tagine, as well as pitted prunes and olives. Remove cinnamon stick, though you can use as a garnish. Continue cooking until chicken is no longer pink at the thickest part. Serve chicken on a bed of couscous if desired and sprinkled with almonds on top.