One hot afternoon in August, I stopped by Marrakesh, an alluring new Moroccan shop that had just opened nearby, and found one of the owners, Christine Khaldi, preparing a tagine. She had layered onions, chicken breasts, carrots, chickpeas and green pimento-stuffed olives in the earthenware base and then added her own blend of spices—lots of ginger and cumin, a pinch of saffron, cilantro and a dash of ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice mixture. The dish was bubbling away on a gas burner, and when she lifted the conical lid, the aroma that escaped was nearly ambrosial.
There are lots of reasons to love tagines (the word refers to the “stew” as well as the pot in which it is cooked). First, this really is one-pot cooking. Everything goes straight into the tagine and simmers for a couple of hours until it is done. Except for a small bowl to mix the spices, that’s it. Second, all the prep work is in the beginning. It takes 15 to 20 minutes to put everything into the tagine and set it over a low flame. After that you can work in the garden, make a reservation to Singapore, finish writing an article—whatever tasks are most pressing—or loll around reading the newspapers, or even, if you can stand the guilt, take a nap. When you wake up, the tagine will be ready to eat.
Third, once you understand the principle, you can improvise with almost any ingredients you have on hand. Like chickpeas. “I had half a can of chickpeas left over from another dish,” Christine laughed. “So I tossed them into the pot along with everything else.” She continues: “One couple we know makes a vegetarian tagine with sweet potatoes, zucchini and squash. There’s a good one with lamb and tomatoes and okra. Redouane makes a meatball tagine with onions and diced tomatoes and ras el hanout. The next day, you can reheat it with a poached egg on top.”
Redouane, Christine’s husband and co-owner of the shop, is a master of the tagine. In between buying trips to Morocco, where he picks up henna-patterned goatskin lamps and gaily painted tables, he spends a fair amount of time in the kitchen. A few expert tips: “Build the tagine from the bottom up, one layer at a time. Rub the inside of the pot with olive oil, then add the onions, your chicken (or meat or fish), and the spices, the vegetables and preserved lemon and olives if you are using them.” Should you brown the meat or chicken before putting it in the pot? “It’s really not necessary,” he says. “After a couple of hours all the flavors blend together and it tastes fantastic.” A third tip: Don’t use ras el hanout with fish. It’s too strong.
Preserved lemons and ras el hanout are the two ingredients you may not have in your pantry. You can buy jars of preserved lemons at specialty food shops, but Paula Wolfert has an easy recipe for Seven Day Preserved Lemons in her cookbook, World of Food, that will provide you with enough preserved peel for four or five tagines. I start a new jar whenever I’m running low. It takes about 6 minutes of hands on work and having a supply in the refrigerator to use whenever you need it is unbeatable.
Ras el hanout—the term means “top of the shop” or loosely, the spice merchant’s best blend—is the quintessential Moroccan spice mixture. In Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, Wolfert cites blends that contain anywhere from 26 to 100 ingredients—including supposed aphrodisiacs such as cantharides (Spanish fly), as well as more common spices such as black peppercorns, mace, nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric. (In Fez, I bought blend of 40 spices from a Berber pharmacist that was so pungent that inhaling it brought tears to my eyes.)
In World of Food, Wolfert has a scaled down recipe for ras el hanout with just seven familiar ingredients: bay leaves, thyme, white peppercorns, mace, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. Or, if you are more ambitious, you could try the 21-ingredient formulation in Ian Hemphill’s The Spice and Herb Bible which calls for orris root and galingale or laos root, among other ingredients. Hemphill, an Australian spice merchant, says that ras el hanout demonstrates the pinnacle of the mixologist’s art: the components are chosen to produce a “balanced, full-bodied blend with no sharp edges…an ingredient that is immeasurably greater than any of the parts taken individually.”
Many American spice shops also sell packets of ras el hanout for North African cooking. You can use it in lots of ways, including putting a pinch in coffee (Wolfert’s idea) or adding it to the flour for fried chicken. But don’t leave it out—a mere half teaspoon is transforming.
Chicken Tagine with Green Olives, Carrots and Preserved Lemon
(Adapted from Christine and Redouane Khaldi)
To serve 4:
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced thin
2-1/2 pounds chicken breasts, bone in and skin on, halved
Scant 1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons garlic, chopped fine
Scant teaspoon sweet paprika
Scant teaspoon ground cumin
Scant teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of saffron threads
Scant 1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout (see note)
1 4-inch cinnamon stick, broken in half
4 small carrots, quartered
1/4 cup pitted green olives
Scant cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
6 to 8 strips of preserved lemon peel (see note)
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro
1. Rub the bottom and sides of the tagine with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
2. Layer thinly sliced onions evenly in the bottom of the tagine.
3. If the chicken breast halves are very large, cut them again in half with kitchen sheers. Place them on top of the onions in one layer. The chicken should just fill the tagine—do not pile chicken pieces on top of each other, or it will take longer to cook.
4. Whisk the water, olive oil, garlic and spices together. Spoon the mixture over the chicken, taking care to cover the skin. Tuck the cinnamon sticks under the pieces of chicken.
5. Arrange the carrots on top of the chicken. Add the olives and chickpeas.
6. Arrange the strips of preserved lemon over the dish and strew the chopped cilantro over everything,
7. Place the tagine over a low flame (use a heat diffuser if the tagine is made of clay) and cover with the conical top. Cook for 2 to 2-1/2 hours, or until the chicken is cooked through.
8. Serve with couscous and a green salad dressed with walnut oil,
Note: Preserved lemons and ras el hanout can be ordered from www.kalustyans.com. For peel, always remove the lemon pulp and discard, wash the remaining rind, and sliver or dice according to the recipe.
Sadly, the shop Marrakesh has closed since the post was written in 2006.