Tagine Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives (Djaj Mqualli) By Jen Sommerness
This dish is one that is seemingly complex, but is really quite simple to make. Once you have preserved lemons in your refrigerator (and I hope you all do!), this can be made as a simple week-night meal in very little time, or used as a centerpiece for a special occasion.
A classic Moroccan dish, the tagine describes both the food itself as well as the vessel it is traditionally made in. If you have a tagine, or have ever wanted to buy one and try it out, this recipe is a perfect place to start. Otherwise, a Dutch oven works equally as well, and is better suited if you need to double the recipe.
Prepared in this way, the sourness from the preserved lemons and brininess from the cracked olives complement the chicken perfectly. The brightness that comes from the lemon peel shines through and allows the complexity of the spice mixture to give the chicken and the sauce a luxurious quality, perfectly suited for a simple buttered couscous and side salad.
If you have the time, you can marinate the chicken in advance, or alternatively make it immediately without marinating. Either way will give you an outstanding dish, only with a slightly different texture due to how the onions are prepared. Feel free to add more or less of the dry spice ingredients to suit your tastes or compliment your menu. I think this dish is best when you make it your own, and find that I change it a little every time I make it.
Once you try it, you may want more saltiness from the preserved lemon pulp, or perhaps more tang from the lemon rinds. This is a good starting point for your exploration!
Tagine Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives (Djaj Mqualli)
2 ½ pounds chicken thighs or whole legs (preferred is bone in, but boneless/skinless works well too)
2 large yellow onions
1/3 C olive oil, plus 3 tablespoons (if not marinating – you only need 3 tablespoons)
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp white pepper
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp saffron threads, crushed between your palms
2 dashes cayenne pepper
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bunch cilantro, chopped finely
Pulp of ½ preserved lemon, chopped finely
½ inch knob of fresh ginger, sliced thinly and julienned
6 ounces cracked green olives
2 preserved lemons, pulp removed, diced
Marinating method: If you have the time, I suggest marinating the chicken for at least an hour, up to 4 hours.
Grate the onion, or chop it into a pulp using a food processor. Place it into a large bowl, and add the cilantro, 1/3 cup olive oil, turmeric, cinnamon, white pepper, salt, cumin, saffron, cayenne, garlic, preserved lemon pulp, and fresh ginger. Mix well. Add the chicken pieces and toss to coat evenly. Cover with plastic wrap, and place in fridge to marinate.
Non-marinating method: Slice the onions, and set aside. Combine the dry spice ingredients, and set aside.
When ready to cook the chicken, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a tagine or Dutch oven over medium high heat. When hot, add the chicken to brown, working in batches if necessary (if chicken was marinated – remove from marinade to brown, and reserve marinating mixture to add after chicken is browned). Once chicken has browned on both sides, remove from pan.
*If you have marinated the chicken, add the marinade mixture to the hot pan, and cook for 3 minutes.
**If you are not marinating the chicken beforehand, add the sliced onions to the pan and cook for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the dry spices, and cook for one minute. Then add the lemon pulp, fresh ginger, garlic and cilantro, stir to combine and let simmer for 2 minutes.
Place chicken pieces, and any juices they have released into the onion mixture, and stir to coat evenly.
Add enough chicken broth to create a fairly wet mixture, about 1/2 to 3/4 cup. More is necessary if using a Dutch oven than a tagine (the sauce will seep out of the tagine if too much broth is added). Keep the broth handy, as you may need to add more as the chicken cooks. Simmer, covered, on medium low heat for about 45 minutes (you can simmer longer and slower with a tagine, on the lowest heat possible is preferred), stirring occasionally and adding broth if necessary.
Add preserved lemons and olives, and stir to incorporate. Cover and continue to simmer for 10 minutes more. If the sauce needs to be thickened, remove the chicken to a platter, keeping it in a warm oven. Increase heat for the sauce and reduce until desired consistency, then pour over chicken.
Serve with couscous and a Moroccan salad. Enjoy!