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Moroccan Chicken with Green Olives and Preserved Lemons

This image courtesy of Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Chicken braised with olives and lemons is classic Moroccan dish, and there are countless ways to prepare it. Some recipes are simpler than my version and some grander, but this is the one I rely on when I crave food that tastes familiar and exotic at the same time. The familiar is the comforting taste of chicken braised in a sweet-onion based sauce. The exotic is the combination of ginger, cumin, red pepper, saffron, and the salty piquancy of preserved lemons. The technique of including the chicken liver in the braise and then mashing it up to add to the finished sauce comes from Paula Wolfert’s venerable cookbook Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. If you are not a fan of chicken liver, I urge you to try it here anyway. It won’t make the sauce taste at the livery. Instead, it contributes an earthiness and depth that you won’t be able to identify but will savor. If you haven’t made preserved lemons in advance and don’t have access to a good Middle Eastern market that sells them, the dish will still be wonderful, although not as aromatic. Don’t substitute regular lemon peels for the preserved, they’re not the same thing at all. Couscous is traditional with this dish.

NotesWine notes:

Dry, medium-to-full bodied white with youthful fruit and a touch of earthiness, such as a dry Riesling from Austria, Alsace, or southern Germany.

Working ahead:

I can never decide if I prefer to eat Moroccan chicken right away or the day after I’ve made it. The preserved lemon tends to stand out from the other flavors when the dish is first made. If the chicken sits overnight in the refrigerator, the combine tastes of the spices, lemons, and olive meld together. To reheat, arrange the chicken pieces in a shallow baking dish, and scrape the sauce over the top. Cover and heat at 325 degrees until warm throughout, about 20 minutes.

Serves4 to 5

Cooking Methodbraising

CostModerate

Total Timeunder 4 hours

Make Ahead RecipeYes

One Pot MealYes

OccasionCasual Dinner Party, Family Get-together

Recipe Coursemain course

Dietary Considerationegg-free, gluten-free, peanut free, soy free, tree nut free

Mealdinner

Taste and Texturefruity, garlicky, herby, meaty, savory, spiced

Type of Dishcasserole

Ingredients

  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon sweet pimenton (smoked Spanish paprika) or sweet Hungarian paprika
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
  • ½ cup green olives in brine, such as Lucques or Crignola, not pitted
  • One 3 ½ to 4-pound chicken, cut into 8 pieces, wing tips, back, neck and giblets, reserved, or 2 ¾ pounds legs and thighs
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 medium yellow onion (about 6 ounces), thinly sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ¾ cup water
  • 1 lemon, halved
  • ¼ cup mixed chopped flat-leaf parsley and cilantro
  • 1 whole (4 quarters) salt-preserved lemon
  • Freshly ground pepper

Instructions

  1. The spices: In a small bowl, stir together the ginger, cumin, black pepper, pimenton, or paprika, red pepper, and saffron. In another bowl, cover the olives with cool water, and set aside to soak.

  2. Browning the chicken: rinse the chicken pieces with cool water, and dry them thoroughly with paper towels (otherwise they won’t brown well – moist meats steam and tend to stick to the pan). Heat the oil and butter in a large deep-sided skillet or shallow braising pan (4-quart capacity) over medium-high heat. While the oil and butter heat, season half the chicken pieces lightly with salt (keep in mind that the olives and preserved lemons will add saltiness). When the butter is sizzling, add the salted chicken pieces skin side down and sear, without disturbing, until the skin is crisp and evenly browned, about 4 minutes. Peel by lifting one edge with tongs to see that the skin side is browned, then turn with tongs and brown the second side, another 4 minutes or so. Transfer the browned chicken to a platter or tray to collect any drips. Pat the remaining chicken pieces again with paper towels just to be sure they are as dry as possible, and lightly salt both sides. Add these pieces to the pan skin side down and sear them as you did the first batch, transferring them to the platter with the other chicken when they are browned.

  3. The aromatics: Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of fat from the pan and return the pan to medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, stir with a wooden spoon, and sauté until you can smell their fragrance and they begin to soften, about 3 minutes. (The bottom of the pan will develop a walnut-colored crust.) add the spice mix, stir, and sauté for a minute longer.

  4. The braising liquid: pour in the water to deglaze the pan, and stir and scrap the bottom with a wooden spoon to dislodge and dissolve the flavorful cooked-on crust.

  5. The braise: When the water boils, return the chicken legs and thighs, and the wing tips, back, neck, heart and gizzard, if using, to the pan. Tuck the liver, if using, between the pieces. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and braise the chicken for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan, and if the liquid is simmering too forcefully, lower the heat to a quiet simmer, or set a heat diffuser under the pan. Turn the legs and wings over with tongs, and place the chicken breast pieces skin side up on top of the legs and wings. (adding the chicken breasts after 10 minutes prevents them from overcooking and drying out If you’re using all legs and thighs, add them all at the start.) Squeeze the juice from one lemon half over the chicken, and sprinkle over half the chopped herbs. Continue to braise gently for 20 minutes more.

  6. While the chicken braises, prepare the olives and preserved lemons: Drain and rinse the olives. Remove the pits by crushing them one by one with the side of a large knife and pulling out the pit. Most olives will remain in one piece, like an open book, but it’s fine if some olives break in two. (You can use an olive pitter if you choose, but I’ve always found the knife faster and more efficient.) Rinse the preserved lemon quarters under cool water, and remove and discard the pulp. Chop the peel into ½ inch pieces.

  7. Adding the olives and preserved lemons: after the chicken has braised for a total of 30 minutes (20 minutes after you added the breasts), lift the lid, add the olives and preserved lemons, and turn the chicken pieces again.

  8. Optional step, if using the liver: remove the liver from the pan, place it in a small bowl, and mash it to a paste with a fork. Set aside.

  9. Continuing the braise: replace the lid and continue to braise until the juices from the legs run clear when pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, another 10 to 15 minutes (for a total of 40 to 45 minutes). Transfer the chicken pieces to a serving dish or tray to catch the juices, and discard the wing tips, back, neck, heart and gizzard, if you used them. Cover the chicken loosely with foil to keep warm.

  10. . The finish: Increase the heat under the braising liquid to medium-high and bring to a boil. Return the liver, if using, to the skillet and stir it into the sauce. Squeeze in the juice from the other half of the lemon. Simmer the sauce until it reduces just a bit, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining herbs. Taste for salt and pepper. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve.

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