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Chicken Tagine with Spring Onions,
Lemon, Lemon Thyme and Olives
By Charlie Burke

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“Tagine” refers both to the cooking vessel and to the food prepared within it.
Made of either plain or glazed terra cotta, tagines are composed of a flat three to
four inch deep bottom with a lip and a conical cover which fits tightly within the
lip. They are found in every Moroccan kitchen and are passed down from
mother to daughter. Most prefer the unglazed version, believing the flavors of
the spices used in this cooking season the tagines. Recently, tagines have
become popular here and in Europe.

The shape of the lid retains heat and moisture, so that foods braise in little liquid
and flavorings permeate the dish. Tagine recipes can be cooked in heavy lidded
pots, such as Dutch ovens and enameled cast iron cookware, such as Le Creuset,
so it is not necessary to purchase one to try these recipes.

North African cuisine features vibrant flavors, with spices such as cumin, ginger
and cinnamon, and preserved lemons are a part of most tagine recipes. Lemons
are washed, cut into pieces and salted, then packed in jars with water and
refrigerated for weeks. I must confess that I’ve never preserved lemons, and
when I made this, I substituted very thinly sliced lemons which were salted and
left in a strainer for an hour. I used them without rinsing and added no salt to
the dish, other than that from the sliced olives. The result approximated the
flavor of preserved lemons I’ve had in restaurants. Citrus crops contain high
pesticide residue, and, since they are not peeled for this recipe, organic lemons
are preferable. Unfortunately, organic lemons are rarely seen in our markets, so
if conventional lemons are used, wash them with soap in hot water and rinse
thoroughly before using.

Searing before braising is not traditional in tagine cooking, but old habits are
hard to change, so I did lightly brown the chicken in olive oil. We have a nice
crop of sweet spring onions in the garden, so they were used with no garlic or
other onion flavor. Spring bunching onions need planting only once and will
return yearly, spreading slowly to provide an early spring vegetable for soups,
salads and braises. Skinless chicken thighs were used because they remain moist
and tender during prolonged cooking.

Four servings:

8 skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat
1 lemon, thoroughly washed, sliced very thin and seeded
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
6-8 spring onions, trimmed and sliced into 1 inch lengths (scallions can be
substituted)
6 large green pimiento stuffed olives, sliced lengthwise
1 ½ tablespoons fresh lemon thyme leaves, plus extra for garnish (use thyme if
lemon thyme is unavailable)
1 teaspoon powdered cumin
2 teaspoons Spanish smoked paprika or mild Hungarian paprika
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons tumeric, optional
1/3 cup limoncello (Italian lemon liqueur), optional
½ cup water

Approximately one hour before starting the tagine, place lemon slices in a bowl
and toss with the salt. Place into a strainer.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the bottom of the tagine or a heavy pot
over medium-high heat.  If using a terracotta tagine, increase heat gradually.
Add sufficient olive oil to amply film bottom. Grind black pepper over the
chicken and cook in the oil until slightly browned on both sides. Pour
limoncello into tagine and boil until alcohol is evaporated or ignite with a long
match, keeping well away from the flames.

Add onions, olives, thyme and spices, then spread lemon slices over chicken.
Add water and keep over the heat until liquid is boiling.

Cover tightly and place into the oven for 1 ¼ - 1 ½ hours, checking at 45 minutes
and adding a small volume of water if most of the liquid has evaporated. The
chicken is done when it is very tender and pulls easily from the bone.

Traditionally, the tagine is served with its juices, along with rice and a
vegetable. I served it, drizzled with a little olive oil and garnished with fresh
lemon thyme, with wild rice cooked in chicken stock and with our new
asparagus sautéed with red bell pepper. Be sure to divide the juices among the
plates, along with the lemon slices which may be slightly browned and are
mellower than fresh lemon.

The limoncello is certainly not a traditional ingredient, but it added a different
lemon flavor, while the high sugar content caramelized nicely and enriched the
sauce. Most Moroccan cooks color their tagines with tumeric, so it was added as
an optional ingredient but not used.

Look for other tagine recipes and try adding some new spices to your cooking
(allspice will keep your guests guessing). Fruit is often added, so try a few
raisins or apricots when making these dishes. An off dry Riesling is a perfect
match for these lively flavors.

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer's Market Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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