I’ve never been to Morocco, so clearly I’m an expert on Moroccan cuisine, right? Uh, right. Anyhow, I do love spices, and the spice trade was (and still is) huge in North Africa, so a classic Moroccan chicken tagine is a dish that lurks right up in my wheelhouse. Here are some questions that I’m certain are lurking in your brain:
- What’s this all about?
- Why Moroccan?
- Where on earth did you ever get the idea that THIS would be a fun thing to do in your kitchen?
The quick answer is simple. I love Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Marrakech Express is often stuck in my head. Plus after dining in Greece and Turkey, I’m pretty sure that Middle Eastern and North African cuisines are the bees-knees. Combine these two important contributors to the fact that my mother gave me a beautiful Tunisian-made tagine for Christmas and POW!, it’s dinner time.
Just what the heck is a tagine, anyway?
A tagine is a traditional North African clay cooking vessel used to make delicious and tasty stews.
A tagine is basically a clay pot with a clay hat. You have to do some work to season it before use, and you gotta be real careful not to heat it up or cool it down too fast so you don’t crack it. Mine came from Williams-Sonoma, and a quick look at their prices shows that they sell for around $50ish. Not a bad price for an evening getaway to the Sahara, right? Right.
The cooking part
Ah. I knew you’d wonder about this part. Cooking in a tagine is much like cooking in any other pot, just slower. First you’re going to need a recipe. I used this one:
Michael Ruhlman’s Chicken Tagine
That meant that I needed to buy and prep all of this stuff:
The mise-en-place for my chicken tagine.
Instead of his suggested list of spices I used a couple tablespoons of Ras-el-hanout, the typical spice blend of Morocco. I really, really love this spice blend. Mainly because saying ras-el-hanout in my best North African French dialect makes me feel worldly.
Another substitution I made was the use of chicken breasts instead of thighs. While I would prefer chicken thighs any day, Mrs. Primate would prefer breast meat, and I like for her to have what she wants.
Here’s where things got frustrating. You should warm up a tagine slowly, but you have to put enough heat on the burner to warm the damn thing up. I’m sure I’ll figure out how to heat it up fast enough to be practical but slowly enough to not crack the thing at some point. I think i waited an hour for it to heat up. Literally. An hour. By this time it was like 9pm. Oh well says I, people in Spain and France eat late and stuff. If it’s good enough for them it’s good enough for us. Thank god for frozen appetizers.
A TAGINE IS NOT A BOTTOMLESS PIT
So I thought this mountain of stuff would cook down. It did. And out the sides of the tagine!
So, like most cooking implements, a tagine has finite space available. I thought that perhaps stacking all of the ingredients into a pyramid might make the best use of the space, after all, its hat is shaped like a cone, right? As it turns out, things cook down, lose their consistency, and tend to gather in the bottom of the pan. When it runs out of room, it overfills. When it overfills it burns on the burner. When the crud burning on the burner burns, it makes smoke. I guess this is all predictable. PRO TIP: If it’s your first time cooking with a tagine, maybe it’s best not to jump in the shower once the thing comes to a boil. Then your wife might not start screaming in terror as the house fills with smoke.
This is one of those dishes that gets better the longer it cooks. That means you should start prepping everything well in advance of when you want to eat, probably not at 8pm. I only let it stew for about an hour or so and it came out looking like this:
After the adventures and capers involved with cooking this thing, it turned out surprisingly DELICIOUS. I served it over a mixture of bulgur wheat, wild rice, and some other grains that were a bit more “healthy” looking than perhaps your standard couscous, and we nommed it up like a couple of chubby kids in a cupcake shop.
Cooking can be nearly as fun as traveling to places with interesting foods. On the plus side there’s no airport security or airplane lavatories. On the minus side, you’re still at home. On the plus side, that means you can watch TV in your own language while you dine. It kinda all evens out. Making this tagine made the house smell good for days, and I must say, the smell of Ras-el-Hanout in the air took me right back to the spice bazaar in Istanbul, and also the fake little spice bazaar in Chelsea Market in NYC. I’m not quite sure anything but food can transport your mind somewhere else faster. ALSO, you can have a great adventure following someone else’s recipe that you printed from the internet. When combined with poor reading and a lack of common sense, it makes for a TRUE CULINARY ADVENTURE!