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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

+ Spice +

I'm not sure where my affection for Moroccan food came from. Most of my deep-rooted food obsessions are related to things I grew up eating. I love Ethiopian food because Ababa cooked it for us. It's as familiar to me today as it was when I was a kid.  Not so with Moroccan food.  My family never made any side trips to Morocco during our stint in Africa. Back in the day, my father was incredibly adventurous.  When we lived in Ethiopia, we covered most of the East African Coast. Our holidays were spent navigating dry river beds on Kenyan safaris or camping under giant suspended silk parachutes on the molten hot beaches of the Red Sea. Surprisingly, the closest we ever came to Morocco was a sail-by on an ocean liner as we passed through the Strait of Gilbraltar on our final voyage back to America.

A deep glazed-earthenware dish with a conical lid that fits flush with the rim.  It is used throughout North Africa for preparing and serving a range of of dishes that are cooked slowly in a flavoured basting liquid: these preparations themselves are also called tajines and are made with vegetables, such as potatoes and courgettes (zucchini);  fish; chicken with quinces or dates; meat; or even fruit.  Mutton with prunes, or veal with tomatoes and aubergines (eggplants) are typical.
                                                                               -Larousse Gastronomique
Tajines are vibrant, alluring, intoxicating, and addicting. As a grown up, my first taste of a sultry tajine totally seduced me with its warm exotic spices. It had me. Because tajines are personal, anything can be thrown into a tajine, but spices are key.

Thanks to Michael, I had a pantry filled with amazing spices and spice blends. Check.

Chicken Tajine with Figs and Apricots.
After making a quick stop at the Indoor Winter Market to pick up a pre-ordered  2 pound organic hen from Elmwood Stock Farm, I boarded the Marrakesh Express.

Tajines can be prepared with or without a tajine cooking vessel. A dutch oven is a  great substitute, but an earthenware tajine has a slightly opened conical lid that allows wisps of steam to escape as flavored condensation builds up,  rises, and drips back down into the stew. Low and slow.

Using sharp kitchen sheers, I snipped the backbone from the small hen and broke it down into 4 petite serving pieces (2 breasts, 2 legs/thighs).  After tossing the hen parts with olive oil and fresh blood orange juice, I rubbed them generously with 1/4 cup ras el hanout (paprika, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, coriander, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom, allspice, mace, white pepper, rosebuds, nutmeg, cloves, saffron, and bay leaves). When the chicken was beautifully smothered, covered, and stained, I tossed it into the refrigerator (uncovered) to marinate for a few hours.

Mise en place.
While the chicken took a bath in the ridiculous spice blend, I halved 2 cups of dried black figs and dried apricots. I thinly sliced a whole onion, quartered 2 tomatoes, minced 4 garlic cloves, peeled a small bunch of baby carrots, and set them aside before blooming a generous pinch of saffron in 2 cups of simmering chicken stock.

Low and slow.
So, here's the deal. Ceramic earthenware tagines need a heat diffuser when used over an open gas flame.  Traditionally, meats, spices, fruits, and vegetables are slowly sauteed in tajines over low heat, covered, and simmered for hours. I didn't have a heat diffuser, so I improvised. I used a large cast iron skillet to brown the chicken on all sides before setting the pieces aside. I sauteed the sliced onions in the remaining stained sizzling oil until they were translucent and placed them into the bottom of the tajine.  After deglazing the skillet with 1/4 cup of the chicken stock, I added 1 teaspoon each turmeric, sumac, harissa, cumin, coriander, paprika, salt, and pepper. When the spices formed a toasted paste, I swirled the saffron-infused stock into the skillet to create an aromatic braising stock.

After layering the tajine with carrots, apricots, and figs, I nudged the chicken pieces into the mix before finishing with a layer of quartered tomatoes, apricots, figs, sliced lemons, sliced blood oranges, halved fresh plums, and carrots.  I drizzled Nickels Pure Raw Kentucky Honey over the chicken, added the fragrant chicken stock, nestled the lid onto the tajine, and slid it into a 325 degree oven to braise for  2 1/2 hours.

I fought the urge to check on the stew. I simply let it rip while we drank wine in the parlor. Hands off. Lazy supper. Perfect.

I filled deep pasta bowls with pine nut-flecked couscous. After spooning the chicken, vegetables, and fruit over the delicate grains, I doused them with the intense pan sauce before finishing with a few fresh cilantro leaves.

It was ridiculous.  The dried apricots and figs plumped from the long braise. The squirting fat fruit melted into the collapsed tomatoes, plums, and onions, creating a velvety savory/sweet sticky glaze with contrasting textures, body, and layers of flavor that enveloped the incredibly moist chicken. Finger food. We ripped the tender meat  from the bones, dragged it through the sauce, and used the fruit/vegetable melange as candied chasers.  Messy business. Pull. Dip. Swipe. Suck. Repeat.

Stained fingers.
Spiced lips.
Sexy food.


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