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moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives

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This weekend, for the first time since I was in third grade (or, if I’m being brutally honest, high school), I was in a talent show.

The performances—there were two—were held at our local theater, and as I walked round the side of the building in search of the green room (a small tent atop a patch of Astro Turf) I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. Since we moved years ago I’ve spent hours each week at the coffee shop, the brewery, and our branch of the public library. But our home has always been in the hills, and apart from the close friend whose band I was playing in I don’t socialize much in town.

When I entered the tent the show was on-screen and under way. There was a 90-year-old high school teacher playing the harmonica. There was a Hawaiian Slack-key guitarist. There was a group of 8-year-old hip-hop dancers who sustained their opening crouch for 90 seconds while the right music was found, and a man with a pony tail, his mother, and Penny the Talking Dog, who spent most of the act wandering across the stage eating pieces of salami.

It took me a few days to figure out just why I loved the talent show so much, why I took the memento picture of all the performers and knew that I would keep it. The thing is, all those people—the angsty songwriter, the tall, flustered ballroom dancers, the percussionist who flailed determinedly at his bongos in a losing battle with the beat—weren’t there because people had asked them to be, or because it was their full-time job, or even because they were particularly good at what they did. They were there because something in them—possibly the deepest, truest part—told them they had to be, that their drive to do this thing in which they felt most themselves was sacred, strong, and uncompromising. Days got long, work got hard, people moved in and out of their lives. But this thing, this thing which probably didn’t bring them money, or fame, or even anything other than a few rolled eyes and polite applause, was there, and it wouldn’t go away.

What does this have to do with Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives? Probably nothing. But it has a lot to do with why I’ll keep writing this blog, in one form or another, for as long as that true something tells me to.

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Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives

The following recipe was inspired by a lovely meal at my grandparents’ and is loosely adapted from Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. (According to my parents the picture doesn’t do the meal justice – I seem not to have the knack for photographing stews!)

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1-inch piece of ginger, grated

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 tsp powdered cumin

ground black pepper, to taste

olive oil

4 large chicken breasts or 4-6 chicken thighs

2 large onions, chopped

2 preserved lemons, cut in quarters

4 Tbs fresh herbs like cilantro or parsley, chopped

¾ cup kalamata olives

Israeli or regular couscous, for serving

The night before you plan to serve your meal (or the morning of if, like me, you are forgetful), combine the first five ingredients with the olive oil to make a marinade. Massage onto your chicken pieces (you can cut into smaller bits, if desired) and place in a small dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, place the marinated chicken in a large pot and add the chopped onion and a cup of water. Bring to a boil, adding a bit more water if the sauce looks too thick, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Separate the pulp from the skin of the preserved lemons, roughly chop, and add both parts to the pot together with the herbs and olives. Cook until meat is tender, and serve with Israeli couscous.

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Making Preserved Lemons

Making preserved lemons takes time, but the result is truly worth the wait. My method of choice is outlined here, by Melissa Clark of the New York Times.

If you don’t have preserved lemons on hand and can’t wait to try the recipe above, never fear – Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Aziza has a shortcut method in his fabulous book Mourad: New Moroccan. (Note for the Californians among us – this method is particularly rewarding with Meyer lemons). Simply slice your lemons very thinly, salt the slices, stack to re-form, wrap in cling-wrap and place in the freezer overnight. Thaw the lemons the next morning, shake off the salt, and pack the slices in a jar with olive oil to store and use.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is one of my favorite dishes, yet I’m often impatient to wait out the lemons. Thanks for passing along Mourad Lahlou’s shortcut. I’ve played a bit with roasting whole citrus for a flavor that is distinct from preserving, but no less fragrant and delicious. I’ve often use them interchangeably. Cheers–Ronna

    February 20, 2013
  2. Debbie Murphy #

    First of all, as soon as I read your hysterical post, I found myself making the preserved lemons. I was totally compelled to have a jar of these beautiful fruits on my counter within 15 minutes. Thank heavens i have a Meyer lemon tree right outside the kitchen door. Next month when they are ready, I will make the Moroccan Chicken.

    Secondly, your review of the talent show was so right on. Having attended four years of these shows, having rolled my eyes too many times and applauded wildly for many ho hum performances, I know just what you mean. The performers are driven to be there. They have something they must share and as a member of the audience, I have agreed to praise their efforts. Since it is not a Gong Show, we simply honor their intentions and marvel at their courage. It’s a bit like a recital of young musicians where we expect mistakes and strangely encourage them to come back again. It is always a weirdly feel-good event.

    That said, your performance was beautiful and it made me happy. And that’s the truth.

    February 19, 2013

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