October 11, 2016

Moroccan Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemon: Djaj M'qualli bi Zeitoun

Chicken, lemon, and olives are a delicious culinary trinity that appear together in many iterations from many cultures, especially those around the Mediterranean Sea. If you've tried my sure-fire dinner classic Chicken Sahara, you'll find a version particularly adapted to the North American manner of cooking. If you look into the dish's roots, though, you'll find one of its fascinating grandparents in Djaj M'qualli (transliterations of which also vary quite wildly).

This is a traditional Moroccan dish, with a complex harmony of flavours and a really impressive use of onions. The recipe classically also uses a chicken liver in the sauce, which I wasn't able to arrange despite having had chicken livers the night before, but I'd really like to do it that way next time. Unlike Chicken Sahara, or many of the chicken-lemon-olive tagine recipes out there, this is, as you can see, something of an almost dry dish - the sauce reduces to a thick gravy that drapes over the chicken rather than providing a pool for it to swim in. This recipe was adapted minimally from Fleur d'Oranger, Masala & Co.

One more thing: If you made Preserved Lemons back in January? This is a terrific use for them!

Moroccan Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemon

Serves 4

4 chicken leg quarters, whole, skin on
3 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 chicken liver (optional)
1 cup Moroccan purple or green olives
1/2 preserved lemon (or several pieces, seeds removed)
1 tablespoon soft or melted butter
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
pinch of saffron threads, lightly warmed in a dry skillet
Water, as needed

For extra juicy chicken, brine it for four hours or so before proceeding.

Rinse and dry the chicken pieces. Combine the butter and the spices (except the saffron) into a spice paste, and massage all of the chicken parts thoroughly with the mixture. Lay the chicken pieces skin-side up in a single layer in a large skillet, and sprinkle the finely chopped onions and crushed garlic in between the pieces. Add enough fresh cool water to come half-way up the chicken. Turn the heat on high, and bring the water up to a simmer. Reduce the heat to the minimum, cover, and let the chicken simmer very gently until tender, about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 220C/425F.

Remove the lid from the skillet and use tongs to remove the chicken pieces to a baking sheet (I used a pizza pan). Place the chicken, uncovered in the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes or until golden brown.

While the chicken browns and crisps, turn the heat up to high under the onion/water mixture and start stirring and scraping the mixture, reducing the water and cooking down the onion down to a thick mass. Add the chicken liver now, if using, grating it into the sauce as it cooks. Continue to cook and stir as it reduces. Add the olives, and add the saffron now, too (rub it between your fingers over the pan to crush the threads). Slice away and reserve the peels of the preserved lemon and add the middle parts to the gravy. Continue to cook and stir as the sauce thickens up until it is a thick gravy.

Remove the browned chicken from the oven and arrange on a platter. Spoon the gravy (called a deghmira), including the olives, over the chicken. Thinly slice the preserved lemon peels and decorate the chicken with the resultant strips.

Serve with warm bread and a salad or two.

The lucky person who got to take leftovers to work the next day reported that the sauce was even better on the second day, so it might well be worth making this ahead, especially if you're having guests to dinner.

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