Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Chicken and Apricot Tagine

Happy New Year! I wish us all healthy, happy, and peaceful 2023, filled with love, laughter, and moments that matter. Statistically speaking, this has to be a decent one, because the last few vintages were not exactly the keepers. 

In my book, cooking is just the perfect thing to get the year to a fabulous start. Give it a try, you may get hooked. Cooking is so much more than a recipe and a pretty picture on Instagram. It makes us think about the ingredients we use, where they come from, and how they were produced. Cooking teaches us to get our hands dirty towards the outcome we desire and have patience and stamina to see it happen. To embrace our failures, celebrate our successes, and learn from both. Cooking teaches us to live in a moment, to share, and find happiness in making others happy. If we cooked more and fought less this would be a far more enjoyable planet.

Towards that end, here is a stunning dish that checks all the boxes above. It's based on a recipe for Chicken with Dried Apricots and Pine Nuts from Paula Wolfert’s “The Food of Morocco”. For a while I made it exactly as written -- it's a wonderful recipe -- until I decided I wanted more. I wanted the meat to be more silky and fall-apart, I wanted it coated in thick, fragrant sauce, and I wanted more punch. I wanted fireworks of apricots, oranges, cinnamon, and spices, so I began to make changes. The result is a luscious, aromatic, fall apart miracle. 

One of my favorite dishes ever.  

I enjoy every bit of making this tagine. The day before, I mix and grind the spices and make Ras el Hanout from scratch, and then marinate the chicken in milk overnight. (This is optional, but it adds to the indulgent, silky, fall apart texture, especially if you are using older and larger birds.) In the morning, I make the spiced garlicky paste and rub it all over the meat and under the skin. In the afternoon, I sear the meat, simmer the apricots in the orange cinnamon syrup, and prepare the onion base. I layer it all up in a Dutch oven, and ship to the oven for a long and slow braise.

When, two hours later, I take it out, I cannot help but smile at the golden beauty of it. 
I then take the tagine to the table, to share with people I love, and I wait for their smiles. They come, big and bright and beautiful, every single time.

And that, my dear friends, is how happiness tastes like. 

Chicken and Apricot Tagine

5 large skin-on chicken thighs or drumsticks (about 2 pounds)
2 - 3 cups milk (or enough to cover the chicken entirely in a small bowl)

for the rub:

3 – 4 strands of saffron
2 medium garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Ras el Hanout (see recipe below)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

for the tagine:

2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons butter
1 large red onion
2 - 3 cups chicken broth 
15 – 20 small dried apricots (4 ounces)
1/2 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons honey or sugar
one 2-inch-long cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water (optional)
4 thyme sprigs


Dutch oven or an oven-proof vessel with a lid, large enough to hold the chicken in one layer

The night before making the tagine place the chicken into a small bowl and cover with milk. Refrigerate.

Make the rub. Place the saffron strands in 2 tablespoons of hot water. Leave for about 5 minutes.

In a mortar, crush the garlic with salt until it forms smooth paste. Add the saffron water, Ras el Hanout, and sugar. Mix well.

Coat the chicken with the rub. Slide your fingers under the skin to loosen it up and put the rub under the skin. Leave for at least two hours (ideally 8).

When ready to make the tagine, grate the onion on a coarse side of a box grater. Set aside together with all the liquids that were released during grating.

In the Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Once the oil is close to sizzling, brown the chicken lightly, about 2 minutes per side, until the skin is golden and slightly crispy. Remove and set aside. 

Wipe the Dutch oven clean. Add the butter and melt over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the grated onion and its liquids. Sauté for about 20 minutes, until the onions are soft and golden. Add 2 cups of broth and continue to simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes. 

While the onions are simmering, prepare the apricots. In a small saucepan, combine the apricots, orange juice, 1/2 cup of water, sugar, cinnamon stick, and orange blossom water (if using). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain low simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and take the cinnamon stick out. (If you like, keep the cinnamon stick to use as garnish before serving.)

Preheat the oven to 325°F (300°F convection).

Assemble the tagine. Place the onions and their cooking liquid in the Dutch oven. Arrange the apricots on top of the onions and pour their cooking liquid all over. Scatter the thyme sprigs on top. Arrange the chicken pieces in one layer on top of the onion-apricot mixture. The chicken should be half covered in liquid, so if needed add more broth or water. 

Place the Dutch oven on the stove and bring to a boil. Cover with the lid and transfer to the oven. Cook for about 90 minutes, until the chicken is close to falling apart and golden all over. Remove the lid, increase the heat to 350°F (325°F convection) and cook for another 15 – 30 minutes, until the skin is golden and slightly crispy, and the liquid has turned into a thick sauce. 

Serve with couscous, steamed rice, or mashed potatoes.

Serves 4

Ras el Hanout

Ras el Hanout is a spice mix found in varying forms in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Literally translated as “head of shop,” the Arabic phrase ras el hanout really means “top shelf”, or the best spice in the shop. It includes many spices, typically at least a dozen, but often more, sixteen, twenty, even hundred. Sometimes the blends are adjusted based on the dish they will be used in. The blend below, slightly modified from a recipe in "Food of Morocco", is ideal for meat stews or tagines that include dried fruits, sweet wine, or other sweet-tart dishes.

Once you grind spices, they begin to die, and I usually blend small quantities. The measurements below will give you approximately 2 oz ground spice. For the spice blending aficionados who have a precision scale, I am including measurements in grams, otherwise just follow the quantities in parenthesis. 

15 g, (1 1/2 stick) Ceylon cinnamon 
6 g, (1 tablespoon) cumin seeds
4 g, (1 tablespoon) coriander seeds
4 g, (1 small) nutmeg 
4 g, (1 tablespoon) black peppercorns
2 g, (1 tablespoon) dried rosebuds
2 g, (10) green cardamom pods
2 g, (1 teaspoon) ground turmeric
1.75 g, (1 teaspoon) ground ginger
1.25 g, (1/2 teaspoon) red pepper flakes
0.75 g, (9) cloves
0.5 g(2 strands) mace
0.2 g(1) bay leaf
0.03 g, (1/4 teaspoon) lavender

Place all spices into a spice grinder. Grind until powdery. If using electric grinder, do not operate it longer than 30 – 45 seconds, otherwise excessive heating will affect the spices. Take a break, then grind again. Repeat as needed, until the mixture is fully ground. Sieve the mixture, then grind the residuals again. You may have to repeat several times. Discard the debris. Store in an airtight jar.