maghrebruary

Last month, I had a dish at the somewhat confusingly named Café Olé (despite the Spanish name, it serves Middle Eastern and Mediterranean small plates) so good that I couldn’t stop thinking about it: a lamb tajine over couscous topped with a drizzle of curry aioli. It was warm and complex and delicious, and I was dying to recreate it at home.

Instead, I made this, which does not resemble it in the slightest (chicken and lamb — not the same thing). But it was so delicious that I really didn’t mind. It’s a relatively easy chicken tajine, or Moroccan stew, redolent with tomato and carmelized onions and a handful of spices. It gave me an excuse to pick up a new spice (fennel seeds) and cook with a vegetable I rarely use, or eat (eggplant). It will feed me for weeks. It was a ray of spicy, warm Maghreb sunshine on a chilly Washington winter night — although spring is moving in here so quickly that wintry stews will soon be out of season.

This recipe is an advertisement for keeping a well-stocked spice cupboard. When I lived in Scranton, where anything other than American fare and homestyle Italian was considered outrageously ethnic, I spent about $50 buying Penzey’s spices online: cumin, coriander, turmeric, paprika, smoked paprika, some amazingly pungent cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace, curry powder and a few more. They’ve since combined in countless cheap but complex dishes, including this one: I think the ingredients cost me about $8.50.

Moroccan Chicken with Eggplant, Tomatoes and Almonds

from Bon Appetit, February 2004, via the incomparable Epicurious iPhone app. Serves 4 as I’ve adapted, with enough for extra helpings.

This one took some tweaking to reduce — the original recipe called for 16 (!) chicken parts, eight thighs and eight drumsticks. I used two thighs and two legs (thighs and drumsticks) from Trader Joe’s, so I… three-eighths’d it? But I used the amount of spices called for in the regular recipe, and am glad I did. Next time, I’d just use four chicken thighs, reduce the amount of water and keep everything else the same.

This is more of a “Sunday supper” than a quick weeknight recipe, if the braising didn’t already tip you off.

Extra virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, sliced
3 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 ½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (I didn’t measure, just ground in a bunch — you can always pepper when serving)
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
½ cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 chicken thighs
2 chicken drumsticks

1 large eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch chunks

Handful of toasted slivered almonds
Chopped cilantro to garnish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram (I didn’t have any, but I’m sure it would be delicious)

Couscous, quinoa, brown rice or mashed potatoes, for serving

Brown the chicken pieces in a skillet until the skin is crispy, and set aside.

In a heavy, large, wide pot (a traditional tajine or dutch oven), heat a glug of olive oil. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400°.

Once the oil is heated, add the onions and garlic, cover, and cook over medium heat until the onions are soft and beginning to carmelize, 10-15 minutes. While the onions are carmelizing, chop the eggplant, toss with enough olive oil to lightly coat, and arrange on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper.

When the onions are ready, add the spices. Cook, stirring, for one minute. Pour in the tomatoes, water, and lemon juice, and bring to a boil. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in the pot, and spoon sauce over the top, adding water (or broth if you have it) if necessary. Bring to a boil again and cover.

Put the eggplant in the oven. It will bake 20-25 minutes, or until brown outside and soft inside.

Cook the chicken over medium-low heat, covered, for 15 minutes. Then turn the chicken pieces over and simmer another 20 minutes, or until meat is tender. Add the eggplant and marjoram (if you have it); simmer 10-15 minutes.

Serve over a grain or starch (couscous or quinoa would be perfect; I used brown rice one night, which was fine, and mashed potatoes, which were culturally inauthentic but heavenly). Sprinkle with almonds and cilantro to garnish.

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