Chicken with preserved lemon and olives
A wonderful meal to make ahead for a Shabbat or a holiday.
I published my recipe for preserved lemons recently in preparation for this divine chicken dish, which I’ve made for nearly 20 years with rave reviews. It has a wonderful mix of ingredients that, when combined, are special to North African cuisine: slow-braised meat, olives, preserved lemons, saffron, ginger, cumin and a little spice.
I really enjoy this in the warmer months. It gets better the longer that it rests, so it’s a wonderful meal to make ahead for a Shabbat or a holiday. I use a light hand with the spices so that the chicken is fragrant but not reeking of anything in particular. One of the biggest mistakes that home cooks make is covering their meat in heavy spices.
Essentially, this is a tagine. While you don’t need a tagine to make this recipe, you will need a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven. Steam and air flow are important when braising any meat, so there must be room between the food and the lid — as opposed to using a baking dish and covering it with foil which doesn’t leave enough space for steam. A few inches of space in the pot will create a more tender meat.
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This recipe has several steps and is a bit more time-consuming than what I typically publish, but it will come out beautifully if you follow my instructions. The prep takes about an hour, which is why I usually save this meal for Shabbat and special occasions. The chicken must be marinated overnight and then browned before baking, but once you set it into the oven to cook, you’re basically done.
For the chicken and marinade:
3-4 pounds dark meat chicken on the bone, skin on. Use legs, thighs or a combination.
3 cups sweet onion, diced
4 large cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a small bowl, combine all of the above ingredients and mix well. Place the raw chicken in a large bowl, and pour the marinade on top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. I usually give it a good stir and re-cover the bowl before bed or first thing in the morning, just to ensure that the chicken is evenly coated.
For the main dish:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cumin
A nice pinch of saffron, about ¼ teaspoon
1 preserved lemon, pith and fruit removed; use the rind only. Slice it into thin pieces.
½ bunch of parsley and ½ bunch of cilantro (equal amounts), washed and tied with string
1.5 cups assorted Mediterranean olives (not canned black or American-style green olives)
⅓ cup water
Immersing the herbs in water with a splash of white vinegar helps to clean off the sand and bugs. Soak and rinse the herbs and set them aside to dry on a paper towel for later use.
Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil to a Dutch oven and heat the burner to medium-low. Lightly brown each piece of chicken on both sides, working in batches, cooking each side for 8-10 minutes. Browning the chicken does not fully cook it; it simply helps to seal in the juices. There will be small pieces of diced onion on the raw chicken that you don’t need to wipe away before browning. Brown all the chicken pieces and set them aside on another plate. The leftover marinade will settle to the bottom of the bowl, and there should also be a nice amount of chicken juice and oil from the cooked chicken in the pot.
Add the marinade to the pot and sauté for about 10 minutes, stirring regularly over medium-low heat. The onions should be translucent but still be firm.
Add the cumin and ginger to the onions and stir constantly for 1 minute before removing the pan from the heat.
Stir in the saffron. There may be blackened residue at the bottom of the pot. This is common when sautéing with olive oil. While I typically scrape blackened bits into the sauce, with this dish I don’t disturb it because I’m not deglazing the pan.
Scoop out ¾ of the onion mixture and place it into another small bowl. If you have a large tagine, scoop ¼ of this onion and a few slices of the preserved lemon across the bottom of the clay pot; otherwise do this step with the same Dutch oven that you used to brown the chicken. Add the chicken in layers and spoon the rest of the cooked marinade over the top. Add the olives and the rest of the preserved lemon rind. Pour the water into the side of the pot so that it covers the bottom and doesn’t wash away the marinade.
Cut just the ends off the parsley and cilantro stems and tie them in a bunch with kitchen string. Set the bunch on top of the chicken, but to the side of the pot, and cover.
Tagine-style cooking is all about slow cooking. Put the covered tagine or Dutch oven into a cold oven, then set the heat to 275 F. Bake without uncovering for 3 hours. A Dutch oven may take a little less time than a tagine; the chicken should be tender when you insert a fork.
If you’re using a tagine, place it on a wood cutting board when you take it out of the oven to avoid cracking. Placing a hot clay pot onto a cold surface will cause shock to the pot and destroy it.
If you’re not serving this immediately, turn the oven off, crack the oven door and allow it to cool down in the oven for an hour.
Serve warm over rice or couscous, which will sop up the sumptuous sauce. Kosher chicken, olives and preserved lemon are all salty, so I salt this to taste at the table.
This is not a spicy dish. It has slight warmth from the cayenne pepper, and saffron comes to life in food that is not overly peppered. I hope that you get as much enjoyment out of this meal as my family does. Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.