I'm sure you might think this blog title references my well-preserved liver, thanks to my shattering devotion to bourbon. However, I'm actually talking about an ingredient I've become somewhat obsessed with over the past year: preserved lemons. Grilled octopus with white beans and preserved lemons? Yes, please. Chicken braised with preserved lemons? Definitely. Pasta with roasted chickpeas and preserved lemons? Pass me seconds. I've eaten Rocky Mountain oysters before, which are fried bull testicles and are disgusting, but if you figured out how to incorporate preserved lemons in the dish, I'd probably order them.
For whatever reason, I can't get enough of preserved lemons of late. Well, that's not true. I know the reason. They pretty much make every dish taste freaking awesome. They're the difference between, "That was good chicken" to "That chicken was so good it just blew my mind." And to get the results, you basically just have to open a jar and toss some of the contents into a pan. It's embarrassingly easy to transform a good dish into an out-of-this-world dish. Usually that requires some crazy ingredient that's impossible to source in the middle of winter, or cooking something for 5 hours over low heat, or finally getting your grandmother to share her secret recipe. But this? Seriously, you open a jar.
So after coming out of my recent cooking coma and having overdosed on these (which by the way are damn good. Am I the last person to discover these gems?) . . .
|Convenient food crack|
. . . I figured it was time I cooked some protein. But why cook just any protein when you can have out-of-this-world protein? I'm sure you're surprised to hear that I went for a protein dish involving preserved lemons, the wonder culinary drug.
|What? Cinnamon in a savory dish?!|
The selection: Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives. This is not a traditional tagine cooked in a Moroccan clay vessel for hours. It definitely evokes North African flavors but is still approachable. While I'd love to jet to Morocco to taste the real thing, this version is a healthy, flavorful recipe you can make in the real world of home kitchens and busy schedules. Though chicken thighs are higher in fat content than breasts, they are smaller, juicier, way more flavorful and harder to overcook. The end result: a succulent dish served in a slightly sweet sauce accented with cinnamon and ginger.
As I write about this, I realize this is probably the least Southern dish I can think of, but boy is it an incredibly satisfying one. Olives? Those are something you put in a martini. Cinnamon? That goes in a dessert. Cilantro is generally eschewed unless you've been lucky enough to get access to real Mexican food in your town and even then you wouldn't want your neighbors to see you eating it. Honestly, I can envision my grandmother seeing this plate in front of her and saying, "What on Earth?!" but I know she'd love it because if anything we like good, flavorful food down South. If you can't taste it, why eat it?!
If I were to make this dish again—I mean when I make this dish again because I will—I would probably add a can of chickpeas, along with some golden raisins or chopped dried apricots. I think they would lend a nice creaminess and sweet note to round out the dish. If you are a cilantro hater (I know there are plenty of you out there), then you may want to add a dollop of plain yogurt in its place to add a little zing and contrast. My only other note is that preserved lemons are salty so be careful about adding a lot of salt to the dish as you cook because you probably won't need it.
|The dreaded cilantro. I promise, it really doesn't taste like soap.|
Preserved lemons may not be found in every grocery store, but they're worth seeking out or even making (because they're ridiculously easy to make and you'll feel like a gourmet rockstar as a result). Next thing you know, you'll be obsessed too!
|Let's be honest. There is no way to make raw meat look sexy.|
Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives
adapted from the Amateur Gourmet
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, mashed into a paste with salt (chop, add some salt to the cutting board and press with the side of your knife)
2 tsp ground ginger (or fresh)
1/2 tsp saffron softened in a tiny bit of water
1 tsp of cinnamon
Juice of 1/2 lemon (regular)
1 small preserved lemon, finely chopped
2 Tbsp fresh Italian parsley, chopped
Small bunch of cilantro, chopped
6 chicken thighs
3 Tbsp Kalamata olives
Couscous for serving
1. Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet with a lid or Dutch oven on low heat and add the oil, onion and a pinch of salt. Allow the onions to cook about 7-10 minutes until translucent.
2. Add the garlic, ginger, saffron with water, and cinnamon, followed by the lemon juice, preserved lemon. Then add the parsley and 2 Tbsp chopped cilantro.
3. Arrange the chicken on top and scatter over the olives. Pour 1 cup water into the pan, cover tightly and simmer very gently for 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
4. Serve over couscous and topped with more chopped cilantro leaves.