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Monday, June 4, 2012

Olives, Preserved Lemons, and a Moroccan Tagine

Moroccan "tagine" olives

Olives, Preserved Lemons, and a Moroccan Tagine
by Victoria Challancin

What exactly is a tagine, you might ask?  A tagine is the name of an earthenware cooking dish with a tall, conical lid, used throughout North Africa.  It is also the name of any meat or vegetables stews cooked in it (think of a French Provençal tian, which is both the name of the cooking vessel and the au gratin vegetable dish cooked in it).  You may remember the tiny "tagines" I showed you on the post I wrote on cumin.

The Cooking Vessel
Tagines are very practical cooking vessels which originated with the Berbers of North Africa.  The harsh constraints of the desert lifestyle requires a pot which needs minimal fuel and precious liquid.  The distinctive dome shape of the traditional earthenware tagines accomplish this efficently.  By using clay (though many other modern materials can now be found), often with a metal diffuser, the heat beneath the pot effectively dissapates and thus reduces the amount of fuel required to cook the dish.  The conical top also aids in this process of economy as all of the rising steam and vapors from the cooking stew accumulate, condense, and fall back into the simmering braise, so that none of the aroma or flavor is lost during the cooking process. The unique design of the tagine makes it a perfect portable, practical, useful dish which fits the needs both the modern cook of today and of the nomadic Berbers of hundreds of years ago.

These traditional tagines contain simmering stews over clay braziers--these at a roadside stand in Central Morocco

The bottom of a tagine is a wide, circular shallow dish used for both cooking and serving.  The top has a tall, conical shape, or a lower rounded one.  Made of clay or even ceramics, the tagines can be basic and utilitarian (what you find in most homes in Morocco) or elaborately decorative, fit for display.  Some of the beautifully decorative pieces are only used for serving, not for the cooking itself.

The vegetables atop the tagine give hints as to what the dish might contain

An individual-serving size tagine at a cooking class in Marrakech--the smaller tagines contain the dried spices used to make the stew (ginger, black pepper, cumin, paprika, turmeric, cinnamon, and black pepper)

A pile of unglazed tagines in the northern city of Chefchaouen--note the different regional styles

Tiny decorative salt and pepper tagines in the coastal city of Essaouira

Examples of the actual base of the cooking vessel in which the stews were cooked, served piping hot right to the table--here we have a vegetable tagine and two with lamb and prunes

The Tagine as Food
In terms of tagines as food rather than pots, there is a wide variety of both traditional dishes and modern interpretations.  Traditional tagines include "sweet"  and savory tagines.  A common example of a "sweet" tagine is lamb with dried fruits such as figs, prunes, dates, or apricots, often sweetened with a touch of honey.  Fresh fruits such as quince, apples, pears also make appearances.  One favorite savory tagine that I actively seek out all over Morocco uses preserved ingredients such as olives and salted lemons as seen in the following recipe.  Nuts such as almonds and walnuts are also commonly included.  Vegetables include tomatoes (yes, I know, it is a fruit...), carrots, potatoes, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini, green beans, and eggplant.  Mint, parsley, and cilantro are the most common herbs used in Moroccan cuisine.  As for the spices, that is a book unto itself...check out my post on Ras el Hanout

In a Moroccan souk:  Preserved lemons 

One of my personal favorite tagines is Chicken with Olives and Preserved Lemons.  Common throughout Morocco, it can be found on tables humble as well as elegant.  Trust me, I seek it out wherever I travel in the well as duck with figs, rabbit with prunes...oh so many.  But truly,  I love both olives and preserved lemons so much, that this just may be my favorite.  Below is an easy recipe from Tyler Florence that yields good results.  Because I didn't have a jar of preserved lemons on hand (my homemade ones disappear quickly), I used a recipe that you can make in under an hour.  I also had to use imported Spanish green olives instead of the traditional lavender-hued or pink/purple ones called simply "tagine" olives in Morocco.

For more photos and information on olives and the olive harvest in Morocco, I invite you to check out these pasts posts or visit the Travel Blog Section in the drop-down menu with more from Morocco):

The Olive Harvest, Part I  (an introduction)
The Olive Harvest, Part II (the pressing of the olives)
The Olive Harvest, Part III (the processed olives)
A Cooking Class at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech (with a photo of this same chicken tagine with olives and preserved lemons)

An olive and preserved lemon display from the Fez, or Fes, souk

Cook's Notes:  Do these preserved lemons taste like the real things, which are left to season for a month or more?  Absolutely not.  They lack the depth of flavor, the subtleties, the softness of properly preserved salted lemons.  Are the an acceptable substitute?  Yes, in a pinch.  If I don't actually preserve some lemons soon (I do this periodically), then I might next try Mark Bittman's Quick Preserved Lemons which seem to me to be more of a confit than what you find in Morocco.  Bittman's version uses both salt and sugar, which might soften the edge a bit.  Whichever version you choose, start with unwaxed lemons, either Eureka or Meyer types.  If they are waxed, blanch them in boiling water for about 20 seconds, then rub them with a towel to remove the wax.  Kosher salt works best here, but if you use regular table salt, use less.  If you want to make proper Moroccan Preserved Lemons, just check online as there are countless versions.

Recipe:  Quick Preserved Lemons
(Recipe by Kitty Morse for Cooking LIght)

1 cup water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 lemons, washed and quartered

Combine water and salt in a small saucepan; bring to a boil.  Add lemons; cook 30 minutes or until liquid is reduced to 1/2 cup and lemon rind is tender.  Remove from heat; cool to room temperature.

Chicken Tagine with Green Olives and Preserved Lemons

Cook's Notes:  This is a nice version of a classic dish.  If you can find the purple "tagine" olives, by all means use them.  Ditto for preserved lemons, should you have access to lemons preserved for a lengthy time. Do remember to remove the bay leaves, as they can actually cut the esophagus if accidentally chewed and swallowed. 

Recipe:  Chicken Tagine with Green Olives and Preserved Lemons
(Adapted slightly from a Recipe from Food Network, Tyler Florence, Moroccan in Miami)
Serves 4 to 8
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon sweet or hot paprika
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon whole cloves
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for frying
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 handfull fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron
1 (3 1/2 to 4 pound) free-range chicken, cut into 10 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 preserved lemon (see the recipe)
1/2 cup cracked green olives
1 cup chicken stock

A mise en place of spices for this dish

In a skillet over medium heat, toast the cinnamon, peppercorns, cumin paprika,red pepper flakes,and cloves until they become fragrant.  Remove from the heat and grind in a spice grinder.

In a bowl large enough to accommodate the chicken, add the oil, spice mix, garlic, ginger, cilantro,bay leaves, and saffron.  Mix to a paste.  Add chicken, rubbing the marinade, olives,and chicken stock. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and reserve marinade.  Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper.  In a tagine or large casserole over medium high heat add 2 tablespoon olive oil.  Put in chicken pieces and lightly brown on both sides, about 5 minutes.  Add onions and cook until just starting to brown,about 3 minutes.  Rinse preserved lemon well.  Scoop out flesh and discard; cut peel into strips and add to pan.  Add reserved marinade, olives,and chicken stock.  Cover tightly and cook over medium low heat for 30 to 35 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through.  Remove bay leaves and discard.  Taste juices and adjust seasoning.  Place chicken on a warm platter.  Spoon juices with the preserved lemon, olives,and onions over chicken and serve immediately.

Another version of the same recipe

 The mise en place of spices for the second version

All you need for this tagine, in the souk of Meknès

Like what you see?  Join me in Morocco in fall of 2012 or spring of 2013 on my small-group trips.  Contact me at for information

Parting Shot:
From a cooking class at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech on one of my trips to Morocco

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Like life, recipes are meant to be shared, but please ask permission before using photos or text.  Thanks!


a. maren said...

wow, i am completely unfamiliar with north african food. but these are beautiful vessels, and this recipe sounds incredible. preserved lemons? i can't wait to try it.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

I hope you do try it. Such a great recipe, so full of those exotic Moroccan flavors.

Minnie(thelady8home) said...

Wow! I have never had North African food..............I am so surprised at the similarity of spices between Indian and African cooking. We often use the same combination for cooking chicken curry, though we wouldn't add olives. Very interesting post. This is my first post here, looking forward to more.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

So glad you enjoyed the post, Minnie. (I thought I replied to you, but I think it got lost!). Yes, there are many similarities in spicing between Moroccan and Indian food. There was a Sri Lankan restaurant here in San Miguel that used to put olives in curries and I was always horrified, yet I love them here. Go figure...

Hotly Spiced said...

I love to cook tagines but I don't have a tagine dish. I make do by cooking my in a heavy casserole dish. Will have to add buying the real thing to my list of kitchen necessities. I love olives and preserved lemons too and they go so well with chicken. This is a great looking dish Victoria xx

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

I don't have a proper tagine eithere, Charlie. Every time I go to Morocco, I think, "This time. This time I will buy one." But alas, other shopping takes up the space and weight in my bag--and I have never seen them here in Mexico. Still..a good casserole works just fine!

janet @ the taste space said...

Love your post all about tagines! I bought a simple unglazed one for $2 when I visited Morocco but haven't used it yet. I finally have a heat diffuser and a gas stove, so I should figure out how to season it before putting it to the test. ;) Thanks for the reminder!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Janet, in Mexico clay cooking vessels, whether a comal or a cazuela are seasoned simply by boiling water in them several times. I wonder if it is the same for a clay tagine? One of these trips I am going to bring one home, in the meantime, I will just have to use a heavy pot or casserole.

Eha said...

I hope truth translates across the world! I'm almost shaken by the fantastic lesson I feel I have just received. Have loved and tried my best to cook N African food [Moroccan, Tunisian etc] for quite a few decades - loved them! Have never had the opportunity to learn so much in just one post - Victoria, thank you! This season's lemons are nearly ripe; what a fantastic time to try your 'Quick preserved lemon' recipe. Oh, I do my own and they take weeks :(! Beautiful, beautiful photos! Could not believe the pile of unglazed tagines: so usual in situ, perchance so exotic for us. On a cold winter's afternoon in Australia I feel you have just taken me to a wonderland, culinary and otherwise . . .

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Dear Eha, I can't tell you how I have come to anticipate your thoughtful and erudite comments. They are much appreciated always. As for the quick preserved lemons, do try them, but don't expect them to taste like the real thing. Don't give up on North African food--it's so worth the effort.

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

You have such wonderful photos...loved the lemon and olive pyramid display. I tend to like the savory tagines better than the sweet ones but my husband is just the opposite. Great recipe.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you, Karen. I have so many photos from the food sections of the souks in Morocco from having gone so many times. I never know which ones I have already used, but some bear repeating!

Coffee and Crumpets said...

Love the beautiful colours and the pictures! This oozes exotic! I am lucky to have a friend married to a Moroccan so I get my fill when I want! I have always been fascinated by tagines...the dishes and the vessel. I want one. My favourite is chicken and olives and lemon too. Great post Victoria.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you, Nazneen. Lucky you to have a cooking friend with Moroccan connections. It is truly a complex and wonderful cuisine to explore.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Beautiful post! I love my tagine too but I don't use it as often as I should! I saw some of those cute little salt and pepper tagines and wanted to buy them :)

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

As much as I love the whole idea of cooking in a tagine, as I said in the post, I always seem to buy so much other STUFF that I can't fit one in my bag and they don't exist here in Mexico that I have seen...Still, a casserole or heavy pot does work.

Anonymous said...

I never used preserved lemons before. They look very interesting...

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

They are really interesting to use. Just remember that the quick version lacks the depth of flavor and subtlety that the longer version has.

Maureen @ Orgasmic Chef said...

I love this food. I do preserve my own lemons but every once in a while they're all gone. This quick way is a great idea.

I should save my dollars to go to Morocco and learn to cook with you.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thanks, Maureen. The quick version is just that, quick. It lacks the depth of the real thing. But if you don't have the real thing on hand...

Do save those dollars! It is a fantastic trip!