Tajine: a savory union of flavors


When you are presented with the menu in a Moroccan restaurant, one of the most enticing choices is a tajine, a tasty North African casserole. Moroccan cuisine boasts terrific tajines of meat, fish and even vegetables. My favorite ones, however, are made of chicken.

While living in Paris, I loved to dine at Timgad, considered by many the best North African restaurant in the city. I often ordered a chicken tajine in an onion-saffron sauce, garnished with olives and preserved lemons. The accompaniment was usually a steaming mound of buttery, golden couscous.

Whatever the main ingredient of the tajine, it is cooked gently in an aromatic sauce. This sauce is what makes tajines so appealing. It might include the sweet flavors of honey, cinnamon and prunes, but it is more likely to be somewhat spicy, redolent of cumin and ginger, with medium doses of garlic and hot pepper.

Saffron and cilantro sometimes add their distinctive accents. As the chicken simmers with these flavorings and a small amount of broth, water or chopped tomatoes, it acquires a wonderful taste. It also creates the luscious sauce that's so good with the customary couscous, or rice or pasta.

Chicken tajines are popular in the home kitchen. You can think of them as a type of braised chicken. But the tajine has a major advantage it is easier and can be prepared faster. Most European and American recipes for braised chicken begin with instructions to brown the chicken over fairly high heat. In tajines, you skip this step. You simply heat the chicken briefly with the spices and with sliced or grated onions before adding the liquid.

Preparing chicken by this relaxed, easy method is a pleasure because there is no need to worry about splattering oil (and cleaning the stove afterward). And you don't have to add the fat usually needed for browning.

Tajines are made of whole birds or pieces. You can make a delicious tajine that is not only quick, but low in fat, too, by using chicken breasts. Choose breasts on the bone because they're more suitable for braising than boneless pieces. Besides, they are more reasonably priced.

To reduce the fat even further, remove the skin before serving the chicken and skim any fat from the sauce. For an even leaner sauce, you can pull the skin off the chicken pieces before cooking them.

Moroccans frequently add carrots, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes or other vegetables to their tajines. If you choose quick-cooking vegetables, such as zucchini, mushrooms or frozen peas, you can simmer them with the chicken to make a delicious one-pot dinner.

While the chicken is cooking, prepare a pan of plain or whole wheat couscous or steamed basmati rice to enjoy with the tajine's savory sauce.

Cumin, ginger and hot pepper flakes enhance the sauce rather than dominate it. Serve this tajine with couscous or rice.

Chicken tajine with tomatoes, cilantro and zucchini

Makes 4 servings

2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken breast halves, with bone

2 large onions, halved and cut into thin slices

2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

6 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon hot red-pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon paprika

1 tablespoon olive oil, optional

salt, black pepper

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

1/2 cup water

3/4 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2 -inch slices

Remove skin from chicken, if desired.

Mix onions, garlic, 2 tablespoons cilantro, cumin, ginger, red-pepper flakes, paprika and oil in large casserole or Dutch oven. Add chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat about 2 minutes, turning once or twice, to flavor chicken with spices.

Add tomatoes and water and bring to boil. Cover and simmer over low heat 20 minutes. Turn chicken pieces over. Add zucchini and cook, covered, 10 to 15 minutes or until chicken and zucchini are tender. Stir in 3 tablespoons cilantro.

Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with remaining 1 tablespoon cilantro.

Faye Levy is the author of "Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook," Warner Books.

Pub Date: 3/19/97

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