Having visited more than 100 countries on all seven continents at this point, it’s difficult to remember life before I was a traveler. But our first trip to Morocco was my first trip anywhere outside North America and the Caribbean, and it happened just eight years ago.
Mr. Mike Ballard and I were celebrating our fifth wedding anniversary with a trip we’d been planning since our engagement. In fact, I only agreed to marry him after he promised he’d take me somewhere exotic for this big marriage milestone.
We were spending three weeks exploring Spain, Gibraltar, and Morocco, which are considerably closer together geographically than you might imagine. While Gibraltar retains its own special personality — think of Britain in the 1960s, complete with red telephone booths and Bobbies patrolling the cobblestone streets — you can practically see northern Morocco from southern Spain, and they’re just a 30-minute ferry ride apart via the Strait of Gibraltar.
You’ll find lots of European influence blended with Muslim culture and Moorish history in the coastal town of Tangier, Morocco, but as you travel further south in the country, everything begins to feel more fully Moroccan, including the food.
Our main destination on this anniversary adventure was Marrakech, home to the famous Djemaa el Fna souk, which is a labyrinthine marketplace surrounding a busy main square. At night, row upon row of vendors sell kebabs, couscous, olives, sausages, freshly-squeezed juices, dried fruit, and more in the middle of the market. Smoke and steam rise from the mass of stalls, and you’re suddenly hungry even if you just ate.
We wandered in and out of the mouthwatering maze, being tempted by the hawkers proclaiming their food to be the best. “You’re too skinny! You must eat!” one would cry. “Seventy-seven will take you to heaven!” another would exclaim; the stalls use numbers rather than names.
Lots of people worry about street food when they travel, but we never hesitate to try something that looks and smells good. Our one rule? The place has to be filled with locals. If mostly tourists are eating somewhere, that’s never a good sign.
We loaded up on shawarma the first night, but we had very special dinner plans for our second evening in Marrakech.
With a day’s notice, guests at the Dar Mouassine riad (Morocco’s version of a bed and breakfast) can request the kitchen talents of Latifa, a local chef who prepares traditional dishes for private dinners. She made harissa, which is a spiced chickpea soup, as well as freshly-baked bread and a traditional Moroccan chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives that melted in our mouths. For dessert, she served juicy orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. It sounds so simple, but it was one of the best desserts we’ve ever had and the perfect ending to a magnificent meal. We told her so, and Latifa beamed with pleasure. She was as delighted with the compliment as we were with the dinner.
That chicken tagine has become a very special dish for us. Easily assembled but cooked very slowly, it is comfort food with just enough of an exotic touch that it transports you to another place.
The name of the dish comes from the vessel in which it’s cooked: an earthenware bowl with a domed top that traps the steam and deposits it back into the food, making it that much juicier. Don’t own a tagine? Not to worry. You can use a wide, shallow Dutch oven or skillet with a tight-fitting lid. If you prefer, you can also cook tagine recipes in your slow cooker.
Whatever vessel you choose, just be sure to cook your tagine low, slow, and filled with love. I promise it’s worth the wait.
This week’s subscriber exclusive: Every time I’m in Morocco, I eat my weight in steamed artichokes. They grow plentifully in Northern Africa, and they’re a great accompaniment to Moroccan soups, stews, and tagines. Although unlike the latter, Moroccans cook artichokes quickly using a few simple tricks.
Moroccan Chicken Tagine
The name of this dish comes from the vessel in which it’s cooked: an earthenware bowl with a domed top that traps the steam and deposits it back into the food, making it that much juicier.
Don’t own a tagine? Not to worry. You can use a wide, shallow Dutch oven or skillet with a tight-fitting lid. If you prefer, you can also cook tagine recipes in your slow cooker. You’ll need to experiment with cooking times based on the vessel you choose. The temperature, however, should always be low.
Can’t find preserved lemons? You can substitute whole, fresh lemons, but you’ll want to season the final dish to taste with salt, and it may require more than you think. (Preserved lemons are quite salty.)
What you don’t want to substitute are chicken breasts for the chicken thighs. Chicken thighs have a heartier flavor that complements the Moroccan spice blend, and their higher fat content helps keep them tender and juicy when they’re cooked over a longer period of time.
While you can marinate the chicken for as little as four hours prior to cooking, you’ll get the best flavor if you marinate it overnight.
2 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 preserved lemons, seeds removed
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 saffron threads, ground
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/2 pound baby yellow potatoes, halved
6 Kalamáta olives, pitted and halved
10 small green olives, pitted and halved
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In a large plastic zip-top bag, place the chicken thighs. Remove the flesh from the preserved lemons and add it to the bag, reserving the peels for cooking. Add the olive oil, saffron, paprika, turmeric, cumin, and cinnamon. Seal the bag and massage the contents gently to distribute the marinade. Place the bag in a bowl to catch any drips or leaks, then refrigerate for a minimum of four hours, ideally overnight.
Heat a small amount of olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Brown the chicken thighs on all sides.
Place a heat diffuser on your gas or electric stove eye. Lightly coat the inside of the base of the tagine with olive oil. Arrange the potatoes in a layer on the bottom of the tagine, then top with the marinated chicken thighs and any remaining marinade. Cut the preserved lemon peel into strips, and add that on top of the chicken along with the olives and onion slices. Pour the chicken stock and lemon juice on top of the chicken and vegetables, then cover the tagine with the lid.
Cook the tagine over low heat for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and the chicken registers 165°F on a quick-read food thermometer. Discard the pieces of preserved lemon peel. Serve immediately. Makes six servings.
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This week’s subscriber exclusive:
Perfectly Steamed Artichokes: Every time I’m in Morocco, I eat my weight in steamed artichokes. They grow plentifully in Northern Africa, and they’re a great accompaniment to Moroccan soups, stews, and tagines. Although unlike the latter, Moroccans cook artichokes quickly using a few simple tricks.