Time to learn more about the tagine. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

The tagine is a great stovetop cooking vessel. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

I was so delighted by the Kate Christensen recipe I’m making a version of it here that reflects my way of cooking. Is it a repeat? That’s part of the point—the best dishes in your repertoire are ones you do over and over. Indeed, Christensen wrote about it in a novel, and then wrote about it again in a memoir, and has made it for real herself, so it obviously bears repeating. As do all good recipes. And this one is not only supremely tasty and therefore a pleasure to eat, it’s also deeply nourishing, especially if you use your own stock.

I was also intrigued by a few commenters who did not like the narrative recipe, a recipe without ingredient list and numbered steps, but with writerly flourishes—”fragrant brown spice puddle”—which of course I love.

So, here is my version cooked in a proper tagine, which my dear old mum haggled down from a buck-fifty to fifty cents at a bazaar in 1970s Morocco. It’s a great cooking vessel, especially an earthenware one with an unglazed interior that absorbs moisture and aromas. The clay vessel sits right on your stovetop burner looking in today’s kitchen like a proud, exotic peasant. (Of course a small dutch oven or any medium sauce pan with a lid will do.)

Here, everything gets cooked together in the same pot, so you don’t have to wash two. To imitate ghee, I melt the butter and just use the butter fat (save leftover whey and solids and butter fat for browned-butter mashed potatoes). I use salt, especially at the beginning. Chicken thighs are tough, succulent morsels and chix breasts are the skim milk of the protein world, to be avoided unless pounded, breaded, and fried, so please squelch any impulse to add anything other than thigh meat.

Kate specifies cracked olives, Turkish apricots and a brand-name Italian tomatoes, all well and good (indeed specificity describes interesting idiosyncrasies), but I hope it’s needless to say that any tasty olive will do, as will any dried apricots if you can’t find Turkish ones, as will any tomato “product,” as it was unimaginatively referred to in culinary school, fresh or canned or boxed. But what makes this recipe so wonderful and, to use the word again, beguiling, is the aggressive seasoning and splendid use of flavoring ingredients (salty olives and sweet apricots and crunchy nutty toasted almonds), which are all Kate’s, thus named here and written in format.

Kate’s Chicken Tagine

  • 1/2 stick of butter, completely melted in a measuring cup
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into about 6 pieces each
  • Salt as needed
  • 1 medium Spanish onion, medium dice
  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed with a knife and roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Zest from half a lemon
  • ½ cup chopped olives
  • ½ cups chopped dried apricots
  • 1 carrot, medium dice
  • one 15-ounce can chickpeas (about 1 1/2 cups if you cook your own)
  • 1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)
  • 1 cup homemade stock or water (or more as needed, depending how long you cook it)
  • ½ red pepper, medium dice
  • ½ yellow pepper, medium dice
  • ½ cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • Enough cilantro for garnishing and flavor (for those not averse)
  • 4 lemon wedges
  1. Put the tagine over a low flame, then turn it up to medium-high. Pour in enough clear butter fat floating on top to coat the bottom of the tagine, and turn the flame to high. Add the chicken and cook till browned (they need not be cooked through). Remove the chicken to a bowl.
  2. Add a little more butter to the tagine if necessary, and add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Reduce the flame to medium. Give them two four-finger pinches of salt, and stir to cook until tender. Push them aside and add the coriander, cumin, cayenne, and cinnamon to the tagine and stir to cook them, then stir everything together, adding the bay leaf and lemon zest, and cook it till the onion is completely tender, about 15 minutes (careful not to let anything burn). Lower the heat if it’s burning.
  3. Add the olives, apricots, carrot, chickpeas, tomatoes, stock or water, and the cooked chicken, and bring it to a simmer, stirring, then cover the tagine and simmer on low for 1 to 4 hours (the longer the better). Add the peppers just before stirring, giving them enough time in the stew to soften, 5 minutes or so.
  4. Serve with couscous or basmati rice and garnish with the almonds, cilantro, and a wedge of lemon.

Serves 4

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.