Sunday, September 29, 2013

Burning Pasta Travel Guide: Chicken Tagine in Marrakech, Morocco

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Marrakech is a city of fragments, largely hidden.  What else can you say about a city where kilometers of city streets are unmarked, where every corner you turn holds an equal chance of confronting you with unimaginable opulence or abject poverty?

Within sight of the glowing La Mamounia hotel, with its bottles of Cuban cigars and Louis XIII de Rémy Martin cognac, women hold their babies out to passers-by on the street.  Is this the influence of the interior, or the rest of the world?

One thing is clear -- the city's idiosyncratic nature is slipping away.  Condominium developments are growing out of the desert; plastic Coca-Cola bottles pile up on the inner-city sidewalks.  Morocco has fought off invaders since time immemorial -- most recently France, in 1956 -- but Royal Dutch Shell, Groupe Danone, and Glencore International employ more subtle soldiers.  They will homogenize this land, too.

So what is our role here, as visitors?  We are undeniably of the outside.  We arrive, we spend money, we take away experiences and baubles.  And in being accommodated, we also unleash change.

Which is to say that this post is about a piece of chicken.  And also not.

I had made some phone calls and found a cooking class, deep in the souks of the city, where no map marks the streets, no doors bear numbers.  First, a cab ride, which penetrated into the old walls until the alleys became too narrow to pass.  Then I met a young man, offered a few dirham, and asked him to lead us along.  The journey was pungent, hot, and vivid.  Metal works, leather tanneries, and their products lined the way.

More turns.  Fruit markets, with gushing figs.

Later, a local bakery, where, in between batches of bread, mountains of peanuts are roasted, soaked in salt water, and dried.

And eventually, just around the corner from the bakery, we found the cooking school.  Gleaming ranges, HD cameras and monitors, a mother and daughter from Manhattan joining in, armed with iPhones.  Yet another turn, yet another unexpected circumstance.  This?  Here?  Apparently.

I'll tell you this.  The class?  Undeniably fun.  The food?  Delicious.  No amount of cognitive dissonance can confuse the wondrous pleasures that emerge from combining butter, garlic, onions, tumeric, and preserved lemons.  And so we dove in, and yes, loved it.

There's no big statement for me to make at the end of all of this.  I didn't and don't raise questions of authenticity about our experience in that kitchen.  I'm not sure that's what travel is all about, anyway.  Instead, this trip to Morocco was about gratitude.  I knew this experience -- to come here, to eat this food, to enjoy such opportunity and agency -- was a privilege.  For it, the chicken tasted sweeter, the relishes brighter.  And I scraped the plate.

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives
Adapted from the teachers of La Maison Arabe, Marrakech, Morocco

1 Pound dark meat chicken (thighs are best)
1/2 preserved lemon, skin and flesh
10 mellow purple olives

1 Tablespoon parsley, finely minced
1 Tablespoon cilantro, finely minced
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 of a medium red onion, minced

1/2 teaspoon freshly-cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 Tablespoon powdered tumeric

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
1 Cup water
Separate the flesh of the preserved lemon from the peel.  Slice the peel into thin strips and set aside.  Take the flesh and mince until fine together with the parsley, cilantro, and garlic.  Scrape the mixture against the cutting board with your blade to create a fine paste.  Rub your chicken with the paste, and set aside.

Meanwhile, add the oil to a cooking vessel (a tagine is best, but a dutch oven will work as well).  Turn the heat on to medium.  When the oil begins to shimmer, add the marinated chicken.  Keeping an eye on the meat, sear the chicken on each side until just barely browned.  You do not want a hard-sear, as the garlic may blacken and turn bitter.  Remove the chicken to a plate.

Turn the heat to low.  Add your butter and sweat the onions.  Once they start to turn translucent, add in the black pepper, ginger, and tumeric.  The mixture will dry up.  Slowly stir in the cup of water, until a loose sauce is formed.  Return the chicken to the cooking vessel.  If using a tagine, place the lid on top. If using a dutch oven, place the lid on top, but leave a crack for steam to escape through.

Simmer for 45 minutes, turning the chicken halfway through.  Allow the sauce to thicken, but add more water if the mixture threatens to burn.  Once the meat is loose from the bone, remove the tagine from the heat.  Add in the olives and slices of lemon peel, and serve.

That's all for now.  Be sure to return for the next post of our travelogue, when we visit Sagardotegia Petritegi, a traditional cider house in the Basque Country of Gipuzkoa, Spain.

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