Morocco has one of the truly great cuisines of the world, blending Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and African ingredients with a generous dose of Asian spices. Once a major port of call for the international spice trade, Morocco has incorporated most of the world’s spices into its cooking, either individually or in complex mixtures like ras-el hanout, which can include more than thirty spices. To make a delicious, authentic Moroccan dish, it’s more important to use the right blend of herbs and spices than to follow a strict method of cooking. Unlike French cooking, which emphasizes precise techniques and timing, Moroccan cooking methods rely mostly on the slow fusion of flavors from 32 ingredients left to simmer slowly and gently.
In my travels to Morocco, I often visit my friends, the Boutounes family, in Casablanca. In what has become a ritual, I’m greeted with a glass of fragrant tea made with green tea leaves and fresh spearmint. Afterward, we sit down to a traditional Moroccan dinner. Appetizers are a variety of raw and cooked vegetable salads served with freshly baked bread, called k’sra. Then come bowls of harira—a hearty vegetable, chickpea, and lentil soup. The soup is a meal in itself, but I know there’s more to come. The aromas wafting out of the kitchen announce a quintessentially Moroccan dish: chicken with olives and preserved lemons.
This marvelous combination of chicken, olives, and preserved lemons has inspired countless recipes, each with its own special nuance. In her essential book, Couscous & Other Good Food from Morocco, Paula Wolfert gives four distinct recipes for the dish. Techniques vary. My friend Mrs. Boutounes uses the traditional method of slow-cooking everything together and then flashing the chicken under the broiler for a few minutes to brown it before serving, while my family, influenced by years of living in France, always browns the chicken first.
One essential component in any version of this dish is a spice and herb mixture, called a charmoula, which provides a critical foundation of flavor. The charmoula for the Moroccan Chicken recipe includes paprika, ginger, turmeric, cumin, cayenne, and saffron, plus flat-leaf parsley, cilantro, and onion.
I think you’ll find that this recipe is a good starting point for discovering this signature Moroccan dish. (If you can’t wait a month for the preserved lemons to cure, you can buy them from Adriana’s Caravan.) Once you follow the recipe as written, feel free to adapt it to your own taste—that’s the Moroccan way.
Preserved lemons—a unique Moroccan flavor
More than any other ingredient, preserved lemons set Moroccan cooking apart from the other cuisines of North Africa and the Mediterranean.
Preserved lemons have a taste and texture that cannot be replicated: sour, salty and almost sweet at the same time. As a result of the long curing time (one month), the rind becomes soft and edible; it loses its bitterness and acquires a kind of pungency that imparts the distinctive, delicious taste of Morocco to any dish. Much of the pulp disintegrates into the brine.
To use, rinse the lemons briefly to remove excess salt. You can use both the pulp and rind, or the rind alone, cutting it into quarters, strips, or small pieces.
• Add chopped preserved lemons and oil-cured black olives to a Mediterranean salad of chopped tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cucumbers, and cilantro.
• Add quartered or sliced preserved lemons to braised chicken or lamb dishes halfway through cooking, where they’ll infuse the meat with their distinctive aroma.
• Flavor rice by adding some coarsely chopped preserved lemon to the cooking water. For saffron rice, add a pinch of saffron threads at the same time.