Morocco has become a bit of an obsession lately. Maybe it’s cooking from Paula Wolfert’s book, The Food of Morocco, or maybe my trip to Turkey just whet my appetite for that part of the world, but now I’m planning a trip to Morocco in the fall.
Paula Wolfort’s book is fantastic and I even had the good fortune to hear her speak in person and have her sign my book a few months ago. Most of the recipes in the book are fairly straightforward, and while I wouldn’t say “simple” they aren’t that complicated. Wolfort strives for authenticity in her ingredients and recipes and while I’m all for that, sometimes “authentic” can get in its own way.
What do I mean by that? At times striving for authenticity can prevent people from even cooking at all. If it’s presented in a way which seems too complicated, or if you don’t have the tools or exotic ingredients, then it just may stop you from trying it in the first place. For example, I once read a recipe for pesto which said in order to do it the right way (read; authentic) one must use a heavy stone mortar and pestle to crush the garlic and basil leaves. That’s all well and good if you have a large stone mortar and pestle (I don’t) or the time to stand there and pound basil (ditto). If I didn’t know I could make perfectly decent pesto in a Cuisinart, I wouldn’t even bother.
I always like to give recipes the benefit of the doubt. If I’m not using a recipe just for the concept or inspiration, then I try and follow it as much as possible, as written, because I assume that the author has a reason to do things the way they do. I’ve made this recipe multiple times now and the first time I followed it to the letter. It took me almost all day to make the dish, plus a few other sides, for a dinner party and at the end, I was exhausted. I found myself wondering if there wasn’t an easier way to cook this with an outcome that’s not diminished or less “authentic”. Some of the methods may indeed be authentic to a Moroccan home cook, but not practical for me. Frankly, if I have to read the instructions 5 or 6 times to figure it out, then it’s too complicated. And as I’ve stated many times before, I want cooking to be fun and not to be intimidating. There’s a time and place for complicated recipes, but not when you just want to get dinner on the table.
The plan was to adjust the recipe and some of the ingredients to make it easier to execute and hopefully taste just as good as the original. I’m not taking “semi-homemade” here (there are no pre-made packaged ingredients). I’m talking about combining a few steps in the cooking process and substituting canned (home-canned or commercial) peeled and seeded tomatoes for fresh which have to be peeled and seeded. While I can certainly do this myself, if I don’t have tomatoes fresh from my garden, I’m not going to bother. I also don’t own a tagine, so I made this in a heavy cast iron enamelware dutch oven (similar to this Le Creuset). Would it taste different if cooked in a tagine? Maybe, but it tasted pretty damn fine coming out of the pot. The original recipe called for peeling the strips of skin off the eggplant, slicing it, draining it and frying it. Then mashing it. Too many steps and too much fat, so I’ve altered that too among other things. Basically, I’ve reorganized the steps of the recipe to make it work better for me and to simplify the process so that it can be done in about 2 hours instead of 4.
This is comfort food and encompasses many of my favorite flavors which are abundant in summer; tomatoes and eggplant. Serve it with cous cous and a Moroccan beet salad on the side and you’ll have a great meal.
What do you think? Can the quest for authenticity get in its own way? Do you adapt recipes to fit your cooking style or always stick to the script?
PS-If any of you have been to Morocco and have any recommendations/tips, let me know. As of right now we’re looking at going to Marrakesh, Essouira, and Fez, among other places.
Moroccan Chicken with Eggplant Tomato Jam
Adapted from Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco To print this recipe use the green “print” button at the bottom of the page.
2 lbs chicken thighs on the bone, skin on
2 lbs chicken breasts, on the bone, skin on
1 large globe eggplant (1.75-2lbs)
1 Tbsp +1 tsp kosher salt
3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
1/2 bunch fresh parsley, chopped fine
5 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp ground paprika
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 pinch ground cayenne pepper
1 pinch ground cinnamon
1 can tomatoes (28 oz), peeled, seeded, and diced
1 1/2 cups + 3 Tbsp hot water
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp vinegar
1.25 tsp ground ginger
2 Tbsp saffron water*
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, peeled and grated (or finely minced)
Many of the ingredients are used in several different steps. I’ve combined them so you know how much you need in total, but please read the amounts in the steps carefully.
*Saffron Water=1 oz hot water, 1 pinch saffron. Let steep until cool.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Step 1: Cut the eggplant into rounds, sprinkle generously with kosher salt (about 1 Tbsp) and either lay on a baking sheet on paper towels with a bit of weight on top or in a colander with weight to allow to drain.
Start preparing the chicken while the eggplant is draining.
After about 40 minutes, rinse the salt off, pat dry and cut into 2″ chunks. The eggplant will be cooked in Step 5, while the chicken is in the oven.
Step 2: Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Trim off any excess fat from the skin and cut the chicken breasts in half so they are about the same size as the thighs.
Step 3: In a large bowl, combine 2 cloves of smashed and minced garlic, 1 tsp kosher salt, the ground ginger, the saffron water and black pepper. Slowly whisk in the 2 Tbsp of olive oil and 3 Tbsp hot water. Add the chicken pieces to the bowl and toss to coat and combine.
Step 4: Place the chicken in a large dutch oven, heavy bottomed pot with oven safe lid, or Moroccan style tagine pot. Cook on the stove top over low heat for about 10 minutes. Add the grated (or minced) onion, along with 1 cup of hot water, 2 Tbsp chopped parsley and bring to a simmer. Turn the pieces of chicken over in the sauce, cover the pot and place in the oven and cook for about an hour.
Note; I was surprised to learn there’s not a lot of browning of meats in Moroccan cooking. Cooking in a tagine is a slow, moist process, not unline a slowcooker/crock pot or even modern sous vide methods. So the chicken is not browned here in the pot, but it is cooked until it just falls off the bone.
Step 5: Heat a large saute pan or wok and add 2 Tbsp of olive oil. Add the eggplant and cook until soft, about 15 minutes. Tip: Cook eggplant in single layer or in batches. Cook covered to steam. If pan gets too dry, add a splash of water. When the eggplant is very soft, add 1 clove of the minced garlic, 2 Tbsp of the chopped parsley and the paprika. Cook for about 3 minutes, mashing the eggplant with the back of a cooking spoon. Add the cumin, cayenne and cinnamon along with the can of diced peeled tomatoes. Stir to combine. Add 1/2 cup water and cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and continuing to mash the eggplant. The mixture should cook down into a thick blended but chunky sauce. Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice and vinegar.
Step 6: After the tomato eggplant jam is done and the chicken should be cooked. Remove the chicken from the oven. Take the pieces of chicken out of the pot and place on a platter. Cover to keep warm. Reduce the cooking liquid until it’s about 1.5 cups total. Turn off heat. Ladle 1/2 the liquid into the pan with the tomato jam and stir to combine. Put the chicken back in the pot and pour the eggplant tomato mix over the top. Cover and put back in the oven for 10-15 minutes to keep warm/reheat.
Step 7: Make the cous cous. If using instant (I do) this should take no more than 5-7 minutes. If you need longer, turn the heat on the oven down to 200 and you can hold the chicken in there for up to an hour. Do be careful not to let the sauce reduce away too much (add a splash of water if needed).
Step 8: Transfer chicken to platter, smothered with eggplant-tomato jam, and serve with cous cous.