Last week, I saw honest-to-god rays of sunshine after 5 o’clock. I’ve heard vague murmurings about rhubarb and asparagus, somehow, somewhere, sometime soon. The start of spring is really, honestly, truly closer than the start of winter.
I’m keeping these things in mind as I slog through the end of winter, staggering toward warmer, longer, greener days. Cravings for tart, fresh flavors are distracting me, making me do crazy things like stand at my kitchen sink and lick a raw lemon, while everything I make seems somehow unsatisfying, too weighty for what I really have a taste for. And then a preserved lemon rolled its way into my kitchen.
Have you ever tried one? Preserved lemons are whole lemons (sometimes cut into quarters) and soaked in a salty brine until the rind is soft and fully edible, almost the consistency of candied lemon peel, and the interior of the lemon plumps full of liquid. I’d heard about them on and off the past year (and! as I was writing this America’s Test Kitchen does an episode about them) or so and happened to see them for sale while I was making a stop for some spices.
I asked the guy in the store how to cook with them–in hindsight, he was apparently insane because he said he liked to eat them just sliced, which is what I tried. I got home, wrangled one out of the jar, cut a little piece of the soft rind and pulp, popped it in my mouth…
And almost immediately spit it out. Oh my god no, whose crazy idea were these things and what did they just do to my taste buds? They were nothing like what I remembered reading about–extra lemony pucker with a salty tang. It was pretty much just holy mother of salt with some lemon in the background somewhere.
Doing a bit more research would have been wise. First, preserved lemon need a good rinse before using; second, most people only use the rind and discard the pulp (which absorbs much more of the brine)–though it does have a lot of worthwhile flavor. Good to know.
With those two tidbits in mind, I found a recipe I had tucked away for braised chicken with olives and lemon. Braising is one of my favorite ways to cook chicken, and with some fresh herbs, warm spices, salty olives, and (with just a bit of trepidation) the preserved lemons, I thought this might be just the shot of flavor I’ve been craving.
The process for this recipe is actually really simple: chicken and onions browned, spices added, some liquid to keep the chicken tender while the whole thing goes in the oven, then finished with all the brightness and tartness that the herbs, olives, and lemon can possibly bring–and a little bit of butter just for good measure. The end result is chicken that is unbelievably moist and a sauce that, once the chicken was gone, I just poured over rice and some baby spinach and called it dinner.
Having used up all of my lemons for this dish, I need to head back to the store for more–pureed and added to hummus and salad dressing, mixing the diced rind with roasted vegetables are a few things on my list until I can have for-real spring. Soon, soon…
Chicken, Olive, and Lemon Tagine
Adapted from Saveur’s Djaj Mqualli. I found that the flavors were pretty intense–just this side of overwhelmingly so–the day I made this, but it had mellowed beautifully by the next day. Think FLAVOR! versus flavor!
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 whole chicken, about 4 pounds, separated into legs/thighs, breasts, and wings (or buy your preferred combination of bone-in pieces)
2 large yellow onions, sliced
2 tablespoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoons ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 jarred preserved lemons
6 ounces cracked green olives
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season chicken very lightly with salt and pepper; cook in batches to ensure the chicken gets nicely browned on both sides, about 14 minutes total. Transfer chicken to a plate and set aside. Add onions to pot; cook until golden and slightly softened, about 12 minutes.
Slice preserved lemons in half lengthwise. Scoop out the pulp, it should come away relatively easily from the peel. Roughly chop the pulp, you’ll only use 1 tablespoon; set peel aside for now.
Add spices to onions; cook for 2 minutes. Nestle chicken (with any accumulated juices) on top of onions, add stock and 1 tablespoon of the chopped lemon pulp; bring to a simmer. Cover the pot and bake in the oven until chicken is cooked through and tender, about 35 to 40 minutes.
While the chicken is baking, rinse the preserved lemon peel very well under cold water and finely chop. If your olives have pits, press them with the flat side of your knife to loosen the pit (I didn’t bother removing the pits altogether, but if you’re serving this to friends be sure to warn them!).
When chicken is done, stir in olives, lemon peel, parsley, cilantro, and butter, and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes or until the sauce is glossy. Serve over rice and a generous handful of baby spinach with some homemade naan on the side.