I sometimes chuckle at the dichotomous nature of my culinary evolution. On one hand, I’m constantly asked by friends and neighbors for ingredient substitutions when adjusting North American recipes for Israel. Cream of tartar and molasses are now available here, but what about shortening, farmer’s cheese and canned pumpkin? At the same time, I’ve found that living here has made it that much easier for me to access certain ingredients that I was always substituting back in Montreal, when preparing the Moroccan dishes my husband loves best.
I was very young when I married into his Moroccan family, and first learned to cook from my very talented mother-in-law, who later gifted me with a French cookbook of classic Jewish Moroccan recipes that became my kitchen bible. Yet the ingredients in all those recipes were foreign to me, having been raised in a suburb of Boston, on a steady diet of casseroles, meatloaf, brisket and kugel.
Carrot salad with argon oil? Ras al hanout seasoning for meatballs? I was almost always frustrated at the difficulty of locating affordable artichoke bottoms, or a good dark Moroccan paprika. I was usually able to find an agreeable substitute, but there was one item that eluded me entirely during those years in Montreal: The baladi lemon, baladi being the Arabic term used for local or native produce of any kind. I convinced myself that replacing the called-for lemon with quarters of fresh, citrusy lemons would yield decent results and frankly, the finished product was fine. Yet it was only after finally tasting those same recipes using actual, preserved lemons that I recognized the superior flavor produced with the real thing.
Preserved lemons are either referred to as limon baladi or limon cavush, which is when the lemons are pickled with spices. Sold as slices, quarters, whole or ground into a spread, cooks of different Sephardic backgrounds use the lemons in various ways, some spreading them on sandwiches, others eating them as they do pickled condiments. In my house, they are a favorite ingredient in fish, chicken and beef dishes.
This chicken dish highlights the flavor of the preserved lemons which are neither acidic nor sour, but simply add a complex, deeply citrusy taste. It’s delicious served over hot fluffed couscous or alongside a simple rice dish.
Chicken Tagine with Kalamata Olives and Preserved (Baladi) Lemons (serves 4-6)
- 1 ½ kilo chicken pieces (I use legs and thighs)
- 1 onion chopped
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 3 sprigs fresh parsley chopped
- 3 sprigs fresh coriander chopped
- 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- ⅛ tsp ground ginger
- ½ tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon tumeric
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 2 whole preserved lemons quartered or about 10 slices
- ⅔ cup kalamata olives
- Wash and dry chicken pieces.
- Chop the onion on one cutting board, while chopping the garlic and herbs together on a separate cutting board.
- In a large deep frying pan, heat oil over medium heat, add onions and dry spices, stirring together.
- Place chicken pieces in the mixture, turning to coat on all sides, then turn up heat and brown the pieces on all sides until golden. Add the garlic, parsley and coriander, along with ¾ cup water.
- Bring to a boil, turn down heat to a simmer and cook 50 minutes, covered on low heat.
- Remove chicken from pan and reduce sauce by bringing it back up to a low boil for approximately five minutes. Add in preserved lemons and olives along with chicken pieces. Heat through before serving.
*A note on the olives. As tempting as it is to use canned, pitted olives in this recipe, make an effort to use the Kalamata olives sold in bulk at the local deli or grocer. The difference in taste is remarkable and the olive flavor marries beautifully with the lemons.