For a minute there, things were beginning to warm up in Connecticut. Last weekend, we went out to a lacrosse game and I actually got a sunburn on my face. Things were looking up. And then, just like that, the warm air retreated. But I find myself, in this situation, seeing the pantry staples in a new way. And while this recipe has a long list of ingredients, due to a riot of spices, the gist of it is quite short. Spices, onion, garlic, lemon, olives, chicken.
I named this Moroccan chicken, but in Spanish, because I imagine the dish as a cross between the two cultures. If you don’t have Aleppo pepper, use crushed red pepper, and if you don’t have za’atar, add a pinch of thyme, and just a few sesame seeds. I personally wouldn’t add a speck more cinnamon than 1/4 teaspoon, but you may like cumin more than I do. The paprika should be Spanish, but of course Hungarian will do. And I did not use smoked, because I wanted all the spices to harmonize. I had pitted green olives—just make sure they’re the Spanish kind, and not stuffed. You want the oily, vegetal quality of the olives from Spain without the overly salty brine.
Handling the lemons as described is important. The zest, in great big strips, simmers away for the whole cooking time. The flesh of the lemon is sectioned out, and added just at the end, with the olives. The zest permeates the dish with lemon flavor and the juicy bites of lemon segments are a welcome awakening at the table.
The smell of this in the kitchen is pure heaven. And it is a weeknight supper to die for. Just before I started the chicken, I put on a pot of brown basmati rice, replacing half the water with chicken stock. With a salad and a big platter of fruit (if you like), you have supper. In my imagination, at least, this might be a fun dinner for kids to help out with, ransacking the spice drawer, scavenging the jars with the most alluring names. Imagining how warm it is in the places from which the spices came, and what it might be like to sail there, balancing on the foretop with their toes, squinting to fend off the sun. Of course that’s just for the kids. Grown-ups, we don’t need our imagination to survive the final days of winter.
- 1 lemon
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or crushed red pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon za’atar
- 3/4 cup pitted green olives
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 – 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- 1/2 large onion, thinly sliced
- about 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups chicken stock
1. Place a tiny bowl (such as a ramekin) and a small bowl (that will hold about 2 cups) on your work surface. Using a vegetable peeler, remove zest only from the entire lemon in thin strips. Place in the tiny bowl or ramekin. Add the garlic, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, Aleppo or crushed red pepper, ginger, and za’atar to the tiny bowl and set it aside.
2. Now place the small bowl (that will hold up to 2 cups) near your work surface. Take the peeled lemon and, using a very sharp paring knife, slice off both ends to create a flat end. Turn the lemon onto one end and use the knife to remove the pith, following carefully along the curve of the lemon, exposing the juicy pulp. Flip to the other end to finish removing any remaining pith. Then section out wedges of lemon pulp by running the knife just inside the membranes, removing the slice of pulp only and placing it in the small bowl. Squeeze any juice remaining in the membranes into the bowl with the pulp. Add the olives to the lemon pulp, and set aside.
3. In a large, shallow casserole or saute pan with a lid, heat olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add boneless, skinless thighs and move them carefully around the pan as you put them in, so that the chicken does not stick. Cook until light brown on one side, then carefully flip them over and cook the other side, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Remove chicken with tongs and set nearby on a plate. Place sliced onion in the pan, still over medium heat, and sprinkle with about 1/2 teaspoon of the kosher salt. Saute for about 10 minutes, until onions are soft and golden brown. Add the spices and zest in the tiny bowl to the pan. Stir until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes, and add the chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and return the chicken plus any accumulated juices to the pan. Stir, and add the lid. Turn heat all the way down and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until chicken is cooked and tender. Flip chicken pieces about halfway through cooking.
4. Remove the lid from the pan and remove the chicken to a clean plate. (I flip the lid onto its handle—my Le Creuset braiser has a flat knob—and rest the chicken there.) Cook pan juices for 5 to 10 minutes at medium-high to reduce and thicken them. Then stir in the contents of the other bowl: lemon pulp, juice, and olives. Reduce heat to a low simmer, return chicken to pan, and simmer at lowest heat for 3 to 5 minutes. Serve chicken on rice or couscous with a big scoop of sauce from the pan.