When I get a new kitchen implement or gadget I’m like a kid with a new toy. I tend to use it at every possible opportunity until I get bored with it, or until something better comes along. And this recently happened to me when we purchased a tagine.
The reason I’ve resisted getting a tagine for the past thirty years or so is that I’ve generally found North African cuisine to be disappointing, underwhelming and wildly overrated — a classic example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Rose and orange blossom waters, couscous and preserved lemons all have their charms and can, in the right hands, be used to make acceptable dishes, but those hands rarely belong to the chefs who work in the Moroccan or Tunisian restaurants currently spreading exponentially throughout western Europe. I’ve suffered regular disappointment eating my way through dozens of apparently exotic dishes, constantly amazed by their sameness and blandness. Even the impeccably crafted Maghrebi recipes in Claudia Roden’s 2005 magnum opus “Arabesque” (Michael Joseph / 2005) — for all their promise of delivering aromatic taste-bud rapture — mostly produce mysteriously bland and monotonous results, leaving one hankering for more “Arab” flavour and far less of the oh-so-scented “esque”…
As with the equally overrated Greek diaspora cuisine, I strongly suspect that one needs to go to the countries themselves to taste the real deal. Some cuisines are so grounded in their host environments and atmospheres that they lose their essence in transit, and this is unfortunately the case with the cuisine of the Maghreb, though fortunately not with its most utilitarian cooking vessel — the aforementioned tagine.
One of our staple winter dishes when we’re at our home in southern Spain is poulet Basquaise. The reason is simple, in that the three main ingredients (chicken, tomatoes and peppers) are excellent and cheap, and the dish is easy to make. I can quickly prepare it in the morning then heat it up in the evening after a long, hard day picking olives or pruning olive trees. I use the recipe from Gerald Hirigoyen’s fabulous book, “The Basque Kitchen” (HarperCollins / 1999) with only minor adaptations due mostly to expedience (I’ve never been able to get hold of piment d’Espelette for example and use spicy paprika instead). I had also always used the conventional skillets and saucepans Hirigoyen recommends for cooking the stew until the other day, when, at the very last minute, I decided to do the actual stewing in my new tagine.
The results were excellent. Whereas formerly the dish was reliable and very tasty, the simple act of using a tagine instead of a saucepan hugely intensified the flavour, turning it from a good dish into something truly special.
Here is the recipe with a grateful nod to Gerald Hirigoyen (and whoever it was who invented the tagine!):
- One 4lb free-range chicken (or the best you can afford)
- Flour for dredging
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 3 oz. diced pancetta or streaky bacon (unsmoked)
- 1 medium yellow onion thinly sliced
- 2 dark red bell peppers (preferably roast, peeled and seeded)
- 6 garlic cloves, crushed
- 4 medium very ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
- 1 bouquet garni (of fresh herbs – I use, bay, rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley)
- coarse sea salt
- ¼ tsp. freshly ground white pepper
- ¼ tsp. piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika)
- Cut up the chicken into 12 pieces: Quarter the bird then cut the wings from the breasts and the legs from the thighs; cut the wings in two discarding the tips; cut the breasts across into two pieces (reserve the carcass, offcuts and wingtips for stock).
- Dredge the chicken thoroughly in the flour.
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet, on a medium-high heat and sauté the diced pancetta until the crisp and the fat has run, then set aside on a plate.
- Add the chicken to the skillet in batches (don’t crowd the pan!!) and brown thoroughly on all sides (about 5 minutes per batch), then remove to the plate with the pancetta.
- Add the onions and peppers to the skillet and sauté for at least five minutes, deglazing the pan as they cook — after about five minutes they should be soft and beginning to brown at the edges.
- Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté for a further two minutes.
- Return the pancetta to the skillet together with the tomatoes, bouquet garni, salt, pepper and piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika) and mix well.
- Turn this sauce mixture into the bowl of a large tagine.
- Lay the chicken on the sauce mixture, cover with the tagine lid and place on a medium flame.
- Once the lid of the tagine is too hot to touch (normally around 15 minutes) turn the heat right down to minimum and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Remove the breast pieces of chicken and keep warm — continue cooking for about another 20 minutes then, when sure the remaining chicken is cooked return the breasts to the tagine.
- Cook for a further five minutes, until the breast pieces are thoroughly re-heated.
- Discard the bouquet garni and serve with chunks of crusty, rustic, white sourdough bread.
- Wash down with a big Pyrenean red…