When I first traveled to Morocco, I knew that I would be mesmerized by its cuisine and culture—but I never dreamed that it would have such a profound impact on my chicken game! A few forkfuls into the sweet and savory chicken tajines at Al Mounia Restaurant in Casablanca, however, I realized that I still had a lot to learn about America’s favorite protein.
Americans currently consume an average of 60 pounds of chicken per year, making it the nation’s protein of choice. Nutritionally speaking, chicken is a good choice, since the fat in chicken is mostly of the unsaturated type, which protects against heart disease. One 3-ounce serving contains just 1 gram of saturated fat and less than 4 grams of total fat, yet is packed with 31 grams of protein, which is more than half of the daily recommended allowance for adult females.
Chicken meat also contains a significant amount of B vitamins, which aid in metabolism, immune system and blood sugar level maintenance, cell growth, and nerve cell and red blood cell maintenance.
Because it is so widely used, however, many people fall into chicken ruts, making the same dishes over and over again with dispirited results. Luckily, there’s plenty of inspiration to be found in time-honored recipes from cuisines around the world—like this one for Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons. Versions of this dish date back to the ninth century.
An Ancient Recipe
North African ways of preparing chicken were popular even with the ancient Romans. “De Re Coquinaria,” a first-century Roman cookbook attributed to the philosopher, gourmand, and writer Apicus, includes a recipe for Numidian chicken, or Pullum Numidicum in Latin.
Numidia Quadrata, or Square Numidia, was a territory of the Roman Empire that extended from Rome down into modern-day Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. The Roman ruins in various places in Morocco, such as Volubilis and Chellah, are markers of the area where many Roman officials spent the later part of their careers.
The ancient recipe described a parboiled and then pan-fried chicken, dressed with a spice mix that included crushed pepper, cumin, coriander seed, laser root, rue, fig, dates, and nuts. The chicken was then moistened with vinegar, honey, broth, and oil to taste.
At the time, the abundant use of spices, especially pepper, denoted wealth and access to trade routes and commerce with Asia that we now take for granted. The addition of figs, dates, and nuts made good use of local ingredients that are still part of Moroccan and Mediterranean lifestyles today.
I like to serve this Numidian chicken recipe as part of the ancient Roman dinner menus I recreate at restaurants in both the United States and Italy.
Citrus arrived in Morocco during Roman times, but it’s believed that it wasn’t until the seventh century A.D. that it was planted and became widely used. In the ninth century, parts of southern Europe, such as Sicily, Italy gained citrus crops from North Africa. Citrus production in Morocco itself remained relatively small until the early 20th century. Some Moroccan scholars date the planting of the large-scale groves the country is now famed for to the 1930s, under French rule.
During the last century, however, both production and use of citrus have skyrocketed in Morocco. Preserved lemons, made by pickling lemons in salt and their own juices, have become a staple both in home and restaurant kitchens. The preserving process coaxes out the lemons’ maximum flavor, a powerful mix of sour, slightly sweet (lemons have a higher sugar content than strawberries do), and umami, which helps round out traditional Moroccan recipes and give them their characteristic flavor.
Preserved lemons can be found in jars in most American supermarkets. I usually get mine from North African or Asian markets, but have seen them at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods as well. You can also make your own. Prior to using, they are rinsed of their excess salt, then chopped up and added to salads, vegetable dishes, and tajines.
Other North African countries use preserved lemons as well, but often in a different manner. In Egypt, for example, they are rinsed and served with other preserved vegetables and eaten alone as pickles, but are never added to cooked dishes. Various spices can also be added to the preserving mixture, depending on the region.
In this recipe, simmering the chicken with preserved lemons adds a slight acidity, and helps to marry the flavors of the chicken, spice, and broth.
Moroccan Chicken With Preserved Lemons
It’s hard to believe that just a few minutes of prep time and an hour of simmering on the stove can create a holiday-worthy aroma that transport your taste buds to a North African souk—but this recipe can do just that.
Infused with the smoky flavors of paprika and cumin, and laced with fragrant saffron, warming ginger, and tangy citrus, this stovetop chicken can be the centerpiece of a Sunday dinner or the highlight of a busy weekday meal.
This recipe yields a lot more sauce than it needs to dress the chicken. Save the remaining sauce in a plastic container in the freezer. The next time you are going to make this recipe, simply defrost the sauce in the refrigerator, heat it up on the stove, add the chicken, and allow to simmer until it is ready. You will be able to enjoy the same great taste with a lot less work.
- 1 tablespoon Amy Riolo Selections or other extra virgin olive oil
- 2 medium onions, sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 (4-pound) whole chicken
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- Pinch of saffron threads
- 6 cups reduced-sodium chicken stock
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 4 preserved lemons, or 1 fresh lemon, quartered
- 1/4 cup black olives, pitted
- 1/4 cup freshly chopped cilantro
Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until tender, about 5 minutes.
Add garlic and stir. Add chicken and brown on all sides.
Once chicken is browned, add ginger, paprika, cumin, and saffron.
Cover with stock and bring to a boil. If stock does not cover chicken, add some water to the pot.
Add salt, pepper, lemons, and olives, and stir. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover the pot. Simmer the chicken for 1 hour.
When it is cooked through, remove the chicken and set it on a carving board. Cover it with aluminum foil and let it rest for 10 minutes.
Keep the pot with the sauce on the stove and increase the heat to high. Allow sauce to boil while chicken is resting.
Carve the chicken and arrange on a serving platter.
Ladle sauce over the chicken and garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve hot.
Recipe from “The Mediterranean Diabetes Cookbook” by Amy Riolo
Amy Riolo is an award-winning, best-selling author, chef, TV host, and educator. As a Mediterranean lifestyle ambassador, she is known for sharing history, culture, and nutrition through global cuisine, and simplifying recipes for the home cook. Find her at AmyRiolo.com