North African Staples

Planning to fill an evening in Marrakesh?  Dinner plans for Tangiers?  Better swing by the local market in town and pick up some supplies.  Chances are, you’ll return from your expedition laden with the culinary treasures North Africa offers, from pine nuts eked from the windy mountains to sweet and tart apricots, dried in the abundant sunshine.  Don’t forget the plentiful spices too, cinnamon, saffron, turmeric and thyme, just to call out a few.

Of course, those of us not in the area still can make do at the local supermarket, at least for this week’s recipe.  It’s modified from the original for Cornish hens, to produce a Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Spiced Pine Nuts.  Directions for this creation appeared first in the regrettably now-extinct Gourmet magazine; in the April 2008 issue, to be exact.

If you are fortunate enough to possess a tagine, the conical clay North African cooking pot featured in today’s photo, use it.  It’s why the pot was invented and this is what the tagine excels at making.  The tagine’s bottom, where elements become a meal, is pictured mainly.  Just behind the bottom is the taller lid, largely off-camera above, which tapers to form the cone previously mentioned.  In all but the plainest versions, the outside is painted.

The recipe below, while formulated to use a tagine, could be adapted effectively for a large ceramic cooking pot, or for a stainless one.  While the pot won’t keep things quite as moist as does the tagine (its specialty, along with “authenticity,” for whatever that’s worth), the latter will function nearly as well.  Plus, the pot makes this dish more accessible and practical for those unprepared to spend $80 or more for a good tagine.

The bird, in this case hen, stews in a flavorful broth of carefully balanced tastes, each simultaneously elevating and compensating for its opposite.  Shallots and blood-orange preserves provide a subtle counter to the apricots’ mildly sour fruitiness.  Cinnamon, ginger and turmeric find their identity in bringing out the garlic’s flavor while muting its spiciness.  Cilantro’s vegetal presence makes the dish light while preventing richness from overwhelming.

All these spirits rise in steam, which the tagine’s relatively-cool sloping lid collects and drips back down into the meat, infusing it with flavor.  It’s an effect the tagine was invented to create.  A pot’s lid would do much the same thing, though maybe not quite as effectively as does a tagine.  With all these flavors, now you know why the market trip fills the pantry.


Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Spiced Pine Nuts

For the main dish:

  • 1 whole chicken, about 3 to 4 pounds, cut up and sprinkled with salt (*1)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 3 large shallots (1 cup), finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, grated
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric, grated (*2)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 pinch saffron threads
  •  1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons blood-orange preserves (*3)
  • 1 cinnamon stick (2 inches)
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 2 sprigs of cilantro
  • 6 dried apricots, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons finely-chopped cilantro, to garnish

For the spiced pine nuts:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, grated (*2)
  • 1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
  • 1 pinch of cayenne

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large pan, over medium heat.  Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the poultry pieces, skin side down.  Cook until just beginning to brown, about ten minutes.  Flip to other side and cook for a few more minutes.  Remove chicken to a plate to cool (the bird will be just browned, but still mostly uncooked at this point).

Add shallots and remaining olive oil to the now-empty pan and cook until soft, stirring frequently, about eight minutes.  Add the garlic, ginger, turmeric and paprika and cook, stirring occasionally, for three minutes.  Turn off heat.

Make a bed of the onion mixture in the tagine bottom and set the poultry atop this in a single layer.  Pour on the water and turn on heat beneath the tagine, uncovered, to medium.  Once the water begins to boil, reduce heat until liquid is just simmering.  Cook like this, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Flip the chicken and add orange preserves, cinnamon stick, cilantro, thyme and apricots.  Place lid on tagine and cook thusly for another 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the pine nuts.  In a separate saucepan, heat the olive oil until it shimmers.  Add the nuts, turmeric, paprika and cayenne.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the nuts are just browned, about two minutes.  Be careful, as the nuts brown quickly!  Once cooked, remove nuts to a plate.

Uncover the tagine and discard the cinnamon stick and sprigs.  Flip poultry back to its original side and turn off heat.  Garnish with pine nuts and chopped cilantro and serve.


1 – Instead, I chose three Cornish hens, halved.  While a bit pricier, they’re also slightly leaner and, most importantly, are even more flavorful.

2 – Of course, the powder is easier to find than is fresh, and it’s instant, requiring no effort.  If you’re using powdered turmeric, halve the recommended amounts.

3 – Blood-orange preserves aren’t the easiest find.  If you can’t locate them, substitute a similar quantity of bitter-orange marmalade, or regular orange jelly.  At only a couple tablespoons, the difference is subtle, but isn’t substantive.



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