Cooking for a Crowd: Moroccan Chicken with Dried Fruit and Olives

Sunday November 6, 2016

Moroccan cuisine is influenced by Spanish and French cooking techniques and their main dish meat and vegetable casserole stews are called tagines, which has become a household word in the culinary circles. It is also the name of the traditional baking dish. I find a deep rectangular ceramic baking dish works just fine so you don’t have to run out and buy a new dish just to make this.

Some tagines are quite complex and time-consuming to assemble. Others, not so, but a harried hostess dream of culinary efficiency. A tagine casserole is unique enough to stun guests, but a comfort food that is also tasty as heck.

Here is one of the fastest chicken dishes ever with all the sweet and sour flavors of the kasbah—capers, dried fruit, olives, and the sweet-tart combination of sugar, wine, and vinegar adapted from a very famous dish called Chicken Marbella from the first Silver Palate Cookbook. It has become a classic. Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking often combines fruit, dried fruit, and nuts with preserved flavors of capers and olives to flavor meat and vegetable stews. Back in the old days of my first Bon Appetite magazine shoot in the 80s, the producer used to go on and on about what magazine editors called F & M, fruit and meat, a combination which she disliked immensely.

There have been quite a few knockoffs on the original Marbella recipe, which can be a bit fussy when it doesn’t need to be. I found all the ingredients can be mixed at one time for the marinade, then just bake in the juices, instead of separating the steps and making lots of dishes to wash. You just have to be careful not to slosh the liquid all over the place, especially taking it out of the oven.

It is a magnificent buffet offering, moist and colorful, that never fails to pique the palate. ever since Oldways took a tour of Morocco with all manner of food writers, magazines and cookbooks have been infused with the flavors of Morocco. I used to make this often for catering and even my staff would sit in the back of the kitchen on the stairs with plates on their knees saying: this is incredible tasting chicken. Add yummy hummus and fresh mint tea and you will have guests dancing around the tables in no time like belly dancers.

This dish is versatile since it can be served hot, warm, room temperature, or cold (like for a picnic). You can use the thighs or breasts interchangeably, but for fancier parties, I always use the boneless breasts or bags of the boneless tenderloins (they come in 3-pound bags). If you use flat breasts or tenderloins, your cooking time is short; if you buy fresh breasts (I sliced these in half lengthwise), you might bake a dash longer. I like California apricot halves, but you can use Turkish if choose.

If you are familiar with preserved lemons, dice up a lemon and stir in as the casserole comes out of the oven before serving. Or add the diced lemons to the hot couscous.

I serve with a bowl of plain couscous or jasmine rice for soaking up the juices; it is special and festive. Here are directions for taking the casserole to a potluck, step by step, as well as cooking in your home oven.

Serves 16

Overview

  • Preparation Timeline: Prepare entire dish in its marinade 1 day ahead and refrigerate overnight before cooking
  • Serving Equipment: Two 10-by-15-by-2-inch casseroles; serving fork and over sized spoon
  • On site/Reheat: Yes, but optional
  • On site/Refrigeration: Optional, only if you are not baking the raw chicken immediately (I always place in the oven immediately when I arrive and get it cooked since it can stand fully cooked at room temperature with the sugar and vinegar
  • Serving Temperature: Hot or room temperature or cold the next day

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup red or white vinegar (I use a champagne vinegar or Merlot vinegar, both tasty by themselves)
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons crumbled dried marjoram or basil leaves
  • 6 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 4 1/2 to 5 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs or breasts, rinsed and patted dry (thawed if using frozen)
  • 1 can (6-ounces dry weight) medium California black olives, drained (if you like mild), or other imported black olive of choice, such as niçoise or calamata (if you like more assertive)
  • 1 can (6-ounces dry weight) pitted green olives, drained
  • 8-ounces dried apricot halves
  • 8-ounces pitted prunes (regular or bite-sized)
  • 1/2 cup drained nonpariel capers, drained and rinsed

Instructions

Prepare the chicken the day before baking to marinate. In a very large plastic container with snap-on lid, combine the white wine, brown sugar, vinegar, oil, marjoram, and garlic.  Add the chicken, olives, dried fruit, and capers; cover and turn upside down to coat all the chicken with the marinade. Refrigerate overnight.

The grand dame of Moroccan cooking in her early days of discovery: Paula Wolfert, cookbook author and Moroccan food expert, cooking a tagine over charcoal in Morocco, circa 1970s

To serve hot or room temperature, bake the day you are serving it. To serve cold, you can bake the day before, cool it, cover, and refrigerate overnight. I usually bake on site if there is time, since it is quite juicy and easiest to transport still in the marinade bucket. I like it served hot during the winter and holiday season; room temperature in the summer.

To Serve: Roasting Instructions: Preheat the oven to 400º. Divide the chicken and marinade between two large 10-by-15-inch shallow baking dishes or roasting pans.  I use ceramic or Pyrex so they can be served directly out of the casserole.

Bake, uncovered, 35 to 45 minutes, depending on thickness of the meat, until chicken is no longer pink when pierced at its thickest part with the tip of a knife. If using one small oven, switch the position of the pans halfway through cooking, or cook one pan at a time; be careful, as this is pretty juicy. Taste the juices for seasoning, but I find the olives and capers are salty enough. If serving cold, cool to room temperature in the juices, cover and refrigerate overnight.

Transportation Notes: Bring the casserole dishes and carry the chicken in the plastic bucket. No special requirements, but keep the bucket from tipping over. If carrying to the potluck cold, be sure to cover tightly since there is a lot of liquid and needs to be placed on the floor of the car or in the trunk with a large thick towel wrapped around it to prevent tipping over and sloshing out.

Onsite Preparation: Preheat the oven to 400º.  Divide the chicken and marinade between two large 10-by-15-inch shallow baking dishes. Bake, uncovered, 35 to 45 minutes. You can turn off the oven and let these stand 30 minutes if necessary. Serve hot, or let stand on the counter, still covered, to serve at room temperature. You can pour off the cooking juices, but I just serve as is and have a little ladle for spooning the juices.

To serve, let stand up to 4 hours at room temperature. To reheat, place in a 300º oven for 20 minutes until just warmed through.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2016

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.


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