This slowly simmered, tender Moroccan Lemon Chicken is infused with complex flavors… exotic spices, lemon essence, and salty olives. When I make it, I feel like I’m taking a trip into the heart of Morocco. It’s a flavor journey.
The Jewish Moroccan version of this dish is almost identical to traditional Moroccan Lemon Chicken, but it omits an ingredient called smen—Moroccan preserved butter. Butter and meat don’t mix in a kosher diet, so olive oil is used as a parve (neutral) substitute. This is typical of many regional Jewish dishes; creative substitutions and “tweaks” are made in order to make these types of dishes kosher. If you’re not keeping kosher and you can track down smen, feel free to use it instead of the olive oil.
Traditionally this dish is made in a tagine, which is a ceramic Moroccan cooking dish. Since most of us don’t have a tagine laying around, I’m giving instructions for cooking it in a saucier or sauté-style pan (like a skillet with high walls).
Also traditional to this dish are preserved lemons, which are simply lemons that have been preserved in brine made from salt and their own juice. Preserved lemons are really easy to make at home – to learn how, check out my tutorial here. Local gourmet markets sometimes stock them, too. If you can’t find preserved lemons and don’t want to make them yourself, you can use fresh lemon peel. The flavor won’t be as complex, and you’ll need to salt the dish a bit more to compensate. But don’t worry, even with fresh lemon peels this is a very tasty dish.
If you do use preserved lemons, know that they have a lot of salt in them which will naturally flavor the sauce in this dish. If you’re watching your salt intake, use a low-sodium chicken broth and don’t add any additional salt; the preserved lemons and olives will give the dish all the saltiness it needs.
Choose firm, good quality green olives for the sauce. You can usually find better quality olives at the deli counter, rather than jarred or canned. It can be tough to find quality green olives that are pre-pitted, so feel free to sub the kind with pits, or pit them yourself.
Serve this Moroccan Lemon Chicken with sauce on a bed of couscous, basmati rice or mashed potatoes topped with fresh cilantro. It’s absolutely delicious. Enjoy!
Passover Note: Can be cooked for the holiday if all packaged products are certified Kosher for Passover. If cooking for Ashkenazi Passover, serve over parve mashed potatoes (or another non-kitniyot starch).
Gluten Free Note: This dish can easily be made gluten free. Just make sure your chicken stock is GF, and that your preserved lemons are from a GF source (or homemade). Pair with a GF starch like mashed potatoes or rice.
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Moroccan Lemon Chicken with Olives
- 3 1/2 lbs bone-in chicken pieces
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads
- 1 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1 1/2 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp ground ginger
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- Pinch cinnamon
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 quart chicken stock
- 2 preserved lemons (or sub fresh lemons), peel only, pulp discarded
- 1 cup pitted green olives
- 1/2 cup fresh chopped cilantro for garnish
- Salt and pepper
- For the chicken pieces, choose your favorite cut of meat. You can use a whole chicken cut into pieces, or buy specific pieces that you like. I usually use whole leg/thigh pieces because I find the dark meat more flavorful.Remove skin from chicken pieces (freeze the skin for stock or use it to make schmaltz!), then rinse and dry the pieces. You may wish to salt the chicken lightly; do not salt if you are cooking the dish with preserved lemon and/or with kosher chicken meat (both have a lot of salt already, so you won’t need more). Grind the saffron threads into powder using a spice mortar and pestle. Mix saffron powder, cumin, paprika, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and cinnamon together in a small bowl. Rub the spice mixture evenly onto the chicken pieces.
- Heat olive oil in deep skillet or sauté pan over medium high heat. Sauté the onion in the oil till it turns translucent. Add the garlic and continue to sauté till lightly browned. Arrange the chicken pieces snugly inside the skillet. Pour chicken stock over the pieces; they should be almost covered with stock. You probably won’t need the entire quart depending on the size of your pan.Remove pulp from the 2 lemons. With preserved lemon this is easy, the pulp will be softened and you can just scoop it out. For fresh lemon, I find it’s easier to slice the peel off of the lemon (if a little pulp clings to the peel it’s no big deal).
- Cut the peel into thin slices and arrange it evenly spaced in the pan.
- Bring stock to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer and cover the skillet. Let the chicken simmer for 60-75 minutes, periodically ladling the seasoned stock over the chicken pieces, until the meat is fork-tender. I usually cook it closer to 75 minutes because I like the meat very tender.
- Remove chicken pieces from the broth using tongs or a slotted spoon; arrange the pieces on a serving dish or bowl.
- Add olives to the sauce in the skillet. Bring sauce in the skillet to a boil and let it reduce and thicken for a few minutes. Remove skillet from heat and taste the sauce. Season with more salt and pepper, if desired. If you've subbed fresh lemons for preserved, add 1-2 tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice to the sauce, or to taste.
- Serve on a bed of couscous, basmati rice or mashed potatoes; pour the sauce over the chicken and the starch. Garnish with fresh chopped cilantro. Can also be served with flatbread or pita bread to dip in the sauce. Serve warm.