Throwback Thursday: Chicken and dried pear tagine
The time-honoured art of the tagine with its conical lid, and the sweetly aromatic spices of the meat and fruit or vegetables stewing below it, is one of the most satisfying meals for a home cook to make.
It’s tagine in English, tajine in French; if you’ve ever wondered why we see both spellings of it, there’s the answer. The word, whichever spelling, refers both to the North African cooking vessel and the stew that is cooked in it. A tagine is cooked in a tagine.
Meat and vegetables, or meat and fruit, are cooked in a tagine along with Moroccan spices (though we generally associate a tagine with Morocco it is also used elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East).
Tagines are first mentioned in the 9th century in the Middle Eastern book of folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights, better known in English as Arabian Nights, or more fully The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment. It is widely accepted however that the modern origin of tagine cooking lies in the 18th century during Harun al Rashid’s reign of the Islamic Empire; or we might accept that that is when its use became widely popular.
One school of thought is that the tagine derives from the Roman occupation of north-western Africa after the destruction of Carthage, an area that covered much of what is now Tunisia. Tagines are also traced to the Berbers of the Maghreb who predate Arab settlement there. Either way, we’re talking about very deep tradition and mystical roots, befitting of a vessel that cooks so aromatically.
If we think of the tagine, as in the meal, we conjure spices such as cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, ginger, cardamom and fenugreek, and fruits and nuts alongside the main meat or fish component. Olives are often used too. Dates are a common ingredient. A little bit of honey for sweetness works well too, playing happily with the spices.
If making a tagine in the ancient Berber style, the meat is placed at the centre and the vegetables and other ingredients are placed around it in a symmetrical arrangement to please the eye.
This week I cooked a tagine of chicken with dried pears and baby onions. In a way this brings a South African element into a tagine, the dried fruits of the Western Cape being a long tradition, often used with meat in a stew or a curry.
I own a Le Creuset tagine with a cast iron base which means that I can use it directly on the stove top. If you have a more traditional ceramic tagine, however, you may need to use a diffuser on the plate, or otherwise use it in the oven, and not too hot. But when I lived in England I owned a ceramic tagine which I bought at a French-Moroccan market and I was able to use it on an electric plate on the stovetop, on a low heat, without any problem.
8 chicken thighs
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, quartered into eighths
3 garlic cloves, sliced
6 baby onions
250 g dried pears
1 cup chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp raw honey
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
2 Tbsp toasted flaked almonds
Couscous, to serve
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cardamom powder
1 tsp ground turmeric
Mix the spices in a bowl.
Brown the chicken thighs in the olive oil and remove to a side dish.
Sauté the chopped onion with the garlic in the olive oil until softened.
Return the browned chicken thighs to the pot, skin-side up, and push the baby onions and dried pears between them. Add the bay leaf and cinnamon stick.
Stir the spices and honey into the chicken stock, and season with salt and pepper. Pour this around the chicken.
Cook on the stovetop or in a low (170℃) oven until the chicken is tender, about an hour. Couscous, cooked according to the packet instructions, makes a perfect companion. Toast the almond flakes in a dry pan and scatter them over on the plate. DM
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.