Friday, April 18, 2014

Fowl Technical Tricks

One of the ways in which great chefs distinguish themselves from routine ones is a whole array of technical tricks that make all the difference in the world.

Here's one that works wonders. It will give the chicken a depth of flavor even if you use it in a context where the crispiness of the skin is not important.

The magical step is to first pan-sear the chicken in duck fat. Of course, Maestro Maillard is doing his magic. The chicken is then lifted out, blotted, and the fat is discarded.

There is an additional advantage here. You need to wash the chicken and dry it before you pan-fry it but you don't need to cut off the fat. The fat will get rendered and "disappear" and you won't need to deal with it. Laziness raised to pure perfection in the arms of technique!

You can then proceed to make the chicken in whatever fashion you like. Even in a conventional stew or soup, the difference is striking. The CC has had friends ask if the dish was cooked in "tons of butter"? Not even close.

The dish below is a classic Moroccan dish. It's the "little black dress" of Moroccan cooking. You need to have it in your repertoire. It's a total crowd-pleaser and one for the ages.

If you don't have a tagine use a solid pot that you can seal with foil. The seal is necessary.

Why is something so simple so magical?

Three reasons.

Firstly, the Maillard reaction with the chicken plus the miniscule remnants of the duck fat on the surface cells which make their way into the sauce. Secondly, the depth of flavor by a long slow braise where the chicken effectively cooks in its own juices. Lastly, the intense burst of both flavor and umami from the preserved lemons which add a  delectable citrus note as a baseline flavor. The fresh herbs add their own contribution as well.

Is this technique "traditional" (whatever the hell that word means)?

The answer is borderline. Traditionally, the meat is not seared in the classical Moroccan tradition but the CC is willing to bet a substantial amount of money that this is the way that true geniuses make the dish even while avowing the technique. Ultimately, it's the end that matters and the end is scrumptious!

Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons & Green Olives

(serves 4)


4 chicken thighs
1 large onion (grated)

2 preserved lemons
2 cups green olives (pitted)
1/2 cup parsley (finely chopped)
1/2 cup cilantro (finely chopped)

1 tbsp. coriander seeds
1 1/2 tbsp. cumin seeds
1 tbsp. whole black pepper
1/2 tbsp. dried ginger
1/2 tbsp. sweet paprika

large pinch of saffron

2 cups chicken broth

3 tbsp. duck fat


Dry roast the coriander, cumin and black pepper in a skillet and grind them finely in a coffee grinder. Combine with the dried ginger, sweet paprika and saffron and set aside.

Prepare the preserved lemons. Discard the innards retaining only the skin. It will peel off easily. Chop in to strips about 1" long. This means first chop them length-wise into thin strips and then halve them. Set aside.

For the olives, there are two schools of thought. Those that prefer them left whole and those that halve them length-wise. The CC is mystified why the world would be so divided (pun intended!) since it makes so little difference to the end result but as the Japanese might say, 十人十色 ("ten people, ten colors" = "different strokes for different folks").

In a flat pan, heat up the duck fat and fry the chicken thighs until they are lightly browned on both sides. Roughly 10 minutes. Lift out and set aside. Discard the fat.

Meanwhile grate the onion with a box grater. Set aside.

Assemble the tagine.

Combine the grated onions, salt, broth, and the spices and put them in the tagine. Add the chicken. Cover it and let it cook at the lowest possible heat for 35 minutes. (The chicken should be very tender at this point.)

Add the preserved lemons, olives, the two greens and combine.

You can let it sit at this point and reheat gently in the tagine when your guests arrive.

Serve over couscous. (Recipe below.)

Couscous with Chickpeas, Raisins & Scallions

(serves 4 generously)


2 cups couscous

1/2 cup chickpeas
1 cup raisins
2 scallions

2 tbsp. cultured butter
2 1/2 cups water



The CC is perfectly aware of the fact that, theoretically speaking, couscous should be steamed but you can't get that kind of couscous even in New York so you live with the brute reality that you have on the ground.

Cook the chickpeas ahead of time. They need to be al dente.

Add all the ingredients to a pot except the couscous and bring to a boil. Add the couscous and turn the heat off. Wait 5 minutes. Fluff it to get perfectly cooked couscous.

† The Mallard is a wild duck which makes the pun with Maillard all too irresistible.

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