Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Olives

Your parents always made the best food!" my aunt said while weaving in and out of traffic on our way to Pearl, our favorite Vietnamese place. I was up for my annual Seattle visit and we were engaged in a "Family Secrets" talk. These talks happened every so often, most commonly over two bowls of steamy pho and fresh spring rolls, and comprised of never before told stories about my parents, grandparents and, occasionally, great-grandparents. "When your parents had their apartment in Santa Monica, they experimented with all kinds of food and everything was amazing. Wonder why they don't do that anymore?" I had briefly heard about these cooking adventures in passing from my mother and imagined my parents as lovely hosts who cooked, drank red wine out of bowl-sized glasses and showed off their culinary skills with Fleetwood Mac on the record player. Skills, might I add, that I never saw. Of course I saw my mother cook, but nothing like she or my aunt ever described.

It was the mid-seventies and my parents lived in a beautiful "Spanish style" apartment building in Santa Monica that my grandmother conveniently owned. Being quit handy, my father became the building manager and soon had the run of the place. With a lovely courtyard and fire pit perfect for impromptu jam sessions and a teeny-weeny kitchen that allowed you to smack your face on the fridge when turning away from stove, it was ideal for the newly married couple. And it was in this little apartment that my parents made braised veal with lemon, capers and st uffed white fish. Where they invited my aunt over to partake in hand-rolled pasta that my mother had literally hung from the rafters because there was no table space. They held monstrous brunches and served quiche, bagels, fruit salad, and my Dad's famous fish eggs. (This is the only dish I've ever seen my father make. Take sauteed onions, mix with your eggs and throw into a hot, oiled pan. Toss in any vegetable you have in the fridge. Then, add kippers, herring or smoked trout and serve to your mortified children. Viola, fish eggs!) In her hippy glory, my mother loving made strudel by hand, laying the long dough out over her too-short table. By the time she was done, the sheets hung over the table edge, kissing the floor.

I felt like a reporter getting the goods on breaking news every time I heard one of these food stories. The characters were my parents, Debra and Steven in name and body, but somehow I didn't recognize them; these characters were the youthful, care-free counterparts, Debbie and Steve, to my now busy, childr en-laden parents. It was a side of my mom and dad I'd never seen before and I desperately wanted to know. Who were these people that made pasta from scratch or spent an entire Sunday cooking for friends? With every morsel of information I felt more connected to these young, exciting newlyweds, as if they were my friends and these memories were sourced from my own seat at the dinner table. There is one night in particular I could swear I was there. It was the evening my parents ventured into Middle Eastern cuisine. I think I was born with olives and lemons in my blood because there is no other flavor profile I adore more. On this particular night, young Debbie and Steve made chicken tagine with quince and almonds and homemade baklava. The sweet, astringent flavor of quince and delicate texture of long-cooked chicken filled my mouth and trickled down my throat as I imagined the dish in my mind. The table oohed and a hhed as my mother served her slightly intoxicated guests their generous helpings. A bit of sauce spilled on the floor and their kitten Rocky quickly pounced to lick it up. Even the kitty was smiling. Like a director I watched from behind the camera and took in all the smiles, laughs, smells and tastes. They may have not seen me but I certainly saw them and reveled in their unabashed delights. Hours of patiently maneuvering delicate phyllo dough and sticky honey made the baklava all the more delectable. It's thin layered, buttery sweet crunch left a party in the mouth only the tagine might have hoped to rival. And there it was. The party I knew I attend though it was held years before my birth.

Amazingly, I only heard about this particular meal a few times but there was something about the time, the place and the menu that stuck with me. Envisioning my parents as two youngsters creating a fun-filled home allowed me to break out of our parent/child relationship and relate to them under the umbrella of what we all jointly loved...food.

Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Olives

Though not my mother's original recipe, I recently served this dish for my brother's 21st birthday to my own table of ohhs and ahhs. It really is a crowd pleaser and not very difficult to make. All you need are some foodie friends and you are good to go.

Adapted from Cover and Bake by Cook's Illustrated Magazine

Serves 4

1 teaspoon ground ginger 1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground coriander 2 teaspoons sweet paprika salt and ground black pepper 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 3-4 pound organic chicken, skinned and cut into respective parts with the wings reserved for another use. (You can also do this with 8 skinless thighs or breasts) 1 large onion, halved and sliced thin 2 tablespoons of water 4 garlic cloves, minced 2 bay leaves 1 3/4 cups water 1/2 cup organic un-sulfured apricots, chopped 1 (2 inch) strip of lemon peel or 1/2 a preserved lemon, minced 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted and halved 2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Adjust the oven rack to the lower-middle position and pre-heat to 300 degrees. Combine the ginger, cumin, coriander, paprika, 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large bowl. Dry the chicken pieces thoroughly with paper towels and add to the bowl with the spiced and toss to coat. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large oven-proof Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 3 of the chicken parts, skinned side down, and cook without moving them until lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Flip the chicken over and continue to cook until the second side is golden, about 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate. Add the remaining chicken parts to the pot and repeat, then transfer them to the plate and set aside.

Add the onion and 2 tablespoons of water to the pt with the drippings and return to medium-high heat. Cook, scraping the browned bits off the bottom of the pot, until the onion has softened and begins to brown, 5-6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the bay leaves, water, apricots, lemon peel, and browned chicken with any accumulated juices; bring to a simmer. Cover, transfer to the oven, and cook until the chicken is easily pierced with a knife, about 1 1/4 hours.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter and cover to keep warm. Add the lemon juice and olives to the sauce. Bring to a simmer and let the juice reduce by half. Add salt and pepper to taste then add the chicken back to the pot, and sprinkle with parsley. Enjoy!

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