Memories can be tricky. My sister and I recently compared childhood memories only to find that, while some matched, many did not and a few were completely contradictory. So, when I returned to Morocco after a 40-year hiatus, I feared the food would not live up to my seemingly indelible memories of magical scents and flavors. I was wrong. It was better.
My most memorable meal was at Riad 72, among a short list of places I had painstakingly researched and identified as a source of authentic cuisine. We scurried out of our hotel to Riad 72 – what we thought would be just a short walk through the streets of Marrakech. Admittedly estranged from the touristy center of town, we hadn’t been lost yet and thought it would be simple to locate a neighborhood riad.
After aimlessly circling around winding streets, a couple of boys noted our confusion and offered to take us to Riad 72. Following them through even darker and narrower alleyways of Dar el Bacha, I began to wonder if these young men had either misunderstood or had something else in mind. Just when we were about to call the journey quits, they stopped abruptly and said “We are here”. Curious. Here?? There was nothing but a pair of massive doors — no number, no name and no windows. “It is here!”, they insisted, pointing at the doors. We stared, skeptical. Inpatient for their expected gratuity, the boys pounded loudly on the massive doors, which opened to reveal a slight Moroccan man who peered out asking our identity. With the mention of our names, the massive doors swung open welcoming us to a peaceful, sweet-smelling world within. We entered the century-old palace, leaving our young guides and the dark, dreary alleyways behind.
Since there were only two tables served that evening, the meal was a chef’s choice menu. Among other dishes, there was a remarkable chicken and artichoke main course, replete with so many of the flavors I love about Moroccan food. Served in a family-style bowl, we heaped spoonfuls of this glorious stew on piles of steaming couscous. Rich yet delicate, with the unexpected pungent preserved lemon and the sultry saffron, I simply had to make this dish. Would the chef be willing to help, I asked our server? Even without a common language, a beaming and eager chef pointing her way through the tiny kitchen enabled me to recreate this recipe.
This chicken and lemon stew has a buttery-tasting, rich sauce that gets its flavor as much from the olives and lemon as the chicken and seasoning. So, it is essential to use good olives; I prefer Kalamata, but other mid-ripe olives will work. Of course, if you can find them pitted, it makes things easier. I have found canned olives unsatisfactory. For preserved lemons, if you do not want to make them or, more likely, do not have the time, they are available for purchase through specialty suppliers, but fresh lemons are not an adequate substitute. And finally, fresh artichokes are essential, as frozen will not provide the proper texture and color.
P.S. If you go to the Riad 72 website, you’ll see lovely fountains in the dining area, part of their overall beautiful decor. My friend managed to walk into the fountains not once, but twice. And he doesn’t even drink. This time a short-term memory problem….
Chicken with Preserved Lemons, Olives and Artichokes
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC, inspired by Riad 72
Serving Size: 4
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper, black
2 tablespoon oil, olive
8 chicken, legs and thighs, bone-in, or about 4 pounds dark meat only
2 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ginger, dry
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon saffron, pulverized, or 3/8 teaspoon crushed threads
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup parsley, fresh
4 artichokes, fresh, whole
3/4 cup olives, fresh (not canned) dark green to light brown, mid-ripe such a Gaeta, Kalamata, Cerignola
1 preserved lemon, pulp removed, rind coarsely chopped
1 lemons lemon juice, fresh squeezed, (or more to taste)
1. Mince garlic. In a small bowl, mix garlic with salt, pepper and olive oil.
Clean chicken pieces and remove excess fat from the chicken thighs.
Coat chicken with the garlic mixture and marinate at least 4 hours or overnight.
2. When marinade is ready, in a large Dutch Oven (acid-resistant stainless steel or enamel coated), mix water (or home-made salt-free stock if available), minced onion, ginger, cumin, saffron, salt and parsley. Add chicken to the Dutch Oven, scraping and any residual marinade into the pot.
3. Bring chicken and onion mixture to a boil, return to a simmer and cover. Cook 1/2 hour. Turn chicken pieces half way through cooking.
4. While chicken is simmering, prepare artichokes, olives and preserved lemons.
5. Artichokes: Trim the stem of each artichoke to about 1 inch. Remove outer leaves (you can save these for another use). Cut through the artichoke just above the base to remove the pointy tip. Remove the “fuzzy” center of the choke (I like to use a melon-baller for this). Peel the stem and any remaining tough leaf bases from the outside of the choke. Slice the choke in quarters lengthwise. Store chokes in a acidic water (lemon juice and water) to prevent browning while you wait to add them to the sauce.
6. Olives – Select a mid-ripe (usually dark green to light brown) olive such as Gaeta, Kalamata or Cerignola. I do not recommend canned olives as a substitute.
Rinse olives in water. Pit the olives and cut in half. Alternatively, slice around the pit, one third of the olive at at time.
7. Preserved Lemons: Rinse thoroughly in fresh water. Remove pulp and reserve rinds. Chop rinds and set aside.
8. Add artichokes, olives and preserved lemons. Return to a simmer. Cook uncovered an additional 15 minutes. (Note: saffron stains porous work surfaces, so protect these from sauce spatters).
Add fresh lemon juice and return to a simmer.
9. Remove chicken and artichokes to a shallow bowl or serving platter, cover and keep warm. Taste sauce for salt (the amount needed will depend on the salt in your lemons and olives), pepper and fresh lemon juice. Adjust if needed. For a thicker sauce, bring to medium heat and cook uncovered to reduce.
With a slotted spoon, remove some olives from the sauce and place over chicken/artichoke mix. Add some of the sauce to the serving platter and serve remaining sauce on the side.
10. Serve with traditional couscous. Garnish with wedges of lemon and parsley.
To plate individually, place a mound of couscous on each plate and press a well into the center. Add chicken, artichokes and olives to the center and pour drizzle some sauce on top. Garnish with lemon and parsley.
11. DO-AHEAD DIRECTIONS: Prepare chicken through step 3 a day ahead. On the day of service, return to stove-top, and continue beginning with step 5.
VARIATION: If you don’t care for artichokes or don’t have the time to prep them, feel free to make this recipe without the artichokes.