It may be odd, but when I think of Paris, especially in December, I think of tagine.
Imagine yourself in a covered market, open all year round, that you’ve just entered off a main thoroughfare by walking in the space between two buildings. The alley expanded suddenly into a multicolored, multi-fragranced world of silver oysters, shining vegetables, stacks of cheese… and now, right in front of you, in a display that you have to pass to get anywhere else, is a line of tagine pots of different heights, all perfuming the air with their combined ingredients: wheatiness from the couscous, zestiness from lemons, brininess from olives, a tickling sweetness from the spice, and of course the warm smells of chickpeas, chicken and lamb.
That’s where I found myself periodically when I studied in Paris in 2007, and I try not to think about it too much because I miss it so. I lived in a narrow chambre de bonne in Le Marais, on Rue Debelleyme off the Rue Vieille du Temple, and the market was just a few minutes walk from my apartment, on Rue de Bretagne. I went as much as my government internship allowed. And when the internship ended for the winter holidays in late December, I went almost every day. With all the holiday trimmings, it was hard to stay away.
I bought crackly bread from the baker who knew me well enough to give me a bracelet when I finally had to uproot back to the states. I bought cheeses so fat with redolent cream that they seemed to hunker into the counter, old pot-bellied dogs on a cold night. I gesticulated at fruits and vegetables whose names I had forgotten in French, saying “Celà, en couleur rouge, avec le truc...” (“That red one, with the thing…”) I ordered warm crepes with lemon zest and powdered sugar from the old man at the organic flour stand, who declared each time, “Voici les meilleures crêpes du monde!” while winking at me. And I ordered take out dishes of tagine, which everyone ate on the street under the market awning… which is saying something. Parisians almost never eat like that.
We think Paris and we think baguettes, croissants, fromage, eclairs, and so on… and I had no inkling that I would fall in love with the multiculturalism of the city. It’s true, the traditional French foods were usually my focus, but, between visiting the Marché Barbès to buy merguez, eating baklava late at night in the 11e arrondissement, and discovering my love of poppyseed rugelech at the Jewish bakeries in Le Marais, I came to associate Paris with its immigrants, too. And the sweetly spicy scent of those tagines in that market will always remind me of Paris.
Chicken, Chickpea & Merguez Stovetop Tagine
To make a ‘true’ tagine, you’ll need a tagine pot, but other methods call for dutch ovens, crock pots, or braising in the oven. Myself, I have papers to write and would prefer not to wash multiple dishes this weekend, so I made a tagine-like stew on my stovetop, adapted from a recipe I found by Dorie Greenspan. While the flavors may not be as deeply developed as in a tagine, which cooks the stew very slowly, this is a more than acceptable substitute when the hankering strikes and a cold rain is falling outside, as it was last night here in New York. The spice is an even, lingering kind, rather than a hit-you kind of hot, and the coriander, allspice, cumin and harissa give this a bright, complex flavor. The kabocha squash could be replaced with potato or pumpkin, but I like the creamy texture and nutty sweetness the squash gives the stew. And as it breaks apart in the broth, it thickens the tagine and gives it body.
Serves four people, or two people with generous seconds, and in both cases there will be plenty of leftovers.
- 5-6 dried apricots, chopped in half shortwise
- 1/2 cup white wine or dessert wine, such as a late harvest wine (I used one by Laborum in Argentina, pictured below… looks like a Rothko, doesn’t it?)
- Olive oil
- 2 chicken legs (drum and thigh) and 2 chicken thighs
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1/2 an average-sized yellow onion, chopped roughly
- 1/2 stalk of celery, minced
- 3 average-sized carrots, or in my case, half a gigantic Japanese carrot (peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch coins)
- 5-6 brown button mushrooms, quartered
- 3 merguez sausages, approximately 6 oz total. You can substitute South American-style chorizo (as in uncured) for the merguez sausage, although the flavors will be less spicy-sweet and more hot-smoky.
- 1 can of chickpeas, or equivalent cooked from dry
- 1/4 kabocha squash, roasted, with rind removed, and cubed (I had this in the fridge… if you’d like to do the same, slice kabocha into roughly 1/2-inch thick slices, and roast in an oven pan at 400 deg F for about 40 minutes with olive oil and salt, checking to be sure it’s not burning as our ovens may be different. If you don’t want to go through the trouble, adding raw cubed potatoes or sweet potatoes directly into the stew in Step 4 will work just as well.)
- 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds, cracked in a mortar and pestle
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice, cracked more finely
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons ground harissa spice mix (for more on this earlier, see this previous post)
- Ground pepper
- As much couscous as you’d like, prepared according to the package’s instructions (we made two portions)
- Handful of candied almonds with lemon zest , chopped roughly
1. In a small bowl, immerse the dried apricots in the wine.
2. Brown the chicken. Get a heavy-bottomed pot, or better yet a Dutch Oven if you have one. Heat olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. When the oil is beginning to shimmer but not smoke, add the chicken skin side down into the pan. Over medium high heat, brown the chicken on each side. If you don’t have enough room in the pan to comfortably fit all your chicken, split this step up. When the chicken has browned on all sides, remove from the pot and set aside. At this point you may wish to remove some excess skin from the chicken.
3. Saute onion and garlic with spices. Lower the heat to medium. If you are using uncooked merguez, add it to the pot now, breaking it up with your spatula, until it browns, ten add your onions, garlic and celery. If you’re using already cooked merguez, you can add it after the rest of the vegetables. You want to add it early enough so that the spicy flavor can infuse everything. Saute onions, garlic and celery to soften. Add spices and stir to release their aroma.
4. Add vegetables and chicken. Add carrots and mushrooms, and then layer with the chicken. Add enough water to barely cover the top of the chicken. Bring the pot to a boil and then back down to a simmer.
5. Add merguez, kabocha and chickpeas, and let simmer. After the chicken has simmered for about five minutes, add any cooked merguez you are using, as well as the kabocha cubes and chickpeas. Let simmer, covered, for about 40 minutes, or longer, so that the chicken easily separates from the bone and the soup has become cloudy with starch from the squash.
5. Finish stew. When the chicken is cooked through, remove it from the pot (or do as I did, and use two forks in the pot… which is slightly less elegant but hey, I’m lazy) and separate meat from bone. Freeze the bones for making stock, and return the meat to the pot. Taste for seasoning, adjusting as needed.
6. Make couscous. At this point, leave the pot uncovered as it continues to simmer (to allow the stew to thicken up a bit), and bring water to boil for your couscous. Prepare couscous to the product’s instructions (this should take all of five minutes) and, before you eat, mix in the chopped candied almonds. Serve stew over couscous in a flat bowl.
We ate this with cauliflower that I roasted in the oven with some garlic and olive oil until it was toasted, then I dressed it with lemon zest, herbed goat cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. Perfect.
And, since you will have leftovers, let me just say that this is even better the next day, reheated and cut with a bit of water, and eaten like soup.