Chicken Tagine with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes
Falling definitively on the sweet side of the sweet-savory continuum, this tagine seduces with its haunting fragrances and conquers with its mix of spices, fruits, and vegetables. As is often true in tagines, it is built on a base of onions, cooked slowly, slowly, slowly, not to color them, but to concentrate their flavor, just about melt them really, and to get them ready to welcome the spices and herbs — saffron, cinnamon (if you can find full-flavored and slightly spicy Vietnamese cinnamon, it’s lovely here), star anise, and bay. While this is a powerful blend, gentle cooking renders it mild and pleasantly puzzling; it won’t be easy to put your finger on which of the spices is urging you to have another taste. The sweet potatoes and prunes only adds to the exoticism.
About ¼ cup olive oil
2 large white onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon water
1 chicken, about 4 pounds preferably organic, cut into 8 pieces, or 8 chicken thighs), at room temperature patted dry
Freshly ground pepper
2 large pinches of saffron threads
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of cayenne
1 star anise point
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup chicken broth
12 pitted prunes
1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes
Toasted chopped walnuts, for serving (optional)
Pour 2 tablespoons of the oil into a large tagine or a Dutch oven and warm over low heat. Add the onions, stirring to coat them with oil, then mix in 1 tablespoon of the water, season with salt, and cover the pot. Cook the onions gently for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft but not colored.
Meanwhile, brown the chicken: Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Slip the chicken into the pan, skin side down (don’t crowd the pan — if it isn’t large enough to hold the pieces comfortably, work in batches) and cook the chicken for about 4 minutes on a side, or until it is golden. Transfer the chicken to a plate and season with salt and pepper.
When the onions are softened, add the saffron, crushing it between your fingers as you sprinkle it in, the rest of the spices, the bay leaf, honey, broth, and the remaining ½ cup water and stir to blend. Scatter the prunes over the mixture, then top with the chicken pieces, skin side up. Strew the potato cubes over the chicken and bring the liquid to a boil. Adjust the heat so that the broth simmers gently but steadily, cover, and cook for about 45 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes are tender. Wait until you hit the 45-minute mark before lifting the lid — the tagine should bubble away undisturbed.
Taste the pan juices, and if you’d like to concentrate the flavors, remove the chicken and vegetables to a serving bowl, cover, and keep warm. Boil the liquid for a few minutes, keeping in mind that this is really a jus, not a sauce, and it’s meant to be thin. If you removed the chicken and accompaniments, pour the jus over them; if everything is still in the tagine or casserole, you can leave them there for serving.
In either case, taste for salt and pepper, scatter over the cracked walnuts, if you’re using them, and serve.
Because of the sweet potatoes, you really don’t have to serve anything else with the tagine — it’s a true one-pot meal. However, since the sauce is so good, it’s hard not to want to pour it over something more. Couscous is a natural choice, and a fine rice, like basmati or jasmine, is also very good, but my personal favorite is quinoa: I think the grain’s toastiness goes really well with the tagine’s spices.
As with so many braised dishes, this one reheats well the following day.