Monday, 12 March 2012

SmartCooks Cooks Djej Besla, a Moroccan Chicken and Onion Tagine

March 2012 

SmartCooks here.  Djej Besla.  Chicken and Onion Tagine.  

I first found it in Saveur magazine, saw that it was getting a lot of positive buzz and comments, and saved it for the proper event.  Sunday I hunted around in the overflowing [this is getting ridiculous] spice cupboard for saffron threads.  Check. Perfect.  

The original recipe suggests using chicken thighs and drumsticks.  I substituted a lower fat version i.e., boneless, skinless, hormone-free breasts, cut into pieces the size of a drumstick or thigh. 

I'm committed to using lean, hormone-free, fresh meat (and pesticide-free produce in general) after reading up on the amount of estrogen (among the other junk) in today's food and the possible links to various cancers like breast cancer.  

So, off to Saslov's I went for hormone-free chicken breasts.  (Editorial comment:  The price for hormone-free products remains ridiculously high; I can't figure out why they aren't more readily available at supermarkets and affordable for people feeding themselves or their family on a budget.  Grrrr.)   

Djej Besla is typical of the cuisine of northern Africa, especially Morocco and Algeria. The olives and spices are also typical of Mediterranean dishes.

A Word About the Spices 

Djej Besla uses turmeric, saffron, paprika, ginger and cumin.  All apparently powerful medicinal-type spices, with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and all-round 'good for you' nutrients in them.   Not much to say on ginger (already sold on its usefulness) but I looked up the others.  

Turmeric.  I've read numerous articles about the possible health-enfacing benefits of what this 'golden' spice, a staple in most Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern cooking.  Turmeric contains 'curcumin', apparently an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory compound that is being studied for its possible beneficial effects in treating cancer and Alzheimer's.  So I can't go wrong.  

Saffron threads are the most expensive spice in the world, given that the 'threads' are actually the dried stigmas of the saffron flower. Each flower contains only three stigmas; it takes 75,000 flowers to produce just one pound of filaments.  Luckily, I need only 1 teaspoon!  Saffron has medicinal properties ranging from anti-oxidant to prevention of infection.  
Paprika... the recipe didn't specify the type -- hot, sweet, smoked, plain, Hungarian, Spanish?  To be on the safe side, I went for a Hungarian sweet paprika, the national spice of Hungary.  I zipped it up just a tad with a dash of a hotter Spanish paprika.  Paprika is high in vitamin C and apparently plays a role in regulating high blood pressure and other beneficial side effects.  

Cumin has been used in foods to help enhance immunity and to aid digestion as it improves the absorption of nutrients throughout the body.  

Cooking Tagines

Tagine refers to a dish slow-cooked inside a cooking vessel.  Typically, a tagine is a rich stew of meat, chicken or fish and vegetables or fruit.  It also cooks vegetables very well.  A tagine cooking vessel, like the one pictured left, is optimal, if you own one or want an excuse to go to Grace in the Kitchen and purchase one.  There's lot of instructions on-line on cooking methods with one.  

I opted for a stovetop Dutch oven (pictured left), either a 6 or 8-quart one depending on the amount being cooked.  Small Dutch oven worked just fine for me.

Djej Besla, Chicken and Onion Tagine Recipe 

(Serves 4-6) 

1 T kosher salt, plus more to taste
6 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds, crushed
1 tsp paprika, sweet Hungarian or hotter, depending on taste
1 tsp ground turmeric 

1 tsp ginger
5 T olive oil
4 boneless, organic, skinless chicken breasts 

1 tsp crushed saffron threads
4 medium yellow onions, cut into 12 wedges each 
1 lemon, thinly sliced crosswise, seeds removed, small, organic, work best
1 ¼ cups pitted green olives
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro 

Dry white wine (about 1/4 of a cup) 
Fresh pepper
Couscous, quinoa or brown rice, to serve 


1.  Cut chicken breasts into pieces about the size of a chicken thigh or small drumstick. Cut lemon into thin slices (about 1/8" thick) or use a mandolin. Use small, organic, lemons and remove any pits and the ends. Either pit the olives OR, better, buy olives already pitted.

2.  Make a spice paste:  Using the flat side of your knife, chop and mash salt and garlic together on a cutting board into a smooth paste; transfer paste to a large bowl and stir in cumin, paprika, ginger and turmeric. Check spices and add more if desired. Stir in 3 T oil, and then add chicken breasts; toss until evenly coated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, and marinate in the refrigerator for 4 hours or overnight if desired.

3.  Heat remaining oil in an 8-qt. Dutch oven or large tagine over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add chicken, and cook, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, about 10 minutes; transfer to a plate and set aside.

4.  Add saffron and onions to pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 15 minutes. Return chicken to pot and add 1 cup water (or a mixture of 1/4 cup of dry white wine and 3/4 cup water), and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, covered, until chicken is cooked through, about 30 minutes. Add the lemons in the last 10 minutes of cooking.  Add more water if necessary.

5.  Remove from heat, and scatter olives and cilantro over chicken; serve with your favourite style of couscous, quionoa or brown rice.


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