Saturday, November 7, 2009

Moroccan fried chicken

I usually prefer to use the original-language name in the title, and the cookbook, The World's Best Fried Chicken Recipes (if they say so themselves), calls this recipe "M'Hammer" which is a pretty cool name. But it's not a term that Google turns up much for and most of the recipes its attached to are for grilled, not fried, meats. Then again, Google only turns up one Moroccan fried chicken recipe and it doesn't have any Arabic name attached so who knows? Other than just about everyone living in Morocco that is.

All that aside (and since all that was just an excuse to use the term "M'Hammer" despite its doubtful applicability, aside is where it belongs), this recipe has a really interesting technique--a reversed fricassee--that I've never seen before and was curious to try.

1 small chicken, under three pounds if you can find one
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
copious chicken broth (at least four cups if you're using canned. You can get by with less if you're using homemade that you condensed down for storage like I did.)
salt and pepper (preferably white)
1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
3 large sprigs parsley or cilantro
zest of 2 preserved lemons, chopped (did you know to use only the zest? I didn't until now.)
juice of 1 lemon
2 Tablespoons cilantro or parsley, chopped (I like to use both for north African recipes so I used sprigs of parsley and finished with chopped cilantro.)
4 Tablespoons butter
1 cup olive oil

0. Clean the chicken and pat dry. Season generously with salt and pepper.

1. Pick out a stew pot or dutch oven that will comfortably fit the chicken, but isn't much bigger than necessary for that. Layer the bottom of the pot with half of the sliced onion. Put the chicken on top, either side up. Add broth and/or salted water until the chicken is covered at least three quarters of the way up. The broth will get cooked down later so you can dilute it a bit now, but not so much that it tastes thin and weak. (It's up to you, but I think it's OK to taste the broth even with a raw chicken sitting in there. There's no way you found an industrial chicken under 3 pounds so had to have bought a boutique organic pastured bird that's unlikely to carry anything nasty. And even if it does, the nastiness hasn't had time to seep out into the broth. And even if it has, is one sip going to kill you?) Top the chicken with the rest of the onion and add saffron, parsley sprigs and preserved lemon to the pot.

2. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the broth to a boil. This will be frustratingly slow, but don't rush it. If you turn the heat up, it'll wait until you get bored and wander out of the kitchen and then go into a full rolling boil all over the stove top. Instead, as soon as it starts to boil, loosely cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and slowly simmer until the chicken is very tender, about 45 minutes.

3. Move the chicken carefully to a draining rack over a platter or tray to catch the drippings. Remove the parsley sprigs (and, if you forgot the saffron earlier like I did, add it now). Move the broth off of your primary burner (and possibly into a smaller pot) and bring to a higher boil to start it cooking down. Adjust heat so that you end up with a reduced, thick sauce in about 20 minutes. Consider mashing up the onions a bit if they haven't fallen apart on their own. Add the drippings to the sauce and pat the chicken dry.

4. Place a medium cast iron or heavy-based non-stick pan or dutch oven on your primary burner. Add the butter and olive oil and turn heat to high to melt the butter and raise the temperature to near smoking. Carefully add the chicken to the oil and fry for a few minutes on each side until it is golden brown and delicious. Try to break the skin as little as possible or the oil will get in and dry the meat out. The skin's pretty delicate by now so I wasn't entirely successful. Once it's browned on all four (six?) sides, remove chicken from pan and drain again. Check the sauce for consistency and, if you're happy with it, turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice and chopped cilantro. Cool the chicken for five minutes, carve into serving pieces and serve with (but not covered by) the sauce on a bed of couscous with maybe a vegetable of some sort.

In retrospect, I don't know if "fried chicken" is the right term for this dish. If I came at it without knowing that label beforehand, I think I might called it crisped stewed chicken. The frying is just a finishing touch. A pretty good finishing touch, sure, but not essential to the dish. I do like the idea; if I were to go back and do the chicken in curdled milk recipe again I'd fry the chicken afterward instead of before cooking it in the milk. On the other hand, that chicken picked up a lot more flavor from the cooking medium than this one did. Granted there was a lot more there to be picked up, but the cooking may have opened up the meat to outside influences. Certainly this chicken picked up a lot of flavor from the sauce during a night of soaking in the refrigerator.

As for that sauce, the onion, preserved lemon, parsley and cilantro is a normal combination of Moroccan flavors (at least for the American kitchen approximation)--boldly tart, savory and herbal. If you like that sort of thing then that's the sort of thing you like. I'm pretty happy with it myself. I'm just a little disappointed that the chicken was bland in comparison. I really don't like it when the meat in a dish becomes just something to put the sauce on. That chicken gave its life for my dinner; it seems the least I can do is to try to bring out its best.


Russell Hews Everett said...

Looks tasty! One of my favorite cookbooks is Paula Wolfert's 'Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco'. Her Djej Mahammer recipe has you rubbing the chicken with saffron, garlic, turmeric, paprika, cumin and salt. She uses the chicken liver (several livers actually) to enrich the sauce, and uses just water, not broth, and only 3 cups for two chickens. With the mashed livers, grated onion, extra spices and reduction down to 3/4 cup the sauce would be more intense and the rub makes the chicken more flavorful.

billjac said...

I'm not unhappy with the sauce; I did cook it way down to intensify the flavors. (I do have an Indonesian recipe with a liver-enriched sauce lined up though.)

But, yeah, a spice rub would definitely improve the results. Under the skin would probably be best so it doesn't leak out into the sauce or interfere with the frying. That's was already my plan for the next time I roast a chicken, but it would definitely work for this method too.