Some children are just born for adventure, have it in their blood, jump into new undertakings with both feet, laughing out loud. Clem was this child, courageous and curious. Happily dipping into a ditch, river or lake with both hands, a net or a fishing rod, buckets of snails or tadpoles or frogs found their way back home. Ever fearless, he tromped through woods, fields, beaches looking for animals, treasures, mushrooms, waltzed through museums and monuments, up dizzying tower staircases, boarded airplanes all alone which would take him flying off to far-away lands when he was all but a tiny four-year-old surrounded by strangers. And at ten, he and his father giddily prepared their backpacks for their newest adventure, a trekking holiday through the Moroccan desert.
I was knee-deep in researching my genealogy and vacationed in New York every chance I could get, spending my days at the archives and evenings meeting relatives newly discovered and quizzing them about family. The particular summer in question found me boarding a plane to the States, Simon’s small 8-year-old fist firmly in my hand and JP and Clem heading south to Morocco. While I was skimming birth records, naturalization certificates and keeping a small boy calm with an endless supply of superhero figurines and slices of pizza, JP was showing Clem the Old Country, the place he fell in love with all those many years ago.
They spent a glorious week in hiking boots, kicking up sand, days under the burning sun, nights tucked up in sleeping bags under the inky star-lit sky. Huge communal tents were set up for lunches and dinners, two gentlemen preparing tagines and couscous, salads and fruits, fresh breads to see them through the days. Clem was in his element, buoyant and excited, rolling down hills, sliding down mountains on the seat of his pants, running instead of walking, always twenty five paces ahead of his father. Nothing tired him out, nothing slowed him down. Food was gulped down, tents were put up, our little boy could have extended his adventure for an added week and he would not have flinched. While the only other child in the group – the same age as ours – whined and complained, cursed and caused trouble, Clem enjoyed himself thoroughly. Clem lived every single moment to the fullest in great pleasure and delight.
But two days or three were spent alone with his father in Marrakech. Clem and JP stayed in tiny hostels, a place to stash their luggage and lay their heads at night. Days were spent exploring the city, the markets, the sites, sounds, odors and flavors of Morocco. JP was back in his old stomping grounds, a place he knows so well, a culture he loves. And nothing thrilled him more than sharing this with his son, imparting the joy, the pleasure and the knowledge of this magical city, this fascinating country. And the food! For their very first meal in Morocco together, Clem ordered a Chicken Tagine with preserved lemons and olives. A big, bold order for such a young man, a meal bursting with flavors, salty, tangy, exciting! But Clem had always been a great eater, a bold eater and he was afraid of nothing. Driven by his passion for eating and his adventurous spirit, his curiosity and the excitement of being in a strange new country all alone, man to man, with his dad, he ordered this new dish. And fell in love with it. And for those several days, both before and after the hike, every mealtime found him ordering the same dish, Tagine de Poulet aux Citrons Confits et Olives – Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives.
And once back home in the bosom of his family, our occasional jaunt to a Moroccan restaurant would find him perpetuating his far-away experience, titillating both taste buds and memories with the same dish, Tagine de Poulet aux Citrons Confits et Olives – Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives. And JP and I would smile at each other, understanding that that particular dish was not only infused with the bright flavors of olives, saffron and lemon, but with happy memories and that special father-son connection they shared in the sand.
And now, whenever JP decides to make this dish, we make sure Clem is there at the table with us and we smile… he may have forgotten that long ago trip to Morocco, that time spent exploring and dining out with his father, but we see that same ten year old, excited, talkative, adventurous, again and again, every time we serve this dish to him. Like magic.
JP makes this dish regularly with either chicken or fish. He cooks, as he says, au pif, by instinct, and any Tagine – any dish he makes – is adjusted as he goes along so the amount of liquid added, the cooking time, the amount of herbs or spices is all dependent upon taste and the immediate. The homey one-pot dishes he cooks usually are best prepared in advance, allowing the dish the time to sit, the sauce to thicken, the flavors to blend and meld and infuse the meat. Play around…. taste as you go. I have attempted to pin him down to specific amounts and cooking times, but do not be afraid to adjust as needed, to increase amounts to serve more people, to feel your way along the process. The basic directions are more than simple, and can be applied to almost any stew or tagine.
Find the inner child in you, kick up the adventure and enjoy.
TAGINE DE POULET AUX CITRONS CONFITS
Prepare the Tagine ahead of time to allow the chicken, once cooked, to sit for at least 20 minutes before reheating and serving.
1 chicken cut in pieces or 2 breast filets + 2 leg/thigh sections
½ preserved lemon (citron confit)
½ ladleful (a dozen or so) large purple olives
2 small onions, peeled, trimmed and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled, trimmed and minced
Small potatoes, as many as desired for four people, peeled and cut into large cubes
1 small bouillon cube (stock cube)
½ tsp saffron powder, turmeric *
Salt and pepper
* One can also purchase yellow “saffron” powder in tiny sachets of individual portions; in France it is sold for making couscous, in Italy for making Risotto Milanese. Use one sachet or tiny packet for this Tagine.
Heat equal parts margarine and olive oil, not more than a tablespoon of each, in a large heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until tender and golden. Add the chicken pieces and toss/turn to coat with the oil; cook until golden on all sides. Add the potatoes and toss to coat.
Add the saffron powder or turmeric and the salt and pepper, toss the chicken and potatoes until everything is uniformly yellow; add the stock cube, the olives, the half preserved lemon cut in two pieces and 1 bowl of water (about a cup to a cup and a half), cover the pot and allow to simmer for at least 20 minutes or until the chicken and potatoes are cooked through and tender. Toss the chicken and potatoes occasionally during the cooking and add a little bit of water if and when necessary, if the level of water gets too low.
Once cooked, turn off the pot and, leaving it covered, allow to sit and cool a bit, at least 20 minutes – this is a dish that can easily be prepared ahead of time. Before serving, place the Tagine back on a low heat and slowly bring to a simmer; allow to simmer for 10 to 20 minutes to allow the sauce to thicken while the chicken and potatoes heat through. If the sauce is too thick or has evaporated, add more water before simmering; if the sauce is too watery, simply allow it to cook down on a very low simmer until desired consistency.