Monday, March 10, 2008

Dark Days: Chicken And Sweet Potato Tagine

Each year around this time I give our farmer friend Mike a call to order potato sets and onion sets for planting. This year I was surprised to hear Mike offer to deliver the goods (we usually drive the 30 miles to the farm). And he had other tantalizing items for us to consider. How about some eggs? Butter? A nice, big roasting chicken?

Mike's a small-scale farmer. He's always looking to sell something. And we are happy to purchase food fresh off the farm. This time of year, his produce is still in the seedling stage, lined up in rows in the greenhouse waiting to be transof planted. There's not much for Mike to sell except chickens and eggs.

The chicken far exceeded our expectations--size-wise, at least. I did not put it on the scale, but it was nearly twice the size of the roasters we typically see at the grocery, somewhere near 7 pounds, I would guess. This one came frozen. I defrosted it, originally intending to make it our first spit-roasted bird of the year. But the dinner party we'd arranged around the spit-roasting fell through and temperatures were in the 40s. I switched gears and found this recipe for a chicken tagine in an old issue of Food & Wine magazine.

Tagine is a traditional North African dish cooked in a ceramic pot with a distinctive conical lid. Tagines are robust, one-pot stews where meat and vegetables cook for a long time together with strong spices such as cumin, cinnamon, paprika until everything is buttery soft. I don't own a tagine, but the results I get from my enameled-iron Le Crueset pan are adequate for our tastes.

I especially like this tagine--or magazine version of a tagine--because the vegetable that cooks along with the chicken is sweet potato, which is arriving in quantity lately in our CSA box. Sweet potato and chicken, it turns out, go quite well together, especially when you season them with plenty of cinnamon and ginger as in this dish.

There's nothing complicated about this. First heat about 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil in the bottom of a heavy pot and brown a whole chicken cut into pieces. Separate the legs from the thighs. Divide the breast into quarters. Season the pieces well with salt and black pepper. You'll probably need to do the browing in two batches.

Set the chicken aside and pour a whole onion, cut into medium dice, into the pot. Season with 1 teaspoon coarse salt, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 teaspoon ground ginger. Stir, scraping up any brown bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook until the onion is soft, about 8 minutes, then put the chicken back in the pot layering the pieces as necessary.

Cover the chicken with a 1-pound sweet potato, peeled and cut into fairly thin slices. Toss 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped, over the sweet potatoes and on top of that 1 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained. Season with salt and pepper. Add 1 cup chicken stock to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover tightly. Cook until the sweet potato is tender and the chicken cooked through, about 50 minutes.

To serve family-style, lift the sweet potato-tomato-garlic layer off the chicken and pile at one end of a platter. Arrange the chicken pieces to cover the rest of the platter. Garnish the platter with chopped parsley and sliced lemon and serve with a big bowl of couscous, or, in our case, a winter tabbouleh of sorts made of bulgar with lots of parsley, mint, endive, radicchio, dried cranberries.

Suddenly, you have a lovely, almost-spring feast. The pasture-raised chicken will blow your hair back. The flavor is exquisitely fresh and intensely chicken. Not gamy, mind you, but meatier and more distinctly chicken than what you are used to from store-bought birds. The local sweet potatoes could not have been a more perfect partner. Each bite called for another spoonful of the delicious pot liquor, spiked with onions and cinnamon and ginger.

1 comment:

Jenna said...

Perfect timing. (I'm starting to wonder if you and the Perfect Pantry have my shopping cart under watch. I bring an item home... it hits the webpage.)

Anyway, I just happened to pick up a nice spring chicken AND finally buy (thank heavens for my mad-money slice of the tax return) a good enameled cast iron dutch oven.

Looks like dinner is planned for tomorrow night. Thanks.