Monday, January 25, 2010

Chicken Tagine with Fennel and Olives

If you are a loyal reader (which, of course, you are), you may remember a slightly disastrous encounter with a recipe for chicken sausage with fennel and lentils.  The purpose of that recipe was to experiment with fennel, and the results were boring, and lacking asthetic appeal.  However, in January’s issue of Bon Appetit, I found the answer to my fennel prayers: a chicken tagine with fennel and olives (a tagine is essentially a North African style of braising.  For more information, see my glossary).  Honestly, the title alone had me weak in the knees, and further investigation validated my initial sentiments.  This recipe has some of my favorite ingredients, which happen to be a perfect counterpoint to the fragrant, sweet fennel. What could better balance its anise flavor than salty, briny, meaty, green olives?  The remaining ingredients only augmented my high expectations, and rightfully so: cumin, paprika, lemon, and cilantro.  And all of those delicious elements come together in a lush sauce that pairs perfectly with couscous.   

In addition to the enticing recipe, Bon Appetit provided me with an entire article on fennel, exposing me to all sorts of coveted fennel facts.  For example, fennel is currently in-season.  As if this perfect recipe isn’t enough of a reason to run out to your nearest fennel provider, the “in-season” factor should give you added incentive.  Fennel also happens to be a heavyweight when it comes to nutrition.  I found this surprising:  usually we associate brightly colored vegetables with high nutritional value.  But, apparently, the perfectly pale fennel bulb is packed with fiber, potassium, and vitamin C, amongst other anti-oxidants.  Additionally, anethole, the substance accountable for fennel’s distinctive licoricy flavor, has anti-inflammatory properties, and who couldn’t use that?
Chicken Tagine with Fennel and Olives (adapted from Bon Appetit’s recipe)

1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium-sized fennel bulbs, halved, cored, and cut into thin slices
2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Juice of one lemon, divided
2 cup reduced sodium chicken stock
Salt and pepper, to taste
½ cup coarsely chopped green olives, packed in brine
½ cup chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish

§  Heat olive oil over medium-high to high heat for 2-3 minutes, or until very hot.  Place chicken thighs in pan.  If the pan is hot enough, this should be very noisy.  Leave undisturbed for about 5 minutes, or until nicely brown.  Flip and cook on other side for 2-3 minutes.
§  Remove chicken from pan and set aside.  Remove excess fat from pan, leaving about 2 tablespoons (this can be done carefully with a paper towel)
§  Add fennel to the pan, allow to cook for about 5 minutes, or until it starts to brown.
§  Add chicken back to the pan.  Add stock, half of lemon juice, spices, and salt/pepper.  Stir to combine.
§  Bring mixture to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer, and cover.  Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until chicken in cooked through.
§  Add olives, and increase heat to allow sauce to reduce for about 5 minutes.
§  Add remaining lemon juice and cilantro.  Serve chicken, fennel, and sauce over couscous and garnish with extra cilantro.
Comments:  I had dangerously high expectations for this recipe, and it somehow managed to exceed them.  The above recipe includes a few minor revisions, compared to the original, and I wouldn’t alter this preparation for anything.  This dish is perfectly balanced.  For those of you who are weary of fennel’s strong anise flair, braising it in this fashion manages to mellow, but not drown out, the flavors.  The cumin lends a touch of smokiness; the hot pepper flakes add a little kick; the lemon brings its usual bright acidity; and the cilantro is an appropriate accompaniment, and not the least bit overpowering, as it sometimes can be.  The original recipe actually calls for a full cup of it, but I added only a half-cup, and it was still enough to make a difference in the flavor, but not so much that it becomes the only flavor.  Even after eating for multiple days in a row, I was mournful over the final serving.  If you are looking for something delicious, but a little unexpected for dinner, chicken tagine with fennel and olives will cure you of this craving.