Monday, May 03, 2010

Matt Plays Food Blogger: Crockpot Chicken Tagine

A few days ago, one of my lab co-workers (Mike) bemoaned the changes to Mark Bittman's blog. "Who is Mark Bittman?" I wondered, "and what is this tragedy that befell his blog?" He's a food blogger with the New York Times, and Mike was none too happy with the Times' reorganization of their online food articles to make Bittman's harder to find. When he did find it, he showed me a recipe for an "expedited tagine" to show me how awesome the blog was. It is a good blog: Bittman has a knack for stripping the crap off of good cooking to yield simple things that taste good.

I went back and re-read that article a little later. I was sort of familiar with the concept of a tagine more than the ingredients in it, and as I read what Bittman put in his, I found myself nodding along in approving agreement with each one of them. Plus, the recipe sounded at least moderately healthy--it contains fruit, vegetables, and lean proteins. I decided I was going to make Mark Bittman's tagine.

Then, upon noticing the phrases "slow-cooked" and "single pot", another brilliant idea struck me. Conveniently, I have a handy kitchen appliance that does both of those things! My new mission was not just to make Mark Bittman's tagine, but to adapt it to cooking in a crockpot.

Ingredients (Bittman's first, then my take on it)

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil: I kept this, spreading it on the bottom of the crockpot instead of the frying pan, but it's essentially doing the same thing.
  • 4 skinless chicken thighs: First, I like this Bittman guy already because he recognizes that chicken thighs are better than breasts. I ended up using a package of roughly 1-1.5 lb. of chicken thigh filets. A couple reasons for this: first, in slow cooking, quantity is much less important than amount. It doesn't matter if you start with, say, five chicken thigh filets; by the end, you're going to have "5 chicken thigh filets worth of chicken meat." Second, due to the vagaries of the Safeway club card system, chicken thigh filets were actually cheaper per weight than bone-in thighs were. And third, who wants to fish a bone out of a crockpot?
  • 1 large onion, chopped: I had half to two thirds of a truly massive onion sitting in my fridge. I'm not as big an onion-phile as I suspect many real cooks are, so it didn't bother me that I didn't get an entire onion in here.
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic: no change
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger: no change (This was my first time working with fresh ginger, and it was pretty cool.)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander: no change
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin: no change
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon: no change
  • 1/2 cup chopped dried apricots: Bittman suggests you can use prunes, dried figs, or just about any dried fruit with a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern character here. I decided to get extra fruity and add figs plus apricots. I don't really know how much of each.
  • 1 cup chopped tomato (fresh or canned or boxed, with juice): see chickpea comment below
  • 2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, drained, with the liquid reserved: Okay, this is where things got a little crazy. First off, I knew that liquid would potentially be a problem as I was slow-cooking. Second, you can't really find neat 1- or 2-cup cans of chopped tomato or chickpeas at the grocery store. My solution: use a 14.5-oz can of chopped tomatoes and a 14.5-oz can of chickpeas, and dump them both into the crockpot without draining.
  • 1 to 2 cups chicken stock, bean liquid or water, or more as needed: I added 1/4 extra cup of water just to be sure I didn't set my tagine on fire. (Chicken stock would have been better, I think.)
  • 1/2 cup bulgur: sure, Bittman. I have no idea what the hell "bulgur" is, and I'm not going to expend the effort to figure it out just so I can make this recipe. Bittman suggested that couscous or rice could be used instead, and from that context clue, I guessed it's probably a small grain consistent with use in Middle Eastern cuisine. If I could get this bulgur anywhere in America, it would probably be Berkeley, but I already know what couscous is, and I know I like it. I dumped in a box of stovetop couscous without cooking it. (Aside: this isn't as awful as an idea as it seems. I've done it before with rice, and it works fine. The grain cooks nicely, even absorbing some of the flavor of the dish, and it doesn't soak up as much of the cooking liquid as you'd might think.)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper: I left this out of the crockpot, which was more an oversight on my part. It's the least bad thing to leave out, because it can always be added back, but it definitely needed salt, perhaps 1/2-1 tsp., and maybe 1/4-1/2 tsp. pepper.
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley, for garnish: "hmm, I think fresh cilantro from my awesome balcony garden might be good instead." And lo and behold! the last paragraph of Bittman's article mentions using cilantro as an alternative to parsley. It's almost like I know what I'm doing.


Preparation

Start by spreading the olive oil on the bottom of the crockpot. Put the chicken in, then the onion/garlic/ginger on top of it. Add the spices next (with salt and pepper), then dump the couscous evenly over. Dump in the cans of chickpeas and tomatoes, juices and all, and add a little water or chicken stock. Add dried fruit on top.

Cooking

Turn the crockpot on low. Let it do its thing for six hours. (This is my new magic method for cooking chicken dishes in the crockpot. Enough olive oil to over the bottom of the pot, and cook for no longer than six hours. At six hours, the meat was cooked through and already starting to fall apart. Cooking chicken for eight hours almost always makes it too dry.)

Verdict

Sweet fancy Moses, this actually worked. I am so, so surprised that the consistency was spot-on. There wasn't a quart of soupy God-knows-what at the bottom of the crockpot (see: my first attempt at crockpot coq-au-vin), nor was anything burned or dried up (see: my first attempt at crockpot roasting pork for Cuban sandwiches). The couscous cooked through but didn't turn to mush.

I definitely should have chopped the apricots and figs finer, but the flavor in both was wonderful. It's a shame that the biggest exposure I've had to figs in my life is in Newton form, because they're quite tasty. Finally, adding salt and probably pepper is a necessity for next time I make this. Maybe even a little heat in the form of cayenne pepper would have been tasty. In sharp contrast to the salsa I reviewed a few months ago, this tagine is overwhelmingly yin, with all the cooling, sweet, fibrous effects of the figs, apricots, chickpeas, and tomatoes. Some salt, or just a little heat, would remedy that nicely.


Currently listening: "Elevator Love Letter", Stars

1 comment:

Dave S. said...

The comment you made about not finding neat 1 or 2-cup cans of chickpeas made me laugh out loud!

I live in the Middle East. There is literally an aisle in every store that is nothing but chickpeas -- whole, dried, canned, minced, hummus, small 1/2-cup cans to large 3-4 cup monsters.

The Tagine sounds excellent! I can definitely see the Middle Eastern influence in the ingredients. You can buy different variations of Tagine in markets here -- I've seen it with Lamb as well. Don't know how it would do in a slow cooker.

Keep up the good work! Makes me hungry!