Yesterday, my new best friend (I love making new best friends), Susan Hack, wrote up a post about our koshari meal at Abu Tareq in Cairo and other street foods I like and she rightly said that my favourite, together with koshari, is fiteer, so, I thought I would post about an amazingly good fiteer I had recently (sadly not with Susan) in Sayida Zeynab. I had seen and tasted almost eveything I wanted to in the two days I was in Cairo except for fiteer, so, I asked where was a good fatatri (fiteer maker) and was sent to one that did not look promising, dark and dingy and without any character but it was the only one and I decided to give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. Their fiteer was just perfect and even though I was going to lunch an hour later, I couldn’t resist eating far more than just the taste I had promised myself. I nearly finished the simple fiteer topped with eshta (Arabic clotted cream which in Cairo is made with buffalo milk) and honey in the top picture and had far too much of the fiteer mushaltat (several fiteers, one inside the other) in the picture below. Totally scrumptious.
I am not very good at cooking for myself unless I am testing recipes but I love cooking for friends, especially new best friends whom I seem to acquire with amazing regularity. Not sure if it’s because I am Lebanese (we are a particularly friendly people) or if it is my nature to befriend people easily. In any case, my newest best friend is the very talented and stylish Shuna Fish Lydon and when she came for dinner the other night, I decided to prepare one of my favourite tagines: poussin with preserved lemons and olives. I didn’t have time to go to my Lebanese butcher to buy French cocquelets — English poussins are battery creatures; perhaps the French ones are too but at least they taste better and have a firmer flesh. So, à défaut de cocquelets, I opted for quails from my local Waitrose.
Tagines are incredibly simple to make. Hardly any preparation and once your ingredients are ready, you put them all in the pot, add water and place on the heat; while the tagine is bubbling away, you can do other things. According to Latifa Bennani Smires, one of my gurus for everything Moroccan (the other is Zette Guinaudeau Franc), there are four basic sauces: m’qalli, a yellow sauce with olive oil, ginger and saffron, m’hammar, a red sauce with butter, paprika and cumin, q’dra, another yellow sauce with onion, butter, pepper and saffron and finally m’chermel, a red sauce (not mine) which is a mix of all the others. You can refine these basic sauces and add other ingredients such as parsley and/or coriander, garlic, olives, preserved lemons (peel only), lemon juice, chilli, eggs, honey, cinnamon, orange blossom water, and so on.
The interesting thing about tagines is that the process of caramelization is done in reverse. The ingredients are boiled first, and it is only when the cooking liquid has simmered down to an unctuous sauce, that the meat starts to brown.
If the sauce does not reduce enough by the time the meat is done, all you need to do is take the meat out, boil down the sauce over a high heat, then return the meat to the pot and finish the tagine which will fill your kitchen with the aromas of Morocco and will transport you back if you’ve been, or will make you want to go if you haven’t.
Here are my birds bubbling happily in the sauce. I did have to take them out to reduce the sauce and mash the onions — don’t like grating them raw as they do in Morocco — before adding the olives and preserved lemon.
And here is what it looks like on the plate. I am using Shuna’s photograph as it’s prettier than mine. You can see the rest of hers there.
Baby Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teasoon paprika
½ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
good pinch saffron threads
4 baby chickens
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
50 g flat-leaf parsley, most of the bottom stalks discarded, finely chopped
50 g fresh coriander, most of the bottom stalks discarded, finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
25 g unsalted butter
juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
1 large preserved lemon, rind only, cut lengthways into strips
150 g purple olives, or a mixture of black and green
1. Put the garlic, ginger, cumin, paprika, pepper, saffron and a little sea salt in a large flameproof casserole. Mix well. Add the baby chickens and rub well with the spice mixture. Let marinate while you prepare the onion and herbs.
2. Add the onion and herbs. Half cover with water (about 750 ml) and drop in the cinnamon stick. Place over a medium high heat and bring to the boil. Add the oil and butter. Cover and cook for 45 minutes (30 minutes for quails), or until the baby chickens are cooked through, and the sauce is reduced.
3. Remove the baby chickens onto a plate and keep warm. Discard the cinnamon stick. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer gently for 15 more minutes until the onion has disintegrated and the sauce is unctuous.
4. Add the lemon juice, preserved lemon peel and the olives. Cut the baby chickens in half and return to the pot. Simmer for a few more minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Transfer to a serving dish and serve very hot with good bread.