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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.

tagine-of-quails-saffron-copy.jpg tagine-of-quails-olives-and-lemon-peel-copy.jpg tagine-of-quails-spices-copy.jpg

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.

tagine-of-quails-birds-with-spice-rub-copy.jpg tagine-of-quails-onions-copy.jpg tagine-of-quails-with-herbs-onions-copy.jpg

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
D’jaj M’chermel

Serves 4-8

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
sea salt
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.

And the polished off bones.

There is 11 comments on this post

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    I am so very jealous of Shuna! Hopefully once day soon I will ge to try your cooking first hand!

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    I made preserved lemons a couple months ago and just tried this dish for the first time (with regular chicken, though). It’s not often that I experience a completely new flavor. So exciting! I love the idea of making it with poussins or quail.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    as soon as you come to london nanette, or if i come to melbourne, whichever comes first.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    it is prettier if you make it with smaller birds noelle. love the idea of your tomato sandwich.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    I love quail and this dish looks fantastic. I need to get a Tagine, would love to try some dishes such as this.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    you don’t actually. most home cooks in morocco cook their tagines in regular pots and serve it in nicely decorated tagine dishes. it is mainly on the street and in the countryside that people cook in the earthenware tagines. at least, this is what i have noticed during my travels there. and Zette Guinaudeau Franc concurs. you must get her book if you don’t have it, in French if you speak it, otherwise the translated edition.

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Mmm…All I can say is I had this dish once in Paris, it was made by an Algerian friend and I will never forget it! C’était tellement bon!!!

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    en effet, c’est tres bon, meme si je le dis moi meme!

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Thanks Anissa! I have been trying lots of permutations of tomato dishes lately. I have a bunch of preserved lemons left still, so I will definitely be trying a couple different versions of this dish, including one with smaller birds.

    By the way, I worked in a bookstore a few years back and I used to recommend your book on Mediterranean Street Food. It’s a shame it’s out of print. Je vais chercher le livre de Mme. Franc aussi… merci pour l’astuce!

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    Oops! Never mind, just realized the paperback version is indeed still available! 🙂

  • Warning: Undefined array key 36 in /data/40/0/131/109/783598/user/802494/htdocs/anissahelou/wp-content/themes/Anissa/functions.php on line 377

    glad you realised it. was going to say it was still in print. let me know how the permutations work out. and definitely get Mme Guinaudeau Franc’s book. it’s brilliant. i have a first edition of it.

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