Ithink I was as surprised as anyone that a month-long off-season trip to Morocco and Spain would make me appreciate the culinary offerings of Aspen.
That’s not to say that the food I had — from the expectedly flavorful paella in southern Spain to the often inventive variations on the slow-cooked chicken and lamb tagine dishes in Morocco — didn’t delight the senses. But the lack of options, particularly in Morocco, was somewhat astounding.
There was the standard Moroccan fair, typically a warm vegetable stew served with or without chicken, lamb or seafood over a bed of couscous. Then there was pizza and hamburgers. And, in fact, pizza and hamburgers were so pervasive that it took me and my traveling partners a full hour-and-a-half roaming around the downtown core of the country’s capital city before we could find anything else to eat!
It was on that trek that my mind drifted back to Aspen, with its three Mexican restaurants, three high-end sushi eateries, multiple Chinese outlets, steak houses, countless upscale Italian joints, a new hole-in-the-wall Thai stop, and the plethora of restaurants that can only be described as fusion bistros. And that’s all in the downtown area of a 6,000-person mountain town, not to mention the rest of the Roaring Fork Valley.
True, with great money comes great culinary offerings, but our 90-minute excursion around Rabat had me chastising myself for ever lamenting the lack of “ethnic” food options in Aspen. So there’s no Indian food for 40 miles? Big deal. Maybe I have to go to Denver for fine Vietnamese cuisine? Cry me a river. It was perhaps the first, and only, time on the trip that I was overwhelmed with American pride, and not for any of the expected reasons. We’ve always been told that America is the melting pot of the world, but it wasn’t until I peered into that pot and saw and smelled the multitude of flavors of cuisines that I truly felt we were great (and the recent election, which effectively served as a referendum on changing U.S. demographics, perhaps reiterated this point in a more politically useful way).
Oddly, one of the first things I did, or tried to do, in my kitchen upon my return was to make one of the Moroccan tagine dishes I thought I was so desperately over while I was there. The smell instantly transported me back in time and place.
A little background: a tagine is both a dish and the vessel in which the dish is prepared. The conical shape of a tagine helps to baste the dish as it cooks. If you happen to have a tagine, that’s great, but the dish works just as well in a medium or large covered pan. There are many variations on the dish, but most use chicken thighs (skin-on and on the bone, since they do well with the long cooking time). Carrots are often used in place of the sweet potatoes, and you can vary the fruit. Golden raisins and dried apricot work great in place of the dates. The chile-ginger-cinnamon broth is sweet, spicy, and delicious. The sugared walnuts and yogurt are for serving. Serve over couscous.
Moroccan Tagine with Chicken and Dates
1 cup walnut halves
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon sugar
8 ounces plain yogurt
4 chicken thighs (skin-on and bone-in)
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (more or less to taste)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup apple cider (or substitute an addition Cup of chicken stock)
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into medium-large chunks
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas
1 cup dates, pitted and cut into thirds
1. For sugared walnuts: Melt 1 T butter in a small saucepan, cook walnuts over low heat until a shade darker and fragrant. Set aside to cool. When cool, remove from pan into bowl (leaving behind any remaining butter). Toss with the 1 T sugar.
2 . In tagine cooking vessel (or a broad saucepan with a cover) heat 1 T olive oil over medium-high heat. Salt and pepper chicken thighs on both sides, sear until golden brown, not cooked through. Set aside. Remove enough fat to leave only 1 T fat in pan. Lower heat to medium, sauté onion until translucent (about 5 minutes). Stir in garlic, cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon, and ginger. Continue to sauté until the garlic is softened and the spices are toasted (about 2 minutes).
3. Add cider, chicken broth, honey. Bring to boil. (If using a tagine vessel, add only half liquid to begin with, add remaining liquid halfway through cooking.)
4. Boil liquid for about 5 minutes, until liquid has reduced slightly. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees. To the broth, add sweet potato, half of chickpeas, half of dates. Nestle chicken thighs in pan and toss remaining dates and chickpeas over top. Cover vessel and place in oven 50 minutes to 1 hour, until sweet potato and chicken thighs are cooked through. (Note: If using a regular pan, baste the dish every 15 minutes. If using tagine, add second half of cooking liquid halfway through cooking, when liquid has steamed away).
5. When cooked, remove from the oven, taste for seasoning. Add salt, pepper, honey as desired. Serve over couscous with sugared walnuts, yogurt on side.