Moroccan quails or chicken with pears is one of many dishes calling for a sweet and savory combination. Done properly, the ingredients are so well-balanced so that the different flavor profiles come together in an astonishing way.
I have attended two Fassi weddings where this dish was served as part of a posh spread of food for dinner. In both cases, the stew was cooked over charcoal in large pots fit for the occasion. The scent of it is still very vivid in my memory.
In its finest version, this dish with pears is made with quails. I understand that they may not always be available so I recommend cockerels instead.
Sweet and Savory Dishes – A Moroccan Tradition
The most iconic sweet and savory dish in Moroccan cuisine is tagine with prunes. However, as exemplified by this recipe for chicken with caramelized pears, we have an array of delightful recipes that follow the same logic. Sweetened, caramelized vegetables or fruits are ideally paired with lamb or other meat having a strong flavor. You may use chicken, but if you can, choose a free range one.
Moroccan sweet and savory dishes can be cooked in a traditional tagine or conventional pot. In either case, Moroccan tradition is to eat by hand, using pieces of Moroccan bread to scoop up the meat or chicken, along with fruit or veggies and sauce.
This classic Moroccan chicken or quails dish dates back centuries and offers a delightful marriage of sweet and savory. Pears can be replaced with apples for an equally good outcome. You can use a tagine or a regular pot, but make sure you serve a fairly reduced sauce.
Instead of chicken you can use tender cuts of beef or lamb (such as leg of lamb). You will just need to adjust the cooking time to serve the meat tender and falling off the bone.
This dish falls under the mqalli method of cooking. A good mqalli has a thick onion sauce which requires patience. If you cut back on the oils you may not reach this texture. The recipe has already been written to use the minimum oil possible to achieve an acceptable result.
If you can cook it over a brazier you will be rewarded with the most exquisite taste.
- 2.2 lbs chicken or quail, cleaned and brined, skinned
- 1 1/2 medium-size yellow onions, chopped
- 1 1/2 tbsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1/2 tsp white and black pepper
- 1 tsp salt, to taste
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 1 pinch saffron threads
- 1 small bouquet of cilantro and parsley
- 1 tsp smen (cured and aged butter)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 lbs pears, fairly sweet and slightly firm
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp sugar or honey
- 1 cup chicken sauce, from the step above
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp orange blossom water, optional
- 2 oz butter
- Almonds (fried and coarsely chopped) or toasted sesame seeds
Soak the saffron threads in a couple tablespoons of hot water. Set aside for 5 minutes.
Add the rest of the spices to form a paste. Take the chicken and massage it with this mix. Make sure you go inside the cavities and all the meat. If you plan to keep the skin on, insert your fingers between it and the meat to massage it all with the spice mix. Cover and marinate in the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.
Place the cooking pot or tagine over medium heat. Add about 1/4 cup of water, the chopped onions, the bouquet of cilantro. and the marinated chicken (whole or cut into 4 or 6 pieces).
Let simmer for about 10 minutes while stirring at least twice. Add the oil and smen along with water some water. (A tagine does not need as much water as a pot where you have to cover at least 3/4 of the bird.) Cover and carry on simmering until the bird is cooked through.
Remove the chicken, cover with foil, and set aside. (Do not discard any juices that run out onto the plate.) Also remove, strain and reserve about 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Discard the bouquet of herbs ( I never do that but some do). Discard the cinnamon stick as well.
Keep cooking and stirring the remaining liquids in the pot until you get a sort of thick and dark onion paste. It might take about 20 minutes to get to this stage. This is old-style slow cooking.
Peel the pears and core them. Brush with lemon juice. You may need to make a cross from the belly side of the halved pears in case you have large ones.
Over medium heat, poach the pears in the cup of strained chicken broth and 1/4 cup of water (if needed). It should take 7 to 10 minutes. Turn them delicately a couple of times until nearly cooked. They should still be firm. Hold warm until the next step.
In a saucepan, melt the butter with sugar. Add the cinnamon.
Add the poached pears. Turn them delicately every 2 minutes so they slightly caramelize from all sides without burning any edges. Add the orange blossom water a minute before you knock off the heat.
The caramelized pears should be tender but firm enough to hold their shape. They should be well infused with syrup.
Heat the chicken and the onion sauce.
Arrange the chicken on your serving platter and cover with the onion sauce.Place the pears on top and finish with a sprinkle of fried ground almonds or sesame seeds.
Once the chicken is nearly cooked, place the pears on top. Baste them every five minutes. Ideally their rounded side should be slightly dipped in the broth. Simmer until they're cooked through but still holding shape. Dwarf pears will be perfect for this and you can even core them but you don't have to halve them.
When everything is cooked, drizzle about 1 tablespoon of honey over.
Follow the same serving instructions as described above. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon along with the sesame seeds or almonds.
- Another traditional way to prepare this type of dish is to cook the meat or chicken and set it aside, covered. Then we add the onions to the pot and cook them separately until the sauce thickens. In this recipe, I've cut short the cooking time by stewing the onions along with the bird and then reducing the sauce.
- You may cook this with lamb as well.
- You follow the same recipe to make chicken and apple stew or tagine.