Roasted Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives is a classic Moroccan dish that can be prepared a number of ways. The version here with onion sauce is often served for company dinners and for special occasions, when it might be one of two or more entrees in a multi-course meal.
To make the dish, chicken is marinated overnight and then slow-roasted the next day. Meanwhile, a rich m’qualli-style onion sauce (daghmira) flavored with ginger and saffron cooks separately. Olives and preserved lemons add tangy, salty flavor as well as complementary color for a beautiful presentation.
Although my family calls the dish djaj m’hammar, we’re using that term in a general sense to refer simply to “roasted chicken.” In the most traditional sense, a m’hammar of chicken is a specific dish which involves two stages of cooking and includes paprika in the seasoning.
Roasted chicken with preserved lemons and olives is not difficult to make, but the dish does require time for both marinating and proper reduction of the daghmira. The onions must be reduced until they form a paste-like mass which separates from the oil. The onion sauce can be prepared the day before and finished shortly before serving. This makes it a perfect do-ahead dish when. You may also want to clean and brine the chicken the Moroccan way before moving on to marinating it.
Although the recipe below indicates four servings, Moroccan tradition is to allow one chicken for every three people. Simply multiply the recipe according to your own needs. Custom is to dip into the sauce with pieces of Moroccan bread and enjoy the chicken by hand from a communal plate.
This is a m'qualli version of djaj m'hammar, a term being used in a general sense here to refer to roasted chicken. Not only is this dish a popular choice for Moroccan special occasions, it's also a perfect dish for entertaining at home since most of the work can be done ahead of time.
Moroccan protocol is to serve one chicken for every three people, but a large chicken can feed four. Adjust the recipe accordingly.
The onion sauce is cooked separately from the chicken. This can be done in advance or while the chicken is roasting. The addition of a cinnamon stick is optional and a matter of family or regional preference.
Wash and pat dry the chicken. Season the cavity with salt and pepper (you can also rub the cavity with some lemon).
Combine the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Working carefully, gently loosen the skin from the flesh and use your fingers or a spoon to insert most of the marinade mixture under the skin by the breast meat, leg meat and back. Do your best not to rip the skin while you work.
Truss the chicken, then rub the remaining marinade all over the chicken. Place the chicken in a bowl and cover. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.
Slice the onions as thinly as possible and transfer them to a wide, deep skillet or wide, heavy-bottomed pot along with the oil, herbs, garlic, spices and smen (if using).
Cover and cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 hours (or even longer, if the onions are dry or you're cooking a large quantity), stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft and can be mashed with a spoon or vegetable masher. Adjust heat if necessary to avoid burning the onions, and add water in very small amounts only if you need it to prevent the onions from sticking.
Continue cooking uncovered, stirring and mashing occasionally, until the onions are reduced to a thick blended mass sitting in oil. When done, they should no longer be identifiable as onions and the mixture will look as though it's been pureed.
At this point, the onion sauce can be removed from the heat, cooled, and stored in the fridge for later finishing.
Three to four hours before serving time, remove your chicken from the fridge and bring to room temperature. (This will take about an hour.)
Preheat your oven to 325° F (160° C). Transfer the chicken breast-side-up to a lightly oiled roasting pan and place in the middle of the preheated oven. Roast, basting occasionally with the juices in the pan and rotating the pan once or twice, until the chicken is well-browned and the drumstick moves easily on its joint. Juices should run clear when the chicken is pierced with a sharp knife. This usually takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours, depending on the size of the chicken as well as the type. (Small chickens will cook faster; free range chickens take longer than factory-raised hens.)
Remove the chicken from the oven. Transfer it carefully to a platter, cover loosely with foil, and leave it to rest for 15 to 20 minutes while you finish the sauce.
Bring the onion sauce to a simmer. Add the juices from the roasting pan (use as much as you like to thin the sauce), the additional saffron, the preserved lemon wedges and the olives. Also add the chicken liver (if using).
Simmer the sauce for 5 to 10 minutes to allow all flavors to blend and the chicken liver to cook. If you feel the sauce is too thick, add more juices or a little water. (The chicken liver, when cooked, can be mashed into the sauce or left in several pieces.) Taste and adjust seasoning.
Arrange the sauce over and around the chicken on the platter. (If you like, reserve some sauce to offer on the side.) Garnish with the olives and preserved lemon wedges (or strips of preserved lemon peel). A sprig or two of fresh cilantro adds nice color, too. Serve immediately.
- The saffron threads should be crumbled for best distribution of flavor. Heat a small skillet over medium heat for a minute or two. Add the saffron threads and immediately remove the pan from the heat. Allow the threads to dry for just a minute or two, until easy to crumble, then use the back of a spoon to crush them to a powder in a small bowl.
- Preserved lemon and olives add salty flavor to the sauce, so err on the side of caution when salting the sauce prior to their addition.
- If you've accidentally ripped the chicken skin, cover any exposed meat with small patches of aluminum foil before roasting. This will protect the meat from drying out.
- I like this dish best when the chicken is slow roasted at 325° F (160° C). You can speed things up by using a higher temperature and adjusting the roasting time accordingly. However, in this case you'll want to make the onion sauce ahead of time as it can take quite a while to reduce properly.
- On occasion, you may find that your onions are on the dry side and won't reduce to a pureed-looking mass, even after very long cooking. If that's the case, a few pulses with an immersion blender can improve the sauce, but don't over-do it. Too many pulses will yield a mushy sauce without a paste-like consistency.
- Traditionally Moroccan family and guests eat from a communal platter, each from his own side of the dish. Up to three chickens might be served on a single platter. Moroccan bread is used to dip into the sauce and scoop up pieces of chicken.