Life is either a great adventure or nothing. – Helen Keller
Some children are born for adventure, have it in their blood, jump into new undertakings with both feet, laughing out loud. Clem was such a child, courageous and curious. Happily dipping into a ditch, river or lake, plunging into a darkened depth with both hands, a net or a fishing rod, buckets of snails or tadpoles or frogs found their way back home. Ever fearless, he (pirate, swashbuckler, fortune-hunter, explorer, cowboy, buccaneer, forager) tromped through woods, fields, beaches looking for animals, treasures, mushrooms, waltzed through museums and monuments asking questions, up dizzying tower staircases, boarded airplanes all alone which would take him flying off to far-away lands when he was all but a tiny four-year-old surrounded by strangers. And at ten, he and his father giddily prepared their backpacks for their newest adventure, a trekking holiday through the Moroccan desert.
I was knee-deep in researching my genealogy and vacationed in New York every chance I could get, spending my days at the archives and evenings meeting relatives newly discovered and quizzing them about family. The particular summer in question found me boarding a plane to the States, Simon’s small 8-year-old fist firmly in my hand and JP and Clem heading south to Morocco. While I was skimming birth records, naturalization certificates, and keeping a small boy calm with an endless supply of superhero figurines and slices of pizza, Jean-Pierre was showing Clem the Old Country, the place he fell in love with all those many years ago when just a young man, not yet a father, he called Morocco his home.
They, father and son, spent a glorious week in hiking boots, kicking up sand, days under the burning sun, nights tucked up in sleeping bags under the inky star-lit sky. Huge communal tents were set up for meals, two gentlemen preparing tagines and couscous, salads and fruits, fresh breads to see them through the days. Clem was in his element, buoyant and excited, rolling down hills, sliding down mountains on the seat of his pants, running instead of walking, always twenty-five paces ahead of his father. Nothing tired him out, nothing slowed him down. Food was gulped down, tents were put up, our little boy could have extended his adventure for an added week and he would not have flinched. While the only other child in the group – the same age as ours – whined and complained, cursed and caused trouble, Clem enjoyed himself thoroughly. Clem lived every single moment to the fullest in great pleasure and delight.
But two days or three, before and after the group hike, were spent alone with his father in Marrakech. Clem and Jean-Pierre stayed in tiny hostels, a place to stash their luggage and lay their heads at night. Days were spent exploring the city, the markets, drinking in the sites, sounds, odors and flavors of Morocco. Jean-Pierre was back in his old stomping grounds, a place he knows so well, a culture he loves. And nothing thrilled him more than sharing this with his son, imparting the joy, the pleasure and the knowledge of this magical city, this fascinating country.
For their very first meal in Morocco together, Clem ordered a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. A big, bold order for such a young man, a meal bursting with flavors, salty, tangy, exotic! But Clem had always been a great eater, a bold eater and he was afraid of nothing. Driven by his passion for food and his adventurous spirit, his curiosity and the excitement of being in a strange new country all alone, man-to-man, with his dad, he ordered this new dish. And fell in love with it. And for those several days, both before and after the hike, every mealtime found him ordering the same dish, Tagine de Poulet aux Citrons Confits et Olives – Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives.
And once back home in the bosom of his family, our occasional jaunt to a Moroccan restaurant would find him perpetuating his far-away experience, titillating both taste buds and memories with the same dish, Tagine de Poulet aux Citrons Confits et Olives – Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives. And Jean-Pierre and I would smile at each other, understanding that that particular dish was not only infused with the bright flavors of olives, saffron and lemon, but with happy memories and that special father-son connection they shared in the sand.
I was recently reminded of this story during my interview for Food Blog Radio, the brainchild of charming, fun hosts Sara de Leeuw and Gary House. Gary brought up an old post I had written on my old blog about Clément and Jean-Pierre’s trip to Morocco many years ago when our son was but a boy of 10 and I had to smile. Clément is now 27 years old, but still very much that curious, adventurous boy. A wild 6-week road trip through Vietnam, hitchhiking through France, Italy, and down to Greece, and currently 3 weeks in the south of India, each time traveling with, eating as the locals do. And he now calls Senegal his home, where he works as an architect. And, yes, he blames his adventurous spirit on his parents.
I was also asked if my sons had caught the cooking bug from my husband and me. This also made me laugh. For as much as Jean-Pierre and I both love to cook and as often as we do, our sons never really seemed to want to cook. Maybe it is, as some would argue, because they never had to cook; the food was always on the table for them to enjoy. Or maybe, yes I will admit, that I scared the heck out of them whenever they tried, because occasionally they did, more often than not for their friends. As my husband will freely tell you, I am not one to share the kitchen with. He sends me packing, refusing to even pull out ingredients and start chopping before I am well away and out of the kitchen. Ah, so I am a perfectionist who tends towards control and stressed panicking seasoned with a bit of spicy nagging and salty yelling; what do you want?
This story of my son’s discovering the joys of Moroccan cuisine and a new-found passion for chicken with preserved lemons and olives also reminded me of a rare afternoon a couple of years ago that he came over to cook. Cook with his mom. And not just any dish. No. For weeks he had been berating me, upbraiding me, ranting and complaining because he had offered me a Greek cookbook the Hanukkah before, close to a year earlier, and I had yet to make one single recipe from it. So he selected a recipe, a Greek-style Chicken with Preserved Lemon and Olives, and asked if we could prepare it together.
Jean-Pierre often makes his own version of a Moroccan tagine with preserved lemons and fat purple olives, either with chicken or fish and whenever he does we make sure that Clem is at the table with us. Our son may have forgotten that long ago trip to Morocco, that time spent exploring and dining out with his father, but we see that same ten year old, excited, talkative, adventurous, again and again, every time we serve this dish to him. Like magic.
I wonder if he thought of that trip when he selected a Greek-Style Preserved Lemon Chicken with Olives from Vefa’s Kitchen by Vefa Alexiadou as the dish we would cook together. And so we did. Cook. This dish packs a true flavor punch: tender chicken infused with the bright, sparkling flavor of lemon, lightly-caramelized onions offering a savory succulence and a handful of olives giving the dish a salty edge. And nothing could be easier! Brown the chicken, toss in the rest of the ingredients, allow to simmer and Bingo! A stunning dish. Simple enough to make with your children, no matter their age. And now one my own son can prepare in his own apartment for his friends.
- 1 preserved lemon
- Zest and 2 tablespoons juice from 1 fresh lemon
- About 6 tablespoons (40 gram) flour seasoned with salt and pepper
- 1 chicken cut in pieces or 2 leg/thigh sections and 2 breasts
- A few tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, trimmed, peeled and chopped
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped
- ½ cup pitted green olives, soaked in cold water for about an hour
- ½ cup (125 ml) water
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Cut the preserved lemon in half and then each half in 2 or 4 wedges. Set aside.
- Place the seasoned flour in a plate or soup bowl. Pat the chicken pieces clean and dry.
- Place a few tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy pot with a lid and heat over medium to medium-high heat. When the oil is hot and a few drops of water spritzed onto the oil sizzle, dredge the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour and brown in the oil; you may have to do this in two or three batches as you do not want to crowd the chicken in the pot. Turn the pieces to brown well on each side; this could take 6 – 8 minutes per piece. Add more oil to the pot if needed.
- As the chicken pieces are browned carefully lift them out of the pot and place on a plate.
- When all of the chicken pieces are well browned and out of the pot, add the chopped onion and garlic to the pot and cook, stirring often, until tender and transparent, scraping up the dark bits from the bottom of the pot.
- Add the chicken pieces back to the pot and continue to cook for a few minutes, stirring, until the onion bits are beginning to brown around the edges.
- Add the wedges of preserved lemon, the zest if using and the water; drain the olives and add to the pot. Salt and pepper and bring just to the boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot and allow to simmer for 30 to 45 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Add a little more water during the cooking if needed.
- When the chicken is cooked, remove the pot from the heat and add the lemon juice.
- Serve immediately over mashed potatoes, couscous, mixed grains or pilaf.