The humble lemon. After the olive, lemon a is strong competitor for the “Most Mediterranean Ingredient.” Garlic is right up there too. Lemon pairs so well with so many things that it is hard to ignore its influence on Mediterranean food. For example, lemon pairs delightfully well with chicken, as seen in my Greek Chicken Recipe. But take a trip across the sea to almost the furthest point in the Mediterranean from Greece to Morocco and you will find this. Chicken with Lemon and Green Olives. This is such an archetypal North African combination there are literally thousands of ways to prepare it. Today, we’re going to focus on one, using Chicken, Lemon and Green olives as a versatile weeknight meal.
Take a tour around the web looking for recipes with chicken, olives and lemon. You will find recipes with whole chickens, chicken parts, and cut up chicken. There are versions that are baked, broiled, and braised. In North Africa, in Morocco in particular, this dish is traditionally cooked in a tagine. A tagine is both a method of cooking and the earthenware vessel used to cook. You are probably familiar with the conical tagine tops used to cover food being cooked. This shape helps the steam generated from cooking to condense and return to the cooking vessel. That liquid in turn, keeps the food being cooked moist and prevents it from drying out.
To Tagine or Not Tagine
It is not necessary to have one of these conical vessels to achieve similar results in a modern kitchen. One way is to use a slow cooker to gently heat the food and trap liquids under the heavy lid. The results aren’t one hundred percent comparable, but more that suffice. The down side to both a traditional tagine and a slow cooker is that both take advantage of low and slow cooking.
Both a traditional tagine and a slow cooker will produce excellent results, but they take time. Our goal today is to make a quick weeknight meal. We want to capture all the flavor but use a process that takes far less time. The recipe shared today can be prepped and cooked in less than an hour. If you do some of the prep work ahead, you can have dinner ready in even less than that.
This weeknight Chicken, Lemon and Olives meal uses a few kitchen tricks to speed the cooking. It also use one of the most long established flavor pairings in the Mediterranean. The kitchen tricks involve the cut of chicken used, and the method of cooking. I will get to both of those in a minute. But first let’s talk about that time tested flavor combination — lemon and olive. We’ll start with the lemon.
The Amazing Lemon and Olive
An amazing fruit, the lemon almost has magical powers. It is nearly ubiquitous in Mediterranean cooking. Like salt, lemons have the ability to make all the foods it combines with to taste better. And you can use virtually the whole fruit! Sliced, juiced, zested, peeled, all the lemon is useful. Lemon, garlic, capers and parsley make a great quick sauce for pasta.
A strip of the peel is the perfect garnish for a Spanish Gin Tonic. Shaved zest atop a salad will add a flair. Preserved lemons are a staple of North African dishes. And you can’t beat lemon for a quick salad dressing. Whisk together fresh squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, salt pepper and oregano. Add a touch of honey if you want to add some sweetness. I always have lemons in my kitchen. Like olive oil, it is one of those staples I can’t run out of.
Like lemons, olives are essential to Mediterranean cuisine. Olives are perhaps the mother food of all Mediterranean cooking. THE cooking oil of Mediterranean cuisine — olive oil — is made with olives. But there are many varieties of olives destined for eating and not pressed for oil. I always have at least one variety of green olive and one dark olive on hand. My current “go-to” green olive is the Castelvetrano olive from Italy. The kalamata is my “go to” dark variety. Olives taste excellent either cooked, cold, or room temperature. Warmed in a bit of olive oil and dressed with some lemon zest they make great tapas. Sliced as a pizza topping. Chopped and thrown in with tuna salad. Whole in a Salad Nicoise. No matter how served, the briny tang of an olive is a great accompaniment to almost any dish. Olives are an essential to any Mediterranean pantry
Pair these two – the Lemon and the Olive together, and you have an almost unbeatable powerhouse of Mediterranean flavor. Greek dolmas are often cooked in a sauce of lemon juice and olive oil. Italian picatta sauce is based on lemons and olive oil. In Spain, tuna is often sautéed with lemon and olives. Just about anywhere you look in the Mediterranean, you will find a dish with lemons and olives. Put them together with chicken and the flavors are unbeatable.
As for the chicken, this recipe bypasses the whole chicken in favor of chicken thighs. This gives the advantage of smaller chicken parts (instead of the whole chicken) to help speed the cooking time. Though we could also go with breasts, I chose the thighs. This is because I think they offer a better flavor that balances the lemon and olives. I use the skin on thighs to maximize the flavor. I also think that chicken thighs are the perfect match for the cooking method — the stovetop braise.
Quick Braise, the Trick to a Weeknight Dinner
The other trick that helps make this a weeknight dinner is the stovetop braise. Braising is the process of cooking the food with a small amount of liquid (chicken stock) and some acid (lemons) in a covered pan so the steam generated contributes to the cooking. This in turn helps speed the overall process.
Braising can be done one of two ways — slow and quick. Of course since this is a weeknight meal, we will be using the quick method. But I’m going to take a few minutes to share how the methods are different and when you would use one over the other. Actually, the methods aren’t that different at all — it is more about the time and temperature used.
This is an easy method to remember because of what is the same with both slow and quick braising. First, you need to select the right pot or pan for the job. It needs to be the right size – that is not overly large where the food gets lost in the pan. Nor too small where the food is squeezed in. You want enough room for the air and steam generated to circulate. But not so much you heat the pan and not the food.
Second, you need a lid. Braising requires a covered pan. This is so that any steam created will stay in the pan, and circulate, cooking the meat. So choose a pan with a lid, or use some foil to create a lid. You also want the lid close to the surface of the meat. This prevents the loss of too much moisture, and helps build up a slight pressure.
The Right Amount of Liquid is the Key
Third, you want to add enough liquid to the pan to come about one third of the way up the side of meat being cooked. Any more, and you are boiling the food, not braising it. Any less, and you won’t really have enough liquid to take advantage of the benefits of braising.
You also want to be sure that your liquid includes some acid. Acid is important to all types of cooking, but it is essential in braising. The acid help tenderize the meat and keeps it from toughening up during the braising process. Useful acids include lemon juice (like in today’s recipe), another citrus juice, wine or vinegar,
Slow braising is typically done in a larger, dutch oven and in an oven on a low temp. Slow and low. Often, slow cookers and pressure cookers take advantage of braising. This type of braising is best for less expensive, larger, tougher cuts of meat that can benefit from long slow cooking. It also requires much less attention. Just stick it in the oven (crock pot, etc) and let it do its thing for hours. Slow braising produces consistently excellent results. But it requires pre planning and preparing dinner during breakfast.
Quick braising can be done in the oven, but I find it best on the stove top. It is best for more delicate foods like fish, chicken parts, or fruits and vegetables. Foods that don’t need the longer cooking time. And while you need to pay more attention to a quick braise than a slow one, it doesn’t need constant effort or attention. This makes it perfect for a weeknight meal.
The Right Spices
Besides quick cooking, what makes this such a great meal is the depth and richness of the flavor. That is accomplished with the lemons, the olives, and the spices on the chicken. There is one thing you need to (should) think ahead about with meal. That is getting the seasoning on the chicken as soon as the night before. If you miss it, that’s ok. Even thirty minutes sitting with the spices on the chicken before cooking will help the flavor. While the chicken sits, take the opportunity to prep the rest of the dish — cut onions, olives, lemons, etc.
I use a combination of spice here. I start with the Ras El Hanout spice blend I’ve used before. If you don’t have Ras El Hanout, the recipe below includes instructions on how to assemble a quick version of your own. I also use turmeric. Although the Ras El Hanout already has turmeric in it, I wanted to add more. First, it adds color – a bright yellow that helps to make this dish visually stunning. The turmeric also helps to deepen the flavor. I put my spices on the chicken the night before I make the dish. That is not strictly necessary, but it will create a much more flavorful dish.
Cooking the Chicken, Lemon, and Olives
When you are ready to cook you Chicken Lemon and Olives dinner, heat olive oil in your pan. When it is hot enough, add the chicken thighs, skin side down and let them sit for three full minutes. We are not really cooking the chicken here, but browning it before the braise. First, this helps render some of the fat from the chicken’s skin. We can take advantage of that when we saute the onions. Second, it adds some color. For all its magical properties, one thing that quick braising doesn’t do is add color to your food, leaving it pale and colorless. After three minutes, turn the chicken over and repeat on the back. When you are done browning the chicken, set it aside on a plate.
Add the onion and garlic to the pan and using the rendered chicken, saute them until just softened. Next add about a half cup of chicken stock to the pan to deglaze it and scrape all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. They will now become part of your sauce. Return the chicken to the pan, then top with the olives and lemons.
As for the olives and the lemons, I use castelvetrano olives, but just about any green olive will do. For lemons, preserved lemons are the traditional choice in Morocco and North Africa. If you have preserved lemons, by all means use them. If you don’t have preserved lemons, don’t worry – the dish is still great without them.
Finish the Dish
Add enough chicken stock to the pan so that the liquid comes up about one third of the side of the chicken. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover. That’s it. Let it just cook now. Check in to make sure the simmer doesn’t become a boil, but otherwise leave the lid on and leave it alone. Check the temperature on the chicken after about twenty minutes. When it reaches 165F/73.8C it is done.
I like to serve this Chicken Lemon and Olives over couscous. Rice is a good alternative. No matter how you have it, I think you will find this dish fantastic. It will become an instant favorite in your family and you will turn to it over and over again.
Chicken Lemon and Olives
- Large skillet with a lid
- 4 chicken thighs bone in skin on
- 1½ tsp Ras El Hanout
- 1½ tsp Ground Turmeric
- 2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 2 lemons cut into wedges
- 1 cup green olives pitted
- 1 cup chicken broth or stock
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- In a Large work bowl, add the Ras El Hanout and Turmeric to the Chicken Thighs. Toss to fully coat chicken in both spices. Cover and set aside
- Heat olive oil in the skillet over medium high heat
- Add chicken thighs, skin side down and cook for three minutes
- Flip chicken thighs, and cook for two minutes more
- Remove chicken thighs and set aside
- Add onions to pan and saute until they begin to soften. They will pick up some color from the remaining spices and bits from the browned chicken
- Add about ¼ cup of the chicken stock to the pan and scrape the browned bits from the pan to incorporate into the stock and onions
- Return the chicken to the pan, skin side up. Add lemon wedges and olives
- Add chicken stock until it comes about one third of the way up the side of the chicken. If necessary, add some water to get to the right level
- Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Let cook, remaining covered for about 20 minutes, or until chicken is fully cooked (165oF/73.8oC)
- Remove from pan, plate chicken, and spoon sauce, lemon and olives over the top