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Originally published Saturday, February 27, 2010 at 7:01 PM

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Taste

Moroccan chicken tagine chases away winter blues

When the last weeks of winter get you down, cook up a classic Moroccan dish of chicken tagine with tomatoes, honey and saffron. Rich with spices, a warm bowl full will offer comfort and flavor galore.

IF I WERE to put my feelings about winter into a pie chart, it would look something like this: a 20 percent wedge for the things I love (roaring fires, steaming mugs of hot chocolate, rib-sticking meals and snowfalls), and an 80 percent wedge for the things I don't (just about everything else). What this means in practice is that however cozy those extra blankets on the bed feel at first, by February I've had enough. Unfortunately, that's when the calendar says there are still weeks to go before we can get into spring.

If I lived in a perfect world, I'd hop on a plane to someplace warm every time I needed a break from winter. Since I don't, I have another strategy that works pretty well, and at a fraction of the cost: I cook the food of warmer places.

Sounds simple enough, right? It is, with one caveat. Because lots of warm-climate fruits and vegetables are out of season and hard to find in winter (or not worth eating when they are available), a little creative substitution is sometimes necessary. I've had good results replacing fresh mango with persimmon, for instance, and canned tomatoes nearly always do for fresh in a pinch.

A surprising number of hot-climate dishes, though, don't rely on anything more exotic than a well-stocked spice rack. And to be clear, I'm talking not about tropical salads but about hearty, soul-satisfying fare. Think long-simmered curry from India or the dish I always keep up my sleeve for no-fuss escapism, a rich and fragrant Moroccan tagine.

In the lexicon of spicy, stewy, exotic food, tagines are in a class by themselves. Despite tasting so deep, complex and unusual, they're incredibly easy to make and require very few hard-to-find ingredients. Granted, some purists insist that if you don't use a traditional tagine pot — a deep-lipped clay dish with a heavy conical lid — what you make can't really be called a tagine. After having tasted tagines made in many kinds of vessels, however, I've concluded that the quality of the ingredients matter far more than what they're cooked in.

As for what goes into a tagine, in Morocco you find them built around whatever meat, fish or vegetable is abundant locally. And according to Paula Wolfert, who literally wrote the book on Moroccan cuisine, all tagines fall into three main categories: fragrant, flavored with olives and preserved lemons; robust, spiced with cumin and paprika; and sweet, combining savory elements with fruit and/or honey.

My favorite tagine of all falls into the last category. I tasted it at a charming old restaurant in Marrakech called Dar Mimoun a few years ago when I was lucky enough to spend a couple of sun-drenched weeks in Morocco. It was served in its own miniature tagine, succulent pieces of falling-off-the-bone chicken bathed in a syrupy tomato, honey and saffron sauce. Sweet, salty and perfumed, it was the most delicious thing I ate on the entire trip, and, of course, as soon as I arrived home I came up with my own version.

My favorite way to eat this is on a dreary winter's day. I put on some Arabic music, make a colorful vegetable side or two, and serve some crumbly butter cookies and sweet mint tea for dessert. It may not quite substitute for actually feeling the heat of the North African sun, but after dinner, spring miraculously feels a few steps closer.

Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.

Chicken Tagine

with Tomatoes, Honey and Saffron

Serves 4 to 6

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4-6 whole chicken legs

For the marinade

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 cloves garlic, pressed or mashed

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons olive oil

For the sauce

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and minced

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 (15-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, drained

2 cups chicken stock

Pinch saffron (threads or powdered), soaked in ¼ cup hot water

1/3 cup mild honey

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon orange-flower or rose water (optional)

2/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish

Flatbread, rice or couscous, for serving

1. Combine the chicken with the marinade ingredients in a large Ziploc bag. Leave them in the fridge to marinate for at least two hours, and up to 24. Drain the chicken and pat dry with paper towels.

2. Melt the butter and oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the chicken legs. Sauté them to a golden brown on all sides, in batches if necessary. Remove the legs to a plate and keep warm. Reduce the heat to medium, add the onion to the pan and cook slowly, stirring often, until it begins to caramelize and melt together, about 20 minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, ginger and pepper and fry for another minute. Add the tomatoes, and fry until they start to break up, about 5 minutes. Add the stock, saffron water and chicken (including any juices the chicken has given off), bring to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to low. Let the chicken gently simmer until it's fork-tender and easily comes off the bone, about 30-40 minutes.

3. Remove the chicken from the pot and set aside. Increase the heat to medium-high and add the honey, lemon juice and flower water (if using) to the sauce. Cook down another 5-10 minutes, stirring often, until it's jammy and thick. Taste it, and add a pinch of salt if necessary. Add the chicken pieces back in and rewarm them briefly in the sauce.

4. Serve the tagine on a platter, garnished with the almonds and cilantro. Moroccans enjoy this with thick flatbread alongside, but rice or couscous also make delicious accompaniments.

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