Chicken cooked in a tomato sauce is one of the great culinary equalizers. Almost every cuisine around the world seems to make a version of it. The spices may differ, as well as the exact treatment of the sauce, the bird, and the manner in which the finished dish is eaten, but it’s comforting to know that we can rely on our common fondness for this elementally good combination of tomatoes and poultry.
The preserved citrus in this dish is a Moroccan twist that I’ve slowly coopted to such a degree over the years that I’ve managed to convince myself that it actually makes the dish more Indian. Though lemons aren’t a commonly used ingredient in Indian food, limes are—both in their fresh and pickled form, and I love the way that this dish marries a thick, jam-like tomato sauce with the herbal heat of fresh red chillies pounded with cilantro and cumin and the briny, funky edge of salt-cured limes.
A note on preserved limes: Though I suggest making your own preserved limes (a worthwhile task that will reap rich dividends), if you don’t feel upto all that labor, feel free to use store-bought preserved lemons instead, which are widely available in stores specializing in fine foods and Middle Eastern ingredients.
A note on chicken: I like to make this dish with bone-in chicken thighs, largely because I prefer dark meat over light, and thighs are more forgiving to cook than breast meat without being as unsightly as chicken drumsticks which can develop a ragged, varicose appearance when cooked in a sauce. (Apologies for that unfortunate image, but it gives you some sense of my thoughts on the matter). If you do want to use all white meat, feel free to do so: just make sure to allow a shorter cooking time.
A note on the use of a mortar and pestle: Though it is finicky, I do think that this dish is vastly improved if you make the lime-and-herb paste in a mortar and pestle. Food processors, and even high-powered blenders, work by chopping, not by pounding. Though it’s much slower and more laborious, if you happen to have a large, heavy-duty mortar and pestle, do break it out for this dish. If you only have a food processor, though, do use it: practicality reigns above all other considerations, and though the dish will not turn out quite the same, it will, nonetheless, be delicious.
Chicken in Preserved Lime, Herb, and Tomato Sauce
6 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed and discarded or reserved for another use (I like to fry the bits of chicken skin and set them aside as a little chef’s snack!)
1 small bunch cilantro, washed, gently dried, and roughly chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly toasted till aromatic
4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 red birds-eye chillies (or to taste)
2 preserved limes (recipe here), or 1 preserved lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
1 28-oz can whole, peeled tomatoes
Sea salt to taste
Prepare the spice and herb marinade for the chicken by pounding, in a mortar and pestle, the cilantro, cumin, garlic, chillies, and preserved limes along with a healthy pinch of sea salt. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, place all the marinade ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse till well chopped.
If you do decide to go the hand-powered route, this can either be a quick and painless or slow and laborious procedure, depending on the size and effectiveness of your mortar and pestle. In either event, continue until the cilantro, garlic, and limes have been reduced to a paste. Add 2 tsp of olive to the mixture and continue to gently mix with the pestle until the mixture develops a rich, velvety sheen.
Taste the mixture and add salt as needed. The preserved limes are already full of salt, so take care with this step.
Pour the marinade over the chicken and mix to combine.
Let the chicken marinate for at least an hour at room temperature or as long as overnight in the refrigerator
Next, start the tomato sauce. Open the can of tomatoes, and, very carefully, insert an immersion blender into it. Pulse three or four times, taking care not to lift the blender while it is turning, which can lead to a spray of tomato sauce flying across both you and your kitchen. The sauce should be uniform but still have a few chunks of unblended tomato in it.
Heat 3 tbsp of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the tomatoes and stir to combine with the oil. Add 1 tsp salt. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, for at least 30 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened considerably and you can draw a distinct line through the sauce with a spoon and the oil begins to separate around the edges of the cooked sauce. If need be add upto 1 tbsp more oil.
Preheat your oven to 300°F with a rack positioned in the middle.
Turn off the heat under the sauté pan and add the chicken to the tomato mixture. Use a spatula to make sure that all the marinade gets tipped into the sauce.
Stir to combine the chicken and its marinade with the tomato sauce.
Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid or with a layer of parchment held in place with a layer of aluminum foil.
Bake, undisturbed, for 1.5 hours.
Remove the pan from the oven and carefully remove the lid or improvised cover of parchment and foil, making sure to keep your hands and face away from the rush of hot steam as you uncover the pan.
Let the sauce cool for at least 5 minutes before tasting it and adjusting for salt as needed. Spoon off any excess oil that has pooled on top of the sauce and reserve for another use (my suggestion: scrambled eggs!).
Serve hot with rice, chapattis, or, best of all, with a dish of riced broccoli and almonds.