Saturday 31 January 2015

Cornish Hen and Sweet Potato Tagine with Preserved Lemons

It's been a particularly cold week here in Toronto. Tagines are excellent for a comforting and exotic yet healthy meal when it's cold out. There is a special place in my heart for Moroccan cuisine and its flavours have long been part of this blog. Warm, playful spices that perfectly flavour meat and savoury vegetables. It's music to my ears. If you are a fan of tagines and curries then you will love this recipe.

Every time I post a tagine recipe I have to go over the same general rules. Tagine is the name of the dish as well as the vessel in which you cook it. A tagine is a thick clay pan with a separate clay, coned shape lid. If you have a tagine that is elaborately decorated then it cannot be used for cooking. They are meant for presentation only. A tagine which you can cook with is plain clay, or sometimes a little decoration on the outside of the lid, which never touches the actual food. My tagine is one of the rarer ones that I've seen which is functional but also has a little exterior painting. A tagine is traditionally cooked over burning coals. You can use your tagine on your stove, but you'll need to use some kind of breaker between the tagine and the burner of your stove. I use a cheap pizza pan which works perfectly. Without a breaker, your tagine will crack. It will also crack if the heat is too high. The golden rule of cooking a tagine is doing so low and slow. Your heat should never be higher than medium. If you don't have a tagine, you can simply use a large pot or Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid.

This recipe uses an ingredient that is making its debut to the blog: preserved lemons. These are a very popular flavouring in Northern African cooking. Lemons or Meyer's lemons are packed with a heavy dose of salt in sealed, sterilized jars. Over the course of a few months the salt extracts a significant amount of liquid from the lemons, enough to keep them submerged in their own natural brine. Not only does this preserve the lemons but it removes its bitterness and most of the sourness as well. The result is very fragrant, mellow and you can eat the peel (in fact, it's the best part). All you need to do is wash them thoroughly, thoroughly, thoroughly with cold water to remove the excess salt. You can make your own but they will take about six months before you can use them. Here is the brand that I could find. It's an export from Morocco.


If you can't find preserved lemons you can use olives or just omit them altogether. I also used ras el hanout, which is a Moroccan spice blend used similarly to how Garam Masala is used in Indian cuisine. If you can't find it, just use 1 tsp of ground ginger, 1/2 tsp ground cumin and 1/2 tsp of ground turmeric instead. One last note before we get started, you'd typically want to garnish your completed tagine with fresh herbs. I find fresh cilantro, fresh parsley or a combination of the two work best. I happened to have some micro cress that I needed to use up so I used that. Feel free to do whatever you like. 


2 Cornish hens
1 large sweet potato
1 white onion, grated
2-3 cloves garlic, finely grated or chopped
3 preserved lemons
1/4 tsp harissa paste (or your favourite hot sauce)
2 tbsps neutral oil
2 tsps ras el hanout
1 cinnamon stick 
1 pinch saffron
1 cup chicken stock
Fresh herbs for garnish (cilantro, parsley, microgreens...) 

Cornish hens are miniature chickens, essentially. They have a larger bone to meat ratio than normal chickens so a whole hen makes a good serving for one or lighter servings for two. In this recipe we'll be splitting each hen in half for four separate pieces. First you'll need to thoroughly rinse your hens in cold water and then pat them dry with paper towels.


To spatchcock the hens, use a pair of kitchen shears to cut out the spine. The spines can be reserved for making stock later. 

Turn the birds breast side up and flatten them down with your hands until you break the breast bone. They will be evenly flat and uniform. 

Use a sharp knife to split the hens in half, lengthwise between the two breasts. Dry again with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. 

To prep the sweet potato, cut into 1 cm thick medallions. If you prefer, you can peel the sweet potato first. Keep in mind that leaving the skin on will add texture and fiber to the dish. 

Cut the larger medallions in half. The smaller ones you can leave as is. 

Place your tagine on a breaker over the burner of your stove and let it get warm for a few minutes on medium heat. Then add 2 tbsps of neutral oil. The heating process takes a little longer with a clay tagine than with with a metal pot or pan. When the oil is hot, place two of the Cornish hen halves breast side down and gently fry. Lightly brown the hens for about five minutes.

Turn the hens over and brown the other side for a few minutes. Remove from the tagine and repeat with the other two halves. 

Add the grated onion and garlic to the warm tagine. Season with a little salt and pepper. Sautée for a few minutes until the onions start to caramelize and turn golden brown. 

Note: Sometimes when you grate or cut an onion enough in a food processor, it will turn a greenish-blue colour when frying. I'm not entirely sure why this phenomenon occurs. I suspect it has something to do with enzymes. It has happened to me before. If it happens to you, don't worry. It's perfectly normal and the onions will turn golden brown shortly after. It does not impart the flavour at all. 

Add the harissa paste and stir it in. Let it cook for about a minute before adding the ras el hanout, saffron and cinnamon stick. Stir to combine and cook for another minute.

Arrange the pieces of sweet potato in an even layer over the onion mixture.

Place the hens, breast side up, over the sweet potatoes. 

Add just enough chicken stock to reach as high as it can without touching the lid. Don't worry if the hens are not totally covered. Bring the liquid up to a gentle boil and place the lid on the tagine. Reduce the heat to low. Allow the tagine to cook for about 35 minutes. Once in a while, spoon some of the sauce over the hens and move everything around a little. Not so much to disrupt the presentation, but to ensure none of the sweet potatoes burn on the bottom. 

Next, prepare your preserved lemons. Give the lemons a rigorous rinsing in cold water. 


Chop the lemons into quarters and remove the seeds. Give them another thorough rinse to remove all the excess salt. 

Drain the lemons and place them evenly apart on top of the tagine. 

Replace the lid and allow the tagine to cook for another 10 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve with crusty bread or steamed couscous. 

Tagines use circulated steam to cook the ingredients within them. Condensation builds up on the inner wall of the lid but its cone shape design makes it run back into the sauce. This cooking system allows the Cornish hens to be properly cooked even if they are not fully submerged in the sauce. To be safe, always check the meat before you serve. If you're a thermometer cook, you're looking at an internal thigh temperature of 180 F/85 C. 

This dish delivers big on flavour. The comforting North African spices, natural sweetness from the potatoes, tangy notes from the preserved lemon and mouth watering, tender poultry. If you have leftovers they will taste even better the next day. Leftovers will freeze well too. 

I hope you enjoyed! Until next time,


  1. wonderful information, I had come to know about your blog from my friend nandu , hyderabad,i have read atleast 7 posts of yours by now, and let me tell you, your website gives the best and the most interesting information. This is just the kind of information that i had been looking for, i'm already your rss reader now and i would regularly watch out for the new posts, once again hats off to you! Thanks a ton once again,
    Regards, cornish hen recipe

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