Ciao good people, I hope you are all having a wonderful day. I know mine just got better, it always does when there’s the fragrance of Moroccan cooking drifting through the kitchen. I just bumped into my neighbour on my way up to the apartment and she asked me, “Signora, cos’è questo buon profumo?” Oh my heart! There are no words to describe the joy in my heart every time someone asks, “what is that good smell?” I recall a chapter of my life in South Africa, about ten years ago and those moments when my domestic helper would say, “Hmmm Niv, that smell! You make me hungry”. I revelled in her hunger pangs that spurred me to cook big meals which I jokingly named “food trials”. It was an indulgence someway to introduce her to food she had never tried before. I have a fondness for people who love to eat and she always ate to her heart’s content while mine brimmed with glee. Unknowingly, she was another one of those people who inspired me to share my love for food and I can’t help but wonder what she would have said about this dish.
As promised this is the lamb tagine discourse. I’m referring to it as a discourse because here at KitchenOpera you get more than just a recipe, you get history and knowledge to help you understand and create a variety of dishes without having to strictly follow a recipe. I’m sure many of you are familiar by now with a tagine, its unique shape and intricate patterns are hard to miss. What’s not so commonly known though is why the tagine possesses this particular shape, and the first step to understanding that is to know where it originated. We owe our thanks for this astute invention to the Berbers from the North of Africa, specifically Morocco and Algeria. This nomadic tribe lived and travelled through the continent’s desert land and being a nation of food loving people they created this clay pot because it served not only as a cooking vessel which was light to carry, but as a dish to eat from together, a form of solidarity and sharing which they still practise. I continue to be amazed at their intellect – how did they know that the defined conical shape of the tagine is exactly what is needed to trap moisture into the dish especially since water is a scarcity in the desert. When you cook with a tagine, all the condensed vapour created by the heat, stays inside the dish, by rising to the top of the cone and falling back to the bottom. The moisture is contained and forms the thick gravy that is the essence of tagine cooking. This concentrated flavourful steam rises and falls, rises and falls until you have melt in your mouth vegetables and meat that is falling of the bone.
Inevitably the blessing of the tagine, travelled to become a culinary sanctification in other parts of North Africa even in countries where Berber populations are small, like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and hundreds of years after its inception, this mobile stove is on a journey across the world. Traditionally made of clay, in some countries it has been modernised through glazed ceramics. The one I use is ceramic and developed by the Company, Emile Henry of France who have been making cookware for centuries and unlike common ceramics, Emile Henry does not use glazes to colour their pieces but naturally occurring metal oxides. It is known to be the strongest ceramic cookware on the market so yet another reason I’m happy to collect their pieces, so you can’t imagine my delight when my husband surprised me on my birthday!
In contrast, the traditional, unglazed clay pot (while much more susceptible to cracking under very high heat) with it’s short life span, produces a unique, earthy flavour that’s derived from the rawness of the clay. If you don’t own a tagine, the most inexpensive would be the clay range. It is indeed the most authentic and there is something extraordinary about a vessel that is handmade. If looking for a ceramic hand made vessel then I would suggest forking out on the Emile Henry tagine as every single vessel is made and tested by hand in a family run business in France.
Remember that the Berbers cooked their food in embers, a technique still practised in Morocco today where the cooking vessel is placed deep inside a heap of hot coals, by men in the city who run a “communal oven” for a living. Moroccans take their uncooked tagines or tangier pots to these men who cook the dish for a small fee. Of course it would be wonderful to imitate this technique, if only in part and a good way to do it would be to light a fire outside in your garden and leave the dish over the hot coals. This will without a doubt create that exceptional smoked flavour that can only be extracted from wood and coal which I worship.
Now just think if you spent a small fortune on a magnificent glazed ceramic tagine, I highly doubt that you would want to leave it on an open fire to be covered in black soot. But on that note I am suggesting an easier way to smoke your dish without having to light a fire, if you prefer an alternative. This idea is perfect for people who don’t have a garden space for a barbecue or wood fire. Once your dish is prepared you simply have to take a very hot coal that’s been heated on your stove, place it on a fresh lemon leaf, then place that into your cooked dish, douse the coal with a bit of butter and immediately put the lid on. The fat in the butter reacts with the coal and releases the smoke while the lid traps it all in there to emulate a wood fired tagine. Simple.
Then considering the food and not the physical dish, the word tagine refers to the slow cooking of meat, fish, poultry or vegetables so that the end result resembles a stew. I’m so glad that I decided to do this recipe now, because we are at the start of a fresh autumn going into a long winter and what could be better than a piping hot stew on a chilly evening. Tagines should be your new best friend because its effortlessness is miraculously masked by its richness of flavour. Tagines obliges one to think that the host spent numerous hours slogging in the kitchen, quite the contrary. Unlike conventional pot cooking, all the ingredients are cut into chunks and filled into the tagine. The base ingredients of a tagine is most commonly onion and tomatoes seasoned with oil, salt and pepper. In my recipe I used soft lemon rind that’s been soaking in salt for weeks, instead of regular salt, because I love the hit of lemon in a tagine but if you don’t have a lemon confit, fine marine salt will do.
All it needs really is just a few minutes to put together, there is no braising, or sweating of onions, browning of meat, or roasting of spices involved. It is wholly simplistic because everything goes in at once. If you have the Ras El Hanout Spice blend, which you will find in the Spices Category of the site, it’s even easier because you needn’t worry about adding any other element of spices, everything you need is in a tablespoon or two. Once the base of the tagine has been filled with the tomatoes and onions which provide sufficient moisture for the dish, the marinated meat of your choice is then placed over that along with the vegetables. The vegetables used in a tagine are most commonly root vegetables that need sufficient time to cook, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, and carrots but pumpkin also makes a superb tagine as well as dried beans or dried chickpeas. The key-note to remember is that there is always a principle of sweetness added to a tagine and most often it comes from portions of dried fruit. The choice for this ingredient is yours, be it apricots, figs, prunes, cranberries, sultanas, or anything else you may prefer, even dates. For my readers who are a bit nervous about this let me impress that the servitude between the sweetness of the fruit and the tanginess of the tomatoes is rewarded by a flavour so rare and authentic, you have only to try it to accept it.
To finish the dish, pomegranate “rubies” which looks like jewels on top of your plate acts not just a garnish but a flavour enhancer. The tang from the rubies is the constituent of acidity usually found in a vinaigrette. Known as the Fruit of Paradise it is greatly celebrated in North African countries and the best pomegranates are said to come from Tunisia. When it comes to Moroccan cooking pomegranate rubies are knocked onto almost everything from salads to couscous to roasted vegetables to a variety of tagines. Just a few of these added to your plate will take this dish to another level, it is not just a matter of appearance. We all know by now that Middle Eastern, Indian and North African cuisine is usually laced with spices so like it has been done for centuries, a cooling yogurt dressing is the helping hand to balance the heat emanating from the spices. Traditionally this dish is served with couscous. Couscous is a North African staple made from crushed durum wheat and takes literally five minutes to prepare. Usually bland, this source of carbohydrates is generally enhanced by a rich stock or spices. Couscous tends to act like a sponge so it’s perfect for tagines because the little granules of cooked wheat soaks up the gravy to become sodden with flavour, turning an ordinary couscous dish into something luxurious. That being said though a rustic bread is also quite popular to be served with tagines.
When it comes to serving, I love the fact tagines are served and eaten communally, I find it admirable. I enjoy watching Fred Cheseneau on his adventure Il Cuoco Vagabondo and my respect for this practise grew even more when I saw it on his adventure to Morocco. Fred is a Frenchman who travels to the most remote parts of the world in search of authentic cuisines. When he arrived at a little Berber village in Morocco the humble family he stayed with, showed him how they cook a tagine and later they huddled together around the steaming dish and used their fingers to break bread that was used to scoop the meat and gravy. I could feel the unity and solidarity of these people even if it was only through a screen. They live a modest and simple life, but rich in so many ways – love, family, remarkable landscapes, harmony with nature and of course, home-grown, fresh ingredients to make exceptional dishes. The same happened when the Vagabond Chef traveled to a place in the Sahara Desert where he was generously hosted by a group of men. There in the dry desert there’s little to eat and so camel is understandably the prime meat source. They prepared a very simple camel tagine and I said to myself that camel meat must be very tough especially since a camel spends its whole life walking through the desert with the weight of the world on its back. And then I saw the finished dish and recognised the tenderness of the meat and my appreciation for this fascinating little clay pot, simply soared. Once again friends and strangers gathered around the camel tagine and I remember thinking, it’s deeply sacrosanct how food brings people together.
- 4 round tomatoes
- 1 large onion
- small handful of coriander
- 2 tbs ginger & garlic paste
- 2 tbs olive oil
- 1 tsp salt/2 tsp lemon confit
- 1/2 tsp crushed black pepper
- 50g dried apricots
- 500g lamb pieces
- 2 tbs Ras el Hanout
- 1 extra large potato
- 1 dry chilli
- Rub the meat with the Ras el Hanout, 1tbs of oil and 1tsp of salt.
- Roughly chop onions, tomatoes and coriander. Add oil, ginger & garlic paste, salt or lemon confit & pepper. Mix to combine.
- Add this mix to the base of the tagine.
- Scatter with apricots.
- Cover with marinated meat.
- Wash and quarter the potato and place over the meat.
- Add dry chilli and cover with lid.
- Place tagine in an oven for 1h20 at 180°C degrees convectional/200°C conventional. However if using a clay tagine and not a ceramic glazed one, ensure that the oven temperature is not more 160°C as clay may crack under high heat and extend the cooking time by half an hour.
- If cooking on an open fire or barbecue, cook on a moderate flame for 2 hours. Or alternatively cook in the oven for 1 hour and then place on the open flame for the remaining 20 mins to smoke. Or finally, smoke with coal and butter as suggested in the article above.
- To serve, add coriander, pomegranate rubies and yoghurt dressing.
FOR THE YOGHURT DRESSING
- 1 cup Greek/Bulgarian or plain yoghurt
- 1/4 finely chopped mint leaf
- pinch of salt
- Place all ingredients in a small mixing bowl and stir to combine.
- Cover with cling film and refrigerate until needed.
- Will keep in the refrigerator for 3 days.
FOR THE COUSCOUS
- 1 cup couscous
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp cumin powder
- 1 tsp butter
- Pour salted boiling water over couscous.
- Cover and allow the couscous to swell for 5 minutes.
- Fluff up couscous with a fork.
- Add butter and spice mix to combine.
Maestros Need To Know *It is very important to note that every tagine (the physical pot) must be seasoned before its very first use. To do this you must, first hand wash the tagine with a gentle soap and leave to dry thoroughly. Once dry, coat the lid and the base with olive oil before storing. This will ensure that you get the best results from your tagine. *Tagines have a tendency to form mould on the inside when stored. Making sure that it is always throughly dry and seasoned can help to prevent this. In any case a wash just before use is all that is needed to remove the mould, so don't worry too much about moulding. *If you notice that the cooking process is darkening the colour of your tagine, do not mind, this is perfectly normal and should be expected with constant use. *Tagines tend to crack under sudden changes in temperature. There are always instructions from manufacturers on how to prevent this from occurring. However if you purchase a tagine from an open market or if you have thrown the packaging away then you must remember the following. Always ensure that you do not place a tagine in a preheated oven, it is best to allow the tagine to heat gradually. Do not place a cold tagine on a high heat. Do not add cold liquids to a hot tagine. Do not place a hot tagine on a cold surface or vice versa. Gradual heating is the best way to ensure that your tagine will not crack.