- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Mention Morocco and visions of sweeping sand dunes, loping camels and bustling marketplaces spring to mind. Mention this exotic North African country to me, and I think of russet-colored tagines. Morocco is the land of succulent stews and the shallow, clay containers in which they simmer.

I fell for both several years ago on a road trip through Morocco. On the edge of the Sahara, I indulged in countless dinners of fall-off-the-bone chicken, preserved lemons and olives, and red snapper with fiery charmoula seasoning, potatoes and peppers. All were prepared in and referred to as tagines.

Fearing that I would not find this delectable dish back home, I purchased my own terra cotta tagine. No sooner did I have the coveted cookware in hand than I began to fret over breaking and losing it.

Tagines seem to be everywhere these days. I need only stop by a local kitchen supply store or cookware store at the mall or dine at a neighboring Moroccan restaurant to experience its culinary magic. The pottery and the entree have captured the imaginations of cooks and diners throughout the country.

The tagine is an engineering wonder. It has two parts: a circular, shallow pan and the large, conical-topped cover that fits inside the base. The cone shape allows condensation to cascade back down to the casserole, creating a rich, reduced sauce. The lid has a small knob on the top, providing cooks with something to grasp when removing the cover to check on the bubbling contents within.

Traditionally comprised of glazed terra cotta, today’s tagines come in materials familiar to the modern cook. Combinations range from stainless steel bottom and earthenware cover, courtesy of All-Clad, to cast iron and earthenware from Le Creuset. Unlike the classic clay construction, the new, pricier versions can be placed directly on a burner without the use of a heat diffuser. I must slide a cast iron skillet of comparable size beneath my old-fashioned pot before firing up the stovetop.

When making tagines at home, I use my $14 clay model. Frequent use has seasoned this simple vessel, adding intense flavor to every meal.

Mohamed Elmaarouf, owner of Imports from Marrakesh Ltd. in New York’s Chelsea Market, also prefers terra cotta to the fancier, metal-based counterparts. “It holds heat longer and better so the food doesn’t get cold quickly, and it can be used from the stove to the tabletop,” he says. His store carries a plethora of glazed terra cotta tagines, from condiment-size to those for parties of 12.

Mr. Elmaarouf advises seasoning the terra cotta baker before using it. He recommends soaking it in hot water overnight, then rubbing olive oil onto it and placing it in a 200-degree oven for 20 minutes.

Following a different seasoning method for my tagine, I put water, olive oil, onions, zucchini and carrots and a sprinkling of spices, including turmeric, cumin and garlic, in the bottom. After covering with the lid, I put the pot into a 300-degree oven for 40 minutes. I then removed it and allowed it to cool. After it reached room temperature, I discarded the contents and washed the tagine in preparation for its first real use.

Once seasoned and cleaned, tagines will produce an array of delights. Meals can range from spicy meatballs, tomatoes and eggs to a vegetarian fete of soft artichokes, potatoes and peas. Spiced with ancient seasonings like pepper, ginger and cinnamon, the aroma simultaneously soothes and stimulates the senses. Most tagine recipes also include cumin, onion, garlic and saffron, common Berber spices, says Rhomari Abdelziz of Taste of Morocco restaurant in Arlington.

The Moroccan specialty also pairs sweet and savory elements. At Taste of Morocco, lamb is coupled with dried prunes, chicken is joined with dates, and red snapper is matched with sweet onions and raisins. These combinations speak to the medieval roots of tagines and to a time when meats were commonly teamed with sweet ingredients.

Along with a successful marriage of flavors, the food requires patient and attentive care. “The secret to a good tagine is the old-fashioned way of slow, low simmering,” says Said Benjelloun, owner of Casablanca Moroccan Restaurant in Denver.

Simmering allows the diverse flavors to meld together and ensures a tender, juicy, aromatic meal. Cooks must be vigilant, though, and add water as needed. Otherwise, they will end up with a dinner as dry as the desert.

While I was amazed to see tagines popping up in American restaurants and cooking shops, their popularity comes as no surprise to Terry Manfa of Little Marakesh Moroccan Restaurant in Dresher, Pa. “The growth of the Moroccan population in Europe and the U.S. has brought the cuisine to another level,” Mr. Manfa says.

His restaurant attracts diners who hail from or have traveled to Morocco, as well as those who have never set foot in the country. The glowing reputation of Moroccan cuisine and tagines draws them to his festive dining room.

Whether you are a restless wayfarer, an adventurous eater or an experimenting cook, tagines will transport you to a colorful land of flavorful and fragrant food.

While traditionally prepared in the conical tagine, these recipes can also be made in a Dutch oven or large, shallow saute pan. The keys to success are in keeping the heat at a low simmer, covering the dish while cooking and making sure the sauce doesn’t bubble away completely.

Tagine of chicken, preserved lemon and olives

6 boneless chicken breast halves

1½ large white onions, grated

6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes

1 teaspoon crushed coriander seeds

Juice of 1 lemon

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1½ teaspoons sea salt, or to taste

1½ teaspoons ground black pepper, or to taste

Water

1 preserved lemon (see note)

Handful of picholine olives

Cooked couscous, optional

Place chicken in a bowl. In another bowl, combine onion, garlic, parsley, coriander, lemon juice, olive oil, ginger and saffron, and whisk to mix. Pour marinade over chicken. Cover, refrigerate and allow chicken to marinate for 1 hour.

Place tagine on stove over medium heat. Arrange chicken so that it covers bottom of tagine. Pour marinade over and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add enough water to cover chicken by two-thirds. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Cover and cook about 1 hour, turning chicken over periodically so that it does not brown on one side or stick to pan.

Rinse preserved lemon, then cut into strips. Add lemon and olives to tagine. Cover and cook 10 minutes to reduce sauce and meld flavors. Remove tagine from heat and serve chicken solo, or with couscous on the side, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Preserved lemons are available at specialty grocery stores and from online food suppliers such as www.zamourispices.com or www.farawayfoods.com. Fresh lemons are not recommended. Recipes for preserved lemons are also available online

Vegetarian tagine

3 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon saffron

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon cumin

2 cups vegetable stock

4 carrots, peeled and cut into ½-inch chunks

2 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

2 zucchinis, washed and cut into ½-inch discs

3 yellow squash, washed and cut into ½-inch discs

4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

1 white onion, peeled, quartered and cut in chunks

1/4 cup chickpeas

Freshly ground white pepper and salt

Heat olive oil in a large tagine over medium heat. Mix saffron, turmeric and cumin with vegetable stock. Set aside. Place carrot, potato, zucchini and squash in tagine and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 10 to 15 minutes, or until slightly softened but not browned.

Add reserved stock, garlic and onion. Bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low heat. Cover and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes.

Once vegetables are tender, add chickpeas and salt and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings. Simmer for 3 to 5 minutes to heat through and serve.

Makes 8 servings.

Tagine of cod, potatoes, green peppers and olives

This tagine can be made with red snapper, monkfish or any other firm, white fish and is seasoned with the Moroccan spice-and-herb mixture, charmoula.

CHARMOULA:

6 cloves garlic, peeled and quartered

1½ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon paprika

Generous handful cilantro, washed and stems removed

Handful parsley, washed and stems removed

1½ lemons, juice only

2½ tablespoons olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Using a food processor, puree garlic, pepper flakes, cumin, salt, paprika, cilantro, parsley, lemon juice, olive oil and pepper to taste to make a paste.

Alternately, you can use a mortar and pestle and combine garlic with pepper flakes, cumin, salt, paprika, cilantro, parsley and black pepper. Add oil and lemon juice at the end.

TAGINE:

3 pounds cod, trimmed and cut in small chunks

Charmoula (recipe precedes)

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

2 green bell peppers, seeded and cut in strips

2 tablespoons tomato paste

Water

1 pint cherry tomatoes

5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

Salt and pepper

Handful Kalamata olives

Place chunks of fish on large platter. Spread charmoula over fish, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Heat olive oil in the tagine, then add potato slices, stirring frequently so they don’t stick or burn.

Cook over medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes, then add bell pepper. Cover and cook another 5 minutes, checking vegetables frequently to make sure they are not sticking.

Mix tomato paste with 3/4 cup warm water. Pour this mixture over potatoes and bell peppers. Add cherry tomatoes and garlic, cover and cook another 10 minutes.

Lay chunks of cod on top of vegetables. Add any remaining charmoula and salt and pepper to taste. If sauce appears too thick, add enough water to reach desired consistency.

Cover and cook for about 15 minutes, or until fish appears done. Add Kalamata olives, simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes to heat through and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Tagine of lamb with apricots, honey, raisins and almonds

This recipe was adapted from Paula Wolfert’s classic “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco” (Morrow).

1 cup almonds or pine nuts

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

Pinch saffron

Salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 scant teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon cinnamon, divided

3 tablespoons grated onion

3 to 3½ pounds shoulder of lamb, trimmed and cut into 1½-inch chunks

Water

2 small yellow squash, peeled and cut in small pieces

1 cup raisins

1 pound fresh apricots, washed and quartered

1/4 cup honey

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Toast almonds or pine nuts in preheated 350-degree oven or in a pan on the stove until golden and aromatic. This will only take a few minutes. Stir occasionally and watch carefully; they burn quickly.

Melt butter and mix with oil, saffron, salt, pepper, ginger, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and onion.

Dip each piece of lamb into this mixture then place in tagine.

Over medium heat, lightly brown lamb on all sides then add some water to pan so that it almost covers meat. Bring water to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour.

Add squash and cook for 30 minutes more. Add raisins, apricots, remaining 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and honey. Simmer, uncovered, until sauce has reduced to roughly 1 cup. Remove from heat, sprinkle with toasted almonds and sesame seeds and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

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