Sunday, January 9, 2011

Toothsome Tagine

For Christmas, I received a tagine as a gift from my wife Jessica's Aunt Lee.

For those of you who are not familiar, a tagine is a Moroccan pot, typically made of heavy clay, designed for braising meats and stews. It has a shallow, circular base and a tent shaped lid that encourages steam to condense and drip back down to the bottom. The shape of the lid also facilitates convection currents during cooking that are supposed to aid in slow braising.

Below is a picture of my tagine:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-1

In addition to the tagine itself, my wife Jessica got me an assortment of exotic Moroccan spices from a local, Colorado based spice store called Savory Spice Shop on West 5th St. in Austin. For those who live in Austin, I HIGHLY recommend this place. It is way better than either Whole Foods or Central Market in terms of selection, especially the exotic stuff. It's reasonably priced and has basically eliminated my need for a quarterly order of herbs and spices online.

Between the tagine and the spices, I was quite excited to cook some great Moroccan food. I love the rich and exotic flavors of Moroccan cuisine and couldn't wait to take a shot at doing a tagine myself. I immediately knew to where I should look in my ever growing cookbook collection... I consulted Claudia Roden's Arabesque cookbook. It is a wonderful cookbook covering traditional recipes and culinary history of Turkey, Morocco, and Lebanon. Though my knowledge of cuisine of the region is fairly limited, I have learned an enormous amount from the Roden book and it seems to be considered to be an authoratitive book on the cuisine of Morocco.

After reading the many variations of tagine recipes in the book, I decided on a recipe entitled Tagine of Lamb with Apricots.

The recipe was very simple... It basically called for browning some lamb stew meat and then slow braising in the tagine with ginger, cinamon, and saffron. Never content to take a recipe at face value, I went ahead and added some orange zest, a bay leaf, and a few very generous pinches of the Marrakech Moroccan Spice that was included in the spices that Jessica got me for Christmas.

Here are the lamb chunks browning prior to being put into the tagine to braise. Note how undcrowded the pan is. I did three separate batches. Crowding your pan is a big no-no when browning. Also, it is important to let your meat come to room temperature over about 30 minutes and then to blot your meat dry with a paper towel before browning it. Browning cold meat before braising will cause it to tense up resulting in a tough final product. Moist meat does not brown as effectively as dry meat, as water interferes with the maillard reaction. Hence room temperature + dry is the way to go:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-4

Here are some of the various spices I used in the tagine:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-3
Lamb Apricot Tagine-6

After browning, I slow cooked the lamb in the tagine on very low heat for two hours, turning it ocassionally. In the past, I've had challenges getting my stove's heat low enough to cook at a very gentle simmer. I broke down and purchased a really nice German made burner heat diffuser for slow braising. This has worked very well for me in the past and it did the trick here as well.

These photos show the tagine at various points in the cooking process:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-5
Lamb Apricot Tagine-8
Lamb Apricot Tagine-10
Lamb Apricot Tagine-12

Prior to starting the lamb, I soaked some Turkish dried apricots in water for a few hours. I then simmered the apricots for another hour until meltingly soft and syrupy:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-2
Lamb Apricot Tagine-9

Since Jessica is gluten intolerant, I can't make traditional couscous. This is a shame since I absolutely adore good couscous, especially the plump Israeli pearl variety. However, I was able to track down some gluten-free brown rice couscous at whole foods. I opted to amp it up a bit by cooking it in some turkey stock and then tossing in some roasted tomatoes and onions tossed in fresh ground corriander and cumin prior to serving:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-7

Finally, I fried some almond slices in a few tablespoons of safflower oil to toss on top:
Lamb Apricot Tagine-11

The end result:

Tagine of Lamb with Apricot
Moroccan spices. Brown rice couscous with grape tomato, onion, corriander, and cumin. Fried almonds.Lamb Apricot Tagine-13

The flavors were incredible. Rich and exotic. Balanced and intense. Absolutely delicious. The lamb was melt in your mouth tender... better than I typically achieve with Western braising techniques/equipment. The couscous was great flavor-wise, though maybe a tiny bit mushy. I think that this might be a consequence of the fact that I was using gluten free brown rice couscous. Next time I try a tagine or anything with couscous for that matter, I will definitely make both a traditional pearl couscous for myself and gluten free couscous for Jessica. This dish was just great. It was pretty simple, though I found myself babysitting it because it was my first time using a tagine. Now that I'm more comfortable with the tagine, this could easily be a phenomenal low maintneance fire-and-forget dish.

This dish does take some a time and patience. I found it especially difficult to suffer through the 2-3 hour braising time with the amazing scent the tagine filling the kitchen and teasing my appetite.

I do see myself using the tagine more broadly in the future. I want to see how it does with French braised dishes such as short ribs. I also think it could work VERY well with Ethiopian stews and possibly with more heavilly braised German and British dishes. Oxtails immediately come to mind as the next protein that should go in my tagine.

Overall, the tagine was a great success and has inspired and allowed me to extend my culinary reach into another corner of the world.