Tagines are both a cooking vessel, and the dish you make with them. They are one of the traditional foods of Morocco, which probably was a little bit warmer this week! (In 1935, Morocco set its record cold temperature, -11 F. But normally, it only occasionally gets below freezing there, and that is usually well inland).
Tagine the Cooking Vessel
Tagine the vessel is a clay dish with a cone shaped lid that allows steam from cooking to condense and return to the dish. It’s essentially the Moroccan version of a crock pot. They allow long, slow, moist cooking: braising, basically. But with a unique convection current in the liquid that allows flavors to meld in a unique way.
Traditional tagines are intricately decorated and quite beautiful, yet inexpensive. But they only survive for a short while in use. They also need a flame diffuser under them to ensure they don’t crack right away… I have an Emile Henry tagine made with a high temperature clay that survives regular cooking, and without diffuser. But it looks rather plain and boring, and is mildly expensive (even more so right now. But I presume that’s related to inflation/supply chain issues post-pandemic, and that it will return to reasonable soon).
Le Creuset makes tagines with an enameled cast iron base, and a clay lid. They are a bit smaller and, while plain compared with traditional ones, a bit more attractive than mine. The base, at least, should also be nearly indestructible. I haven’t tried one, because they are quite expensive. But you could feel free to send me one :). Meanwhile, you can simulate a tagine to some degree using a crock pot. The results will be similar and still delicious.
Tagines the Dish
A Tagine the dish comes in many variations. They usually highlight a protein, such as lamb (the most common in tradition), beef, sausage, chicken, duck, or seafood. Vegetarian tagines are less common, but spectacular. They frequently include dried fruits, alluring aromatic spices, nuts, and honey, making a rich, often colorful (this one wasn’t…), and exciting experience for all the senses.
For our winter-storm, family-Christmas-celebration-is-rescheduled, stay-indoors-and-live-with-what-you-have-on-hand tagine, I used our lamb stew meat (from the breast and foreshank of the lamb), tons of onion, some almonds, cinnamon sticks, and coriander. The freeze dried blackberries add a hit of acid brightness and bitter notes, while some honey and dates counter with sweet sticky goodness.
You could make a tagine with a crockpot instead of in a tagine on top of the wood stove. But, it’s more fun, and tastes better, with the traditional vessel and a bit of fire!
We hope you all had a wonderful, peaceful, and safe winter holiday, whichever you celebrate (or, summer holiday for those of you in the other half of the world), full of love, family, and great food.
Lamb Tagine with Blackberries and Dates
A Tagine is a clay dish with a cone shaped lid that allows steam from cooking to condense and return to the dish. It's essentially the Moroccan version of a crock pot. Tagines allow long, slow, moist cooking: braising, basically. But with a unique convection current in the liquid that allows flavors to meld in a unique way.
A Tagine is also a traditional type of food from Morocco, cooked in a tagine. They tend to be rich, aromatic stews, containing proteins, veggies, dried fruits, alluring spices, nuts, and honey, making a rich, often colorful (this one wasn't...), and exciting experience for all the senses.
There is a lot of room for improvisation, remembering to mix both rich, umami-laden flavors with bright, acidic ones. This was an ad-lib of pantry ingredients, including freeze dried blackberries we had foraged earlier. More traditional than the blackberries would probably be rehydrated dried apricots.
Place the base of tagine on the top of a woodstove, or over a medium flame. Add the ghee and allow to melt.
Stir in the almonds, and saute, stirring frequently, until they begin to brown. Add the onions and garlic, and saute until they begin to turn color. Meanwhile, crush the coriander seeds in a mortar and pestle.
When the onions have begun to turn color, stir in the coriander, ginger, and whole cinnamon sticks. Add the lamb, and stir, making sure all of the pieces are coated in the spices and onion bits. Saute for a couple of minutes. The lamb will turn color, but not really brown.
Place the dates and blackberries in a small bowl and cover with water to rehydrate.
Add enough water to the tagine to just cover the lamb, and bring to a boil. Move the tagine to a cooler part of the woodstove, or turn down the flame. Cover with the tagine lid, or if you're substituting a crock pot, transfer to the crock pot now.
Let simmer / braise for about an hour, until the lamb is tender and falls apart easily.
Drain the berries and dates, and add to the tagine, along with the orange zest. Stir, cover again, and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Stir in the honey. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer with the lid removed until the sauce becomes syrupy and slightly caramelized, probably about 10 minutes.
Traditionally, serve with couscous. We didn't have any, so I use basmati rice, which also worked well.
It would be nice, and traditionally appropriate, to add a good deal of chopped cilantro or flatleaf parsley, both stirred in at the end and on top as a garnish. That would lend a nice fresh herb flavor and color contrast. But we didn't have any on hand, and it was still delicious.