I've had all of the stuff in the house to make a lovely tagine for a couple of weeks now, but it's a time commitment that can be a bit daunting. What if I want to go someplace and don't want to worry about something on the stove while I'm out? What if I get lost in a book and forget about time? Well, there are tons of excuses when you're dodging a three to five hour time commitment. But I finally ran out of excuses. The lamb was thawed. The time had come. Time to soak the tagine in warm water for about a half hour and get cooking!
I don't know how to control the layout on these pages, so I've numbered the photos and you can take it from there. So lets start at the beginning...
The spices! I have to apologize because I'm not one of those cooks who makes a religion out of measuring. I add what "feels right," so I'll do my best to give you clues, but they won't be down to the last microgram in accuracy. I did use some spices that aren't in the picture, but here's a list of all of the spices and other ingredients I did use:
2 pounds of lamb shoulder cut into chinks. Mostly around 2 inches or so.
Olive oil, about a half cup. I used Colavita premium evoo. Cute cruet, right?
One large yellow onion chopped fairly fine (or you can grate it)
2 cloves of crushed garlic or a tsp or so of garlic powder
Ras el Hanout, about a teaspoonful
Saffron, a generous half teaspoon or so, but don't pack it down
Stick Cinnamon, a half stick or to taste
Sweet Hungarian (or Spanish) Paprika, a rounded teaspoon (I use Szeged)
Ground Ginger, a scant teaspoon
Dry Harissa, about 1/4 teaspoon for me, more for you if you like things hotter
Ground Cardamom, about a teaspoon
Salt to taste. I used sea salt but any kind of salt except the round box!
Black Pepper, freshly ground to taste. I use tellicherry peppercorns.
Juice of 1 lemon
Honey, any kind you like and around 1/4 cup
Smen. This is a Moroccan aged drawn butter, which I don't have, so I used ghee
Preserved Lemons, 1 lemon, discard flesh and slice into fine pieces
A generous handful of pitted Kalamata olives
A not quite as generous handful of stuffed Manzanilla green olives
Medjool Dates, 10 to12 pitted and cut in half lengthwise, then again crosswise
Sliced Almonds, about 1/4 cup or to taste. Toast them if you like.
1 1/2 cups water
A pound of "precooked" couscous, recipe below
The base of the tagine must be soaked in warm water for about a half hour before assembling the ingredients inside it. This is important because the moisture within the clay helps it tolerate and diffuse heat better and it also modifies how much oil is absorbed into the clay during the long cooking process. This process makes the clay stronger and stronger with time. Also note that after the tagine (food) is served in the tagine (cooking vessel), do NOT wash the tagine with soap or detergent as this will be absorbed into the clay and flavor your next tagine. Not a good thing! Simply rinse out the tagine well with warm to hot water several times, wipe dry, then allow to finish air drying without the lid on. I store my tagine between uses with a few dry paper towels crumpled inside it to absorb odors and help keep it fresh.
And a word about tagines. If you want traditional tagine flavor of the centuries, you have to have a tagine made of clay and unglazed inside. For traditional flavor, the tagine must not be "airtight," but has to allow the steam to condense on the inside of the lid, drip back down around the edges of the tagine (works like a still) while at the same time allowing some of the steam to escape because the lid is not a perfect fit. This allows the sauce to condense slowly during the hours of cooking. The traditional way of telling when a tagine is ready to serve is when most of the liquid has cooked down and the "sauce" is almost pure oil. If you're going to make a tagine, forget about low fat! But the upside (and the downside) is that you don't eat them every day. Well, unless maybe you're Moroccan.
Back to the assembly and cooking process! Place the lamb chunks in a gallon size zip lock bag and pour in a generous amount of the olive oil. Almost all of it, but pour some in the bottom of the tagine. Now blend all of the spices and all other ingredients (EXCEPT the water, honey, butter, chopped onions, dates, and almonds) in a bowl and blend. Yes, even the garlic. Pour these over the meat in the bag, zip it shut and smush it all around to coat the lamb well on all surfaces. You can let the flavors develop at room temperature for around twenty minutes, or you can put it in the refrigerator and it's good for hours or even overnight, but bring it back to room temperature before proceeding.
When the tagine is soaked and the lamb has slumbered a bit in its spices, then it's time to assemble the tagine. You will already have put some olive oil in the bottom of the base. Spread it around. Then pile all of the lamb in the center making sure to drain every last drop of oil from the bag. Put the pieces with exposed bone or a large amount of surface fat in the base first, bone or fat side down. This is a little extra insurance that should any browning occur in the final stages of stewing, the bones and fat will withstand the heat best without burning. Drizzle the honey directly over the lamb. Smother the pile of lamb chunks with the chopped or grated onions. Scatter the black and green olives over all. Dot the top of the onions with about a teaspoon (maybe a bit less) of smen, if you can find it, or ghee. I suspect even plain old butter would work too, but both the ghee and smen have a much richer flavor. And finally, gently pour the cup and a half of water around the edge of the tagine base being careful not to wash away any of the onions. Set over very low heat and put the top on. As you can see in the photographs, I used my butane hot plate with the lowest flame I could get. It took around 20 minutes to come to a simmer. Lovely! Adjust the heat to the lowest possible simmer, but be sure there is at least a ripple on the surface of the liquids.
After an hour or so, take the lid off and add the dates and the almonds. Put the lid back on and let it simmer some more. While you're looking at Photo 3, notice how irregular the shape of my tagine is. That's because it is "hand built" without benefit of a potter's wheel. It may look "primitive," but having done my share of ceramic work in my lifetime, I can tell you it takes consummate skill and experience to build a pot of this size that is this uniform and fits together this well. And therein lies its charm. I love my crooked little tagine! With tagines thrown on a potter's wheel, you often have to prop the lid open with a toothpick or something to allow for proper steam to escape and provide condensation. Crooked little hand built tagines are the way to fly!
As stated above, the way to tell when a tagine is done is by how much liquid and how much oil remain in the bottom of the pot. It's not obvious in the photograph, but there is about a scant quarter of an inch of liquid left under all of that floating oil. And does that oil ever have flavor! Note how everything glistens? And now for the couscous:
2 cups water
1/4 cup oil. I used evoo.
1 pound (by weight) of "precooked" couscous
Bring the water to a full boil. Pour in the oil. Turn off the heat and pour in all of the couscous. Stir to distribute liquid evenly. Cover pan tightly and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork (it should be lump free) and pile into a serving bowl in a tall cone shape. Serve alongside the tagine full of tagine! Enjoy.
And now I sincerely apologize that there is no picture of the table set with the tagine and couscous ready to eat. It was my absolute intention of taking several such pictures, but in the heat of the moment, we just dove in and I didn't even think of the camera until I was sipping my after dinner coffee. Sorry!
Standard service around here is to pile some couscous in the middle of your plate, hollow out the middle and fill it with the tagine. In Morocco, the custom is to not bother with individual plates but to share communally form the serving dishes. Hands are the norm, and not silverware. Most Moroccans are also adept at forming the couscous into a ball in their right hand, then "shooting" it into the mouth with the thumb, much the way kids shoot a marble. I've tried to do it more than once, but I'm in serious need of more target practice. Still, if you don't object to the mess from missing, it can be fun! And bread, such as pita, is often used to scoop up the tagine. Tea is the usual accompaniment, but drink what you like best. It's a fun meal, so enjoy!
Wow, a wonderful cooking lesson, complete with enticing illustrations! I have said this before, your guests are very lucky people! Thanks for sharing, C1.
Nice job Caroline 1! I can just smell that tagine from here:). Love the authentic crooked tagine - as you say, that is the way they should look so they vent properly.
I am sure it tasted great. I smiled at the smen refference - hardly anyone mentions the authentic Moroccan fat! Brings back great memories....
Lovely writeup, thank you (and for the photos).
I've only used glazed tagines and I've gotten lazy. So far, I find that the diffusers have protected the bases of the tagines well.
What I prefer about the targines for summer cooking is the lowest heat that the burner can produce is sufficient and in the kitchen, that's a very good thing.
(Now if Mr. Turf would only try to like lamb.)
re: blue room
LOL! I didn't intend to hide the whole cruet! Thanks for the link. Colavita has a special place in my heart. Before the Big Banks did a Big NoNo and went bust (as in "before the crash"), my son was owner/manager of an elite cycling team and his primary sponsor was Colavita. They made sure he had plenty of Colavita goodies to use as thank you gifts whenever anyone housed the team for races in their area. I LOVED it when he brought the team to Dallas for races. Good times! Damn banks... <sigh>
Great looking food and tagine pot!
I wonder if anyone has used a La Chamba tagine? I know Columbia is far away from Morocco. But they use micaceous clay for their unglazed pots, so they’re suitable for stovetop use. And, they are hand-shaped as opposed to wheel-made, so there’s typically unevenness and give. As far as I know there is one distributor in North America, in Miami, that sells unglazed Moroccan tagines, but they don’t ship to Canada. I know Morocco is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to pay $5000 for a trip to buy a $20 pot!
I bought my first tagine at a shop in St. Petersburg FL. The tagine is only glazed on the inside and I have a worry about what was used in the glazing because of the color the glaze has taken on. It was a hand made tagine and is a beauty in its own.
I've since graduated to a larger version totally glazed that I bought in Philadelphia at the Italian kitchen goods store (because I wanted to save on shipping and wanted to see the color before I bought).
have you looked at this source? its where I got my tagine. They also sell tagines at some middle eastern stores here in NY but maybe you dont have a community like that where you are in Canada. http://tagines.com/cat_moroccan_cooki....
the La chamba stuff seems pretty expensive though attractive - Ive held off on purchasing despite recommendations from Paula Wolfert and others for that reason.
Personally if I could not find a relatively inexpensive tagine, I would go with a shallow casserole or cazuela - clay from spain or aluminum- and crack the lid.
re: jen kalb
The website you give (tagines.com) is where I bought mine, though I don't recall them offering the larger size at that time. I went with it because I wanted historical authenticity. I wanted that bare porous clay that would absorb and retain flavors through sequential use and add to the flavor of each dish in time. Traditionally, tagines are/were used daily or very close to it. If you don't use a traditional tagine (like mine) regularly, you run a high risk of having the oils in it's pores turn rancid. For that reason, and because I make tagines sporadically, I store my tagine in the freezer between uses, then give it a full day to come up to room temperature before each use. So far I've only done that once and it worked like a charm. I also realize that not everyone has the freezer space, or is such an authenticity freak. However, for me a well seasoned and flavorful tagine is as important an ingredient as lamb or chicken or saffron or salt. Overall, given my personal finances and financial comfort zone, forty bucks a pop if my tagine gets broken is a very nice bonus on the side of authenticity. I doubt there are many La Chambra tagines to be found in rural Morocco. Or in the cities. Not at that price!
As for relatively similar alternatives, Romertopf clay bakers such as these:
should serve as a pretty good substitute. I gave mine away during a post-divorce siege of cramped quarters, but as I recall, mine had an unglazed interior, and their domed covers would certainly function in the same way the cone shaped top of a tagine does. Plus these Romertopfs are reasonably priced. My Romertopf was not quite as porous as my tagine, but it did require the same pre-use soaking. If I ever break my tagine, I'll probably replace it with a Romertopf clay baker. But NOT the banana baker. '-)
Yes that’s a good site for Sous and Rifi hand-shaped, unglazed tagines. I contacted them, but they only ship domestically. Sometime I may have one shipped to an address on the US side of the border, then pick it up. (There’s a large North African community in Montreal, where they may be available, but I don’t get there often.) It’s the unglazed tagines that are very difficult to find, and which I’m more interested in. But that’s a good point about the absorbed oils potentially going rancid.
The La Chamba tagines are expensive (unlike the rest of their production), and not from the source, but they are the only other unglazed ones I’ve come across. I have a curious-looking La Chamba lidded skillet, and it works beautifully—very interesting pots as a style.
A great source for clay pots is Bram, from Sonoma, CA. They have a really good selection:
I don't know if all sandpots are made exactly like mine, but the interior of mine is glazed but the interior of the LID is not. Mine isn't as large as my tagine, but if I only wanted to make a single serving, I could turn it upside down and cook in the lid and use the bottom part with the wires around it as a lid... I still say the best alternative is a Romertopf clay baker. NO glaze anywhere and the lid is domed, just not cone shaped!