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!