Wikipedia defines a tagine, or tajine, as a “slow-cooked stew braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce.” Wow… let’s do this.
I first experienced the glory of tagine at Cafe Mogador, in Mahattan’s East Village, thanks to the amazing tour-guiding skills of our close friend Zoe, an East Village native (who also apparently used to live with the owner). Mogador’s menu presents an array of Moroccan cuisine, including vibrant cous-cous dishes, platters of succulent grilled meat, and delicious North African dips. But the centerpiece of their menu is the selection of tagines, which marry either chicken or lamb with your choice of sauce. The sauce options rotate from time to time, but I was faced with a number of mouth-watering combinations such as apricots and prunes, or chickpeas, raisins and onions, or lemon and olives. Upon Zoe’s recommendation, we went with the lamb tagine and an apricot prune sauce. Amazing.
Of course, ever since I had my first tagine at Mogador, I’ve been dreaming up ways to cook my own. Over time I’ve pieced together bits and pieces of a few different recipes and experiments and settled on the following. Keep in mind, as always, that the list of ingredients below is just one possible combination among many, and I encourage you to try different ideas using the basic techniques I describe. Some other possible additions include olives, quinces, apples, pears, raisins, prunes, dates, nuts, lemons, other citrus fruits, etc.
The best part of this recipe is the layering of flavors. As you will see, the dish is built up one ingredient at a time, resulting in a final product with a rich, deep flavor and myriad subtleties.
2-3 pounds lamb (I used lamb loin chops, which is an expensive little cut that does just as well on the grill as it does in this 3 hour braise. A better alternative would be a lamb shoulder, chopped into 3 inch cubes, or a couple lamb shanks)
spices (a lot of chili powder, paprika and turmeric, and a little coriander, garlic powder, ground ginger, ground allspice, ground cinnamon, ground cumin, cayenne pepper and saffron)
- Note, a “lot” means about a tablespoon, and a “little” means about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon. Use your judgment.
2 big yellow onions
a red or green bell pepper, or both
4-5 cloves of garlic,
2-3 inch piece of ginger
2-3 big carrots
a bunch of cilantro
1 can diced tomatoes
handful of currants
either cous-cous or rice, to soak up all the delicious sauce
1. Season the Lamb.
Mix up all your spices in a bowl. This is one of those recipes that makes you glad you keep your spice rack well stocked, because you use basically everything in it. Pour about half the spice mixture over the lamb pieces and rub it in your hands to thoroughly coat each piece. Save the other half of the spice mixture to add to the braise later on.
If you have the luxury of time, season the lamb the night before you cook the tagine, but its not remotely necessary.
2. Sear the Lamb.
Similar to so many dishes, the first step is to sear the meat in order to create a dark brown crust and seal in the juices. Do this in the same pot that you’ll be making the braise in (preferably a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or ceramic-covered cast iron pot). Get the pot nice and hot, with a little olive oil to help the browning process. Place the pieces of lamb in a single layer — they should sizzle — and be sure not to crowd them in. Do it in multiple batches if necessary. This is one of the most important steps, so don’t rush it. Let each piece get nice and brown before flipping it and browning the other side.
Once the lamb is dark golden brown on all sides, take it out and set it aside. Pour a little cold chicken stock or water (a few tablespoons) into the bottom of the pan, and deglaze the bottom of the pan by scraping up all the browned bits. The resulting pan sauce will provide the first layer of flavor, upon which you will build the braise.
2. Brown the Onions.
Chop the onions coarsely and drop them in the pot. Add a few pinches of salt to help the onions break down, and a drizzle of olive oil if necessary to coat. As the onions cook down, after about 20 minutes on medium heat, they will get sweet and soft.
Throw the rest of the spice mixture into the pot while the onions are cooking, after about 10 minutes.
3. Build the Braise.
Here is the fun part. Now that we have a flavorful base, we’re going to start adding layers of flavor that will eventually simmer together to create the complex sauce.
First, add the chopped garlic, bell pepper, and ginger. Let that cook for a few minutes until the garlic and ginger starts to release their wonderful aromas.
Next, add the chicken stock and the diced tomatoes. Also add the browned lamb at this point, as well as the chopped carrots and cilantro stems (tied into a bundle with a piece of string). Bring it up to a boil, cover the pot, turn down the heat, and let the it all cook for about an hour or more. Your kitchen should be smelling ridiculously good by now.
Taste the braise. Does it need more salt? Pepper? Spice? Adjust accordingly. Also prod the meat. Is it getting nice and soft and starting to fall apart? If not, give it another hour.
4. Finish It.
Finally, add in the apricots and currants. You can also add a little honey for sweetness, or lemon juice for acidity if needed. Taste, and adjust. Depending on how thick you want the final tagine to be, you can keep the top on during this last stage, or pop the top off to let it reduce a bit and thicken.
Let the apricots and currants swell up and release their flavors. Taste again after 30 minutes — divine.
5. Serve It.
Serve heaping spoonfuls of sauce to each plate, and top with a piece of lamb or two. Or three. You can either serve over cous-cous or rice, or you can provide a bowl of cous-cous or rice on the side. Garnish with cilantro leaves, or other herbs of your choice. I also garnished with some toasted almonds (to peel them, blanch them in boiling water for 20 seconds, then the skins will pop right off. Toast them on a baking sheet for a few minutes).