I recently traveled to Morocco – a culinary destination that had fascinated me for years - and it did not disappoint. The food, whether at small street stalls or at large, sophisticated restaurants, was exquisite. But in particular, I wanted to find new dishes that I could offer at our kitchen, and tagines were at the top of my list.
I had, in the past, made many tagines from recipes I’d found in books or online, and I’d had a few tagines at local restaurants. Still, without seeing and tasting them at their source, I was never confident that I’d gotten it right, and always questioned whether I understood their essence.
What exactly makes a tagine a tagine? Is it any different from a stew? And does it really need to be cooked in a tagine pot? Is that clay platter with the pointy lid really essential to the taste, or is it just an aesthetic thing?
Briefly, here’s what I found. While there are many many different types of tagines, vegetarian, fish, chicken, beef, lamb, with many different spice, herb, vegetable, fruit, and dried fruit combinations, they all share a few common characteristics:
1. The ingredients are prepped (vegetables are sliced, herbs are chopped, meat is trimmed and cut, spices measured out and mixed), then laid out in a precise and beautiful arrangement on the cooking vessel, and cooked. There’s no sautéing, and very little of the progressive multi-step cooking that’s so common in western and Asian cuisine.
2. They incorporate complex and inspired mixtures of spices, herbs, fruit, and pickles that often combine the sweet with the sour and the savory in unusual and surprising ways. I consider this to be a hallmark of Moroccan cuisine, reflecting its historic role as the medieval gateway for the spice, sugar and salt trade into western Europe.
3. Tagines are cooked over a low and steady heat, with little or no added liquid, so that the ingredients steam in their own juices, concentrating the flavor, and giving a sharpness that is not found in a western stew.
4. No, a tagine pot is not necessary for cooking a tagine. What is needed is a flat shallow pan with a fitted lid, that is large enough for you to lay out all the ingredients of the tagine, without stacking them any higher then 3 or 4 inches. Anything much higher than that will result in more of a stew than a tagine, which too much liquid accumulating at the bottom of your pan.
With these basic guidelines, here’s a recipe for one of the best known of the Moroccan tagines. As in almost all tagines, the majority of the work here is in preparing the ingredients, and laying them out on your pan. Once that’s done, you can bring it to simmer, set a timer, and voila, you’ll have a beautiful, absolutely delicious, and authentic Moroccan tagine.
Chicken Tagine with Cracked Olives and Preserved Lemons
Makes 4 servings
0.1 lb onions, chopped
4 chicken legs (thigh and leg) skinned
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 oz parsley leaves, chopped
1 oz cilantro leaves, minced
1 tsp salt
0.25 tsp black pepper
2/3 tsp ginger
2/3 tsp turmeric
2/3 tsp cumin
2/3 tsp coriander
0.15 lb preserved lemons – sliced thin and deseeded
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup water
1/3 lb cracked olives, pitted
Sprinkle the chopped onion on the bottom of a flat, 9” diameter lidded sauté pan.
Mix the chicken pieces with the herbs and garlic, and then lay the chicken pieces on top of the onion.
Mix the spices, and sprinkle them over the chicken.
Lay the preserved lemon slices on top, and finish by pouring the olive oil and water over it all.
Cover the pan, bring to simmer, and when it reaches the simmering point, turn over the chicken pieces, cover again, and lower the heat to keep the pan barely simmering.
Cook for 15 minutes, then turn over the chicken pieces again, and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Remove from flame, and let the tagine cool.
You can serve the tagine as soon as it’s cooked, but the magic is that it will be even better if you let it stay in the fridge at least overnight, and preferably a day or two.
Note: You can find preserved lemons at most Whole Foods olive bars, and at many Middle Eastern markets. You can find cracked olives at most Middle Eastern markets.