The Long, Hot Simmer: Cook a Hearty Moroccan Stew with a Tagine

April 6, 2010

MOVE OVER, DUTCH oven. Put a lid on it, Crock-Pot. There’s a new slow-cooker making heat waves in the kitchen, and it has everything you’d want from a take-your-time technique: simple one-pot deliciousness in a conical vessel that looks as at home on a sleek display shelf as inside the oven.

The tagine, a clay pot for cooking North African stews (also called tagines) may not be familiar to the average American cook, but it’s been used for centuries in Morocco. The dishes it produces, originally concocted by native Berber tribes, often consist of tender chicken, lamb, fish and vegetables in rich sauces and spices. Stewing food in a tagine helps it cook evenly for a long period — up to several hours — without drying out. The conical lid allows steam to rise and slowly fall as the stuff inside bakes.

“From the point of view of a modern-day cook, [using a tagine] is a succulent way of cooking meat or vegetables,” says Ghillie Basan, the Scotland-based author of “Tagines and Couscous” ($25, Ryland Peters & Small). “In the old days, tribal people used very tough cuts of meat, and it was a way of assuring that it was tender enough to eat.”

Though tagine pots are eye-catching, you don’t need one to prepare a tagine stew. In fact, decorative tagines with colorful patterns are often not properly “seasoned” for direct heat over a stovetop or in an oven, so do your research before shopping for one (see sidebar). Fortunately, there’s flexibility. Basan says tagine stews can be made in any hard-bottomed casserole dish or pot with a lid.

Even the chef at the Moroccan Embassy, Nazha Kasraoui, says she’s used pots instead of tagines. “If you follow the traditional steps [in a recipe] — you can’t put everything in at once — you’ll get very good results,” Kasraoui says. Plus, the stew can always be transferred to an artful tagine for an impressive presentation at the table.

Traditional Moroccan stews often have a sweet or spicy kick, evident in chicken with preserved lemon and olives, or lamb with dried fruit. Garlic, cumin, honey, preserved lemon and aged butter called smen are common ingredients, and give tagines the key flavors of “fiery, sweet and salty,” Basan says.

Fish can also star in the stews. Samir Labriny, the executive chef of Alexandria’s Casablanca (1504 King St.; 703-549-6464), recommends baking a tagine of fish with chermoula sauce, which is a marinade of garlic, cumin, chile, lemon, olive oil and cilantro or parsley. Casablanca offers the dish with salmon, though Moroccans use a variety of whole fish and seafood in tagines. “It combines all the flavors of Moroccan cuisine,” says Labriny, who also teaches healthy Moroccan cooking at the restaurant (see Cuisineofmorocco.com). “It has all the basic ingredients of spices, plus it has fresh tomatoes, which I love in my food.”

To deepen the flavor in your tagine, stock up on North African spice mixes such as fiery, chile-filled harissa paste; and ras-el-hanout, a pungent blend of herbs. If you don’t want to make your own mix, find an array of zesty spices at Zamourispices.com.

While some American restaurants serve couscous with tagines — topping a plateful of the grains with a few scoops of stew — Moroccans rarely eat these dishes in the same course. “You wouldn’t expect those two together,” Labriny explains, “because they each have a distinctive taste. You would eat the tagine with bread, typically,” whereas couscous is often served on its own, after the tagine.

Take tradition with a grain of salt, however. “The secret is always to taste and to have a little bit of creativity” when prepping a Moroccan feast, Basan says. “There are no strict rules on what should go into your dish; that’s the beauty of cooking in parts of the world where [available ingredients] range from area to area.”

After all, simmering a tagine can take hours — plenty of time to stew over how to add your own special touch.

» Recipe File: Spicy Chicken Tagine with Apricots, Rosemary and Ginger

» A Pot to Stew In: Finding the Perfect Tagine

Photo courtesy Ryland Peters & Small, 2010

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express · April 6, 2010