June 18, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, #13: Cooking with Tagines

The Tagine 
A meal cooked in a very beautiful clay tagine and the memory of powerful aromas and flavors permeated my then young, culinary mind, but it was way more than just the food. It was the way it was prepared; the communal aspect of the meal; the experience itself. Reclining on the plush pillows, actual silks floating down from the ceiling. The fountain, keeping the dance of water constant, against the low thrum of the middle eastern music that played in the background. A pot of strong sweetened tea steeping on the low mesob-type table in front of me, while I noshed on Bistteeya, enjoying the play of the spices against the almonds, sugar icing and cinnamon. I was waiting for what was to become a memorable tagine meal. It was surreal. To make my way back to this small private and unique dining room, I had to navigate, politely, through a darkened hallways and alcoves, brushing past family members and past a kitchen, filled with the lilt of foreign dialects and the pungent smells and fragrances expected in North Africa. Since that day I've never been the same. This oasis was located on.....Second Ave, on the Upper East Side of NYC. And it was Tuesday night. I'd heard of authentic cuisine, but this was total immersion. The only thing missing was my Lawrence of Arabia headband and a place to tie up my camel. Had I inquired, I'm sure someone would have found me the required robes to loan me. This was the night I fell in love with the tagine.

Let's start with the very basics: What is a tagine? Well, to confuse you immediately, tagine refers to both a cooking vessel as well as the stew cooked in it. The tagine vessel consists of two parts: a round pot (traditionally clay or terra cotta), and a conical cover sometimes with a small hole which allows some steam to escape. The base is normally shallow with a rim and is commonly glazed on the inside. The conical shaped lid helps preserve moisture in the food as the steam condenses on the inside of the lid. The shape of the lid also creates circulation within the dish, infusing the food with spices and flavors. It gradually reduces the cooking juices so they become more concentrated and flavorful. The lid is commonly glazed on the outside.

Tagines, the meals, are typically found in North African countries including Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Although each country uses ingredients more commonly found on their own soil, the preparations are very similar. Tagines in Moroccan cuisine are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures, resulting in tender meat with aromatic vegetables and sauce, cooked in a tagine, the vessel. Stay with me....focus; Ideal cuts of lamb are the neck, shoulder or shank, cooked until it is falling off the bone tender. They are often combined with a medley of ingredients or seasonings: olives, quinces, apples, pears, apricots, raisins, prunes, dates, nuts, with fresh or preserved lemons. Traditional spices used include ground cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cumin, paprika, pepper, as well as the famous spice blend ras el hanout.

Ras el hanout is a spice blend that is commonly used all over North Africa, but is known to be Moroccan in origin. Shops, companies, or even individuals usually have their own secret combinations and recipes, containing over a dozen spices. Typically included are cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn and turmeric. Some recipes include over one hundred ingredients, with some rarely found in Western food, such as; ash berries, chufa, Grains of Paradise, orris root, Monk's pepper, cubebs, or dried rosebud.

Other ingredients for a tagine may include any product that braises well: fish, quail, pigeon, beef, root vegetables, legumes, even amber and agar wood. Modern recipes in the West might include pot roasts, ossobuco, lamb shanks and short-ribs. Just because we're cooking in a Moroccan tagine, does not limit us to cooking Moroccan cuisine. Seasonings can be traditional Moroccan, French, Italian or spices can be suited to the dish.

Ingredients commonly used when preparing tagine include: 
Preserved lemons, onions, dried fruits, nuts, sesame seeds, eggs, tomatoes, peppers, olives and seasonings like paprika, cinnamon, cumin, cilantro and saffron are the other components. Smen is a traditional cooking oil most commonly in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines. It is produced using the butter made from the milk of sheep or goats. The butter is brought to boiling point for about 15 minutes, then skimmed, strained into a ceramic jar called a khabia, and salted before it curdles. The oil is then aged.

Glazed vs Unglazed: 
Ceramic glazes are thin coatings baked onto unfinished pottery to make their surfaces glassy, smooth and waterproof. Some glazes used for ceramic products may contain lead oxides. If they are not heated adequately during manufacture, this may result in the release of lead from the product into the food.

So which should you choose?
If you are going to use tagines to cook frequently, say weekly, then unglazed tagines are best because they provide that earthy flavor to your dishes. Otherwise, and this is what most people do, the glazed tagine is better for you because it is stored away and it does not develop that "closet" scent the way unglazed tagines would. Here are a few tips for seasoning your tagine for its first use: This should help remove any earthenware taste and strengthen your tagine;

1. The new tagine needs to be submerged in water for at least 1 hour. Remove and dry.
2. Rub the inside of the base and lid with olive oil.
3. Put in a cold oven and set temperature to 350 degrees and leave for 2 hours.
4. Remove from oven and cool.
5. When completely cool, wash in warm soapy water and dry with a clean cloth.
6. Your tagine is now ready to use.

* NOTE: When cooking in a tagine, never place a ceramic tagine directly on a flame. A heat diffuser should be used if you are using a traditional ceramic tagine. If you do not have a diffuser, place the tagine in a large skillet. If cooking on an electric stove use a medium heat. European manufacturers have created tagines with heavy cast-iron bottoms that can purportedly be heated on a cooking stove to a high temperature, but even these should be used with care, following specific manufacturer guidelines.

So now its time to cook! Gather your ingredients, cut your meat or protein into the appropriate size and shape. Browning in the tagine is an option, but normally a clay tagine is finished uncovered to gain that brown development of flavor towards the end. Seasonings should be added to the protein and vegetables to allow time to develop during the stewing process. In the base of a skillet or the tagine, add some oil, saute garlic and onion along with the protein, then add the vegetables. Cover and cook for the appropriate cooking time. Once the tagine is done cooking, it can be served in the cooking tagine bottom itself, or it can be transferred into a more decorative tagine or bowl to bring to the table. Tagines can be found at Moroccan markets, or on the internet. Be sure to purchase the size and shaped tagine that best suits your needs. Good Luck And Enjoy!

Bon Appetit,

Lou

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