Monday, June 27, 2011

The tagine and I

We've been exploring Moroccan cuisine around here these days, the happy consequence of receiving this beautiful baking dish for Mother's Day this year:

It's called a tagine (ta-zheen'), and with its rich color and lovely lines it is a gorgeous pot, one I'd proudly use to serve any casserole or roast or gratin. This particular dish, though, is made of Burgundy clay, which means that it can be used directly on any cooktop element, without any diffuser, without any risk of cracking or breaking. Which means it is perfect for braising, which is exactly what a tagine is meant to do.

Maybe you haven't heard of braising before, but if you have cooked much at all, you have probably used this technique to tenderize tough cuts of meat or large pieces of fibrous vegetables (artichokes, for example, or tough leafy greens such as collards or rapini): just briefly saute the meat or tough vegetables, add in any other vegetables and herbs you want to use, then add a small amount of water, wine, or broth; bring to a boil, then lower heat to a slow simmer and cover. Cook until meat and vegetables are perfectly tender, stirring periodically and checking to make sure there is still some liquid in the pan. As the liquid evaporates and condenses on the lid, it returns to the pot, both marrying the flavors of the various ingredients you've used and intensifying their flavors so that by the time the dish is done, everything is deliciously coated in a perfectly complementary -- and surprisingly low calorie -- sauce. It is slow cooking at its very best.

It is not, however, the kind of cooking I think of first when it comes to summer. Last week, though, there was not much in the air to make one think of summer. The skies were gray, rains frequent, and the temperatures depressingly dank. We wanted something warm and nourishing, but something also with the promise of the sun. Moroccan cuisine, with its pairings of sweet (raisins/dates/figs/honey), savory (onions/garlic/meat), and citrus seemed just right.

Plus, I had this wonderful new pot.* And no desire at all to go out for groceries.

So I started by browning skinless/boneless chicken breasts in ghee, then added a clove or two of minced garlic and as many chopped onions as I could scrounge from the cupboards (about two cups; more probably would have been even better), and then seasoned it all with salt and lots of coarsely ground pepper and let it cook until the onions were just barely tender, very aromatic.

Then I added water. This simple step is surprisingly controversial. Some cookbooks advocate using only a very little bit of water -- a 1/4-cup at a time, for example -- and replenishing liquid as needed, where others go so far as to recommend using enough broth, wine, or water to cover all the ingredients by at least an inch and NEVER lifting the lid. In my experience, though, using that much liquid results in something far more like a stew than the caramelized glaze most braises aspire to: delicious, but not what I am aiming for, and so I add less water at the beginning, check it frequently, and add more as needed.

After adding liquid, you can add whatever else you would like to the tagine (tagine, incidentally, refers to both the pot and the dish you make in it). If I'd had some preserved lemons sitting in the refrigerator, I probably would have added one or two of those, cut in quarters, to establish the mellow piquant flavors I associate with Moroccan cuisine. Instead, I added the juice of half a lemon along with a cup or so of cooked garbanzo beans, a handful of raisins for sweetness to balance the bright savory flavors of the chicken and onion mixture, a healthy pinch of saffron, and a tablespoon or more of finely minced parsley. I brought the tagine to to a boil, lowered the heat to a bare simmer, covered the pot and let cook for an hour or so, stirring occasionally and adding water or broth as needed to prevent the pot from going dry.

So far, so good... but I thought it wanted a bit of color; specifically red. Tomatos might have worked, but seemed too acidic. Instead, while the tagine was cooking, I charred a red pepper, peeled and seeded it, and then sliced it in long strips, for a smoky, sweet finish to the dish.

Adjust seasonings, and serve. We had our tagine with whole wheat couscous and crusty bread and a pot of hot black tea poured over muddled mint: a perfect antidote to the miserable weather we've been having.

*For the record: you don't need a tagine to make a tagine. Any heavy frying pan or saute pan with a fitted lid will work just fine (as will any braising pan as well). But if you have a tagine, making something Moroccan is an excellent excuse for bringing it out.