Tagines are fabulous for many reasons. They employ gutsy, punchy flavours in a palette we don’t often sample, they are really easy to cook and very forgiving, they smell fantastic and they are a great use-up dish. The people who don’t like tagine will tend to be those who don’t think fruit and meat should be involved in the same dish. Personally I like the contrasts of flavour and texture.
There is a broad spectrum of flavours. At one end are the quite dry mutton or beef dishes which are so rich and intense you can only have small mouthfuls. At the other are the lighter, fragrant recipes which more or less poach a piece of fish. I prefer something in the middle and am happiest with either chicken or lamb. The cuts of each can be towards the cheaper end of the animal because the unctuousness of the classic tagine comes from the fat breaking down and the meat being as tender as can be. A lesson I have learned the hard way is that the tagine and the accompaniment should be kept separate. I tried to be even lazier by turning it into a kind of baked pilaf but the big flavours just lost their edges and drowned – still edible but just dull by comparison.
The classic tagine pot is unnecessary I think. It makes for spectacular serving but it’s also a challenge to store in most kitchens. A good tight-fitting casserole will suffice.
For me a tagine begins with the meat and onions. I don’t do any browning of the meat and that is another attraction of this. It is good eating but you can more or less let it go about its business. I recently tried using some already-minted neck of lamb from the local butcher. It worked fine but the mint was slightly stronger than I would have wanted – but that is the beauty of a tagine – it can take some big flavours. Cheaper cuts are just fine – and preferable – the fat and connective tissue breaks down in the slow cooking and creates an unctuous sauce. For a generous meal for four I had a kilo of lamb and four medium onions (just cut into wedges).
Spicing is instinctive. I added a good pinch of saffron, a teaspoon of ground clove, half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, a teaspoon of smoked paprika, generous ground pepper, and a teaspoon of salt. I like a slightly sour flavour to offset the sweetness and so I rummaged through the cupboard and found some dried limes. These are dried so that they are about the size of conkers and with a very hard shell. You can crack them open and just use the dried segments but they are a bit fiddly that way so I just cracked two of them in half and put the halves in the casserole. The other popular souring agents are preserved lemon, pomegranate syrup, lemon zest or juice.
The sweet element can be as direct as dried apricot or sultana. I used a couple of sweet potatoes cut into medium chunks and a handful of dried apricots cut in half. You just fill the casserole with water until everything is just covered, put the lid on tightly and then either put it on the hob to simmer for an hour and a half or in the oven at around 160 degrees. You may want to give it a start on the hob before putting it in the oven if you have a heavy casserole. The smell from the casserole will soon start pervading the kitchen.
The accompaniment tends to be either couscous or taboulleh. I absolutely love taboulleh in the summer. It takes way more mint/parsley/coriander and lemon than you expect but, when cooled it is the essence of summer and very versatile. On this occasion I had some leftover couscous with roasted peppers, onions and pomegranate which was perfect.
There is also a ‘topping’ of some sort. Toasted and salted almonds or pine nuts go well as do small sticks of preserved lemon rind lightly toasted. On this occasion I used almonds and learned something new. In Morocco they have lovely big fat almonds that they almost poach. I could only find almonds with the skin on. After a bit of Googling I discovered that you can treat them the same way as broad beans with a light poach, drop into cold water and then pop them out of the skin between thumb and forefinger. It worked a treat. It then just put them in the oven on a baking tray for five minutes with some rock salt.
After the one and a half hours it was time to finish off the tagine. The consistency of the tagine is a matter of taste. The sauce comes together through the reduction in water during cooking, the rendering of fat from the meat, and the breakdown of the vegetables you are using. I put the casserole on the hob uncovered for the final stages. I adjusted the sweetness with a bit of honey and added a knob of butter and then let it reduce for ten minutes until I was happy. Cooking time, for all but the driest of tagines, is wonderfully flexible. I have an opinion, but typically a lack of any real evidence, that my creations are better having sat in the casserole away from heat for a while or even reheated.
Serve with couscous, top with toasted almonds, a little coriander garnish, some flatbreads, and even some Greek yoghurt if you fancy. Pomegranate seeds can be sprinkled on just about anything to provide freshness and texture. We enjoy a second meal with the leftovers in wraps with salad because the flavour is so robust it stands up well on its own. Tagines are also great for dinner parties because they are a one-pot dish with accompaniments that can be made in advance. The smell is fantastic to greet guests and it’s something many people may not have eaten very often.