In a current school project, my son’s class is discussing dreams, wishes, ambitions and aspirations. Soeren with his 9 years old is very focused and pretty much knows where he wants to go in life. Although he might take up a totally different path and end up doing something completely different to what he dreams of now, what strikes me as impressive is that he has been able to find all the right resources he needs to pave his way for his ultimate goal.
An exercise he had to do at home was to write about his dream country, discuss the advantages and the disadvantages and write about a typical day. There was a slight catch, however. He had to choose one of two countries:
Instantly he replied that it would be Morocco where he would choose to live. When I questioned his selection he replied,
“Easy … because the tagines and couscous you make all taste great!”
There you have it. He found the perfect resource that would make him happy in a country he knows very little about except for its cuisine. It was a brilliant starting point for us to delve a little deeper into the country, however we kept coming back to Morocco’s colorful cuisine.
My own experience of Morocco is mostly through books, websites, travel guides and tales from friends who have traveled extensively through the country. When it comes to the Moroccan food I was able to gather first hand experience while training in the hotel kitchen in Qatar.
One of the chefs I had the fortune to train with was a tall, sturdy Moroccan Lebanese man, who spoke fluent English, French and of course Arabic. I never quite found out how old he was and I always guessed he was somewhere between 40 and 60, it was that hard to tell. Initially he was rather hesitant to work with me and be my teacher. Today I can understand why. I grew up in that same hotel, my dad was one of the managers and for someone who saw me evolve from a cheeky pre-teen into a resolute sometimes brazen young adult it might have all been rather overwhelming. He certainly was not the kind to do any special favors, even for the daughter of the manager. What he did not realize however was, I never expected any favors. As a matter of fact, I disliked having that kind of special attention or treatment.
For the first few weeks we worked side by side more or less in silence. I would be there every morning ready to peel, scrape, clean and chop and everyday I would hope there would be more; a story about the dish we were making, an anecdote about how he learned to create a specific dish or even passing on a technique or the basic principles of Moroccan cookery. Nothing. All I got was a nod when I showed him all the vegetables I had chopped, then he would point to the next pile to be peeled.
One morning, I walked into the kitchen, making my way to the preparation area and as always crates of squash, eggplants and peppers and bunches of parsley and mint were stacked high waiting to be peeled and chopped. I had been handling vegetables everyday for a whole month now and I was certain this was to be the most tedious and boring stop of my 3 year training. With envy I would look over to the other chefs busily lined at the cooking ranges, stirring thick gravies, seasoning, testing and tasting till a perfectly concocted dish was be ready to be taken out to the guest eagerly awaiting what might have been his first encounter with Moroccan food. I wanted to be at that hub of creation. At least I could boast at being pretty good with a peeler and could chop a carrot in 3 seconds flat!
I giggled at that thought, when I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder and turned around to a puzzled look on my teacher’s face.
“I’ve been watching you! What do you want?” It was a strange question to ask me, but instead of replying, I held up a carrot to his face and showed him the technique I had developed in chopping the carrot.
“If I can peel and chop faster than you, can I move over to the range?” For the first time in that month I saw a slight smirk on his lips.
I did finally move to the range and when I took my place I felt I had earned the right to be standing there. I was taught how skillfully and carefully Moroccan food is prepared. How each vibrant ingredient is blended with the other to create a fusion of unique and distinct flavors and aromas. The sweet intermingles with the savory in a subtle yet sublime way, satisfying even the most critical palate.
I was most intrigued by making tagines. A tagine is essentially a slow-cooked stew made with meat, usually using lamb or chicken. It is also the clay cooking pot used to make the stew in. Ideally a tagine is stewed very slowly over a charcoal fire for several hours. This preserves the flavors and aromas, providing an intensive blend of tastes. The distinctive shaped clay cooking pot has a specific purpose. The shallow bottom with raised sides and a cone-shaped top is constructed in such a fashion to enclose condense cooking vapors, keeping the dish moist as it slowly cooks.
Traditional cooking tagines are made from clay, which are sometimes simply glazed, while others are decorated with colorful traditional Moroccan-style motifs. The clay gives dishes that earthy flavor. If one does decide to invest in a tagine make sure it is meant for the oven if you plan to cook with it. There are decorative ceramic pots that are designed simply to be used to present dishes, not to cook them.
While many of us won’t have access to charcoal fires, one can use the tagine to cook the stew over a stovetop or in the oven. Typically the ingredients for a tagine are layered at the bottom of a tagine, with the more robust and sturdier ingredients going in first, the lid seals the tagine tightly. It is then placed in a preheated oven for a long, slow cooking process. Finally spices are sprinkled over the tagine and ingredients like olives, preserved lemon, apricots or nuts are added to the dish.
Alternatively some recipes begin on the stovetop, caramelizing meat or vibrant vegetables like carrots similar to a traditional stew recipe. Other ingredients are then added with a sprinkling of spices and a small amount of liquid to help create the sauce. Cooking continues on a low heat on the stovetop, or the dish can be transferred to a low oven for a long braise.
The most important lesson I learned from my Moroccan teacher was patience … it is after all the most essential ingredient for tagine cooking.
The recipe for this lamb and quince tagine is one I have been experimenting with for a long time. Quince is in season right now and abundantly available. Its sharp distinctive flavor compliments the lamb and spices perfectly and its unique fragrance, with hints of pineapple, guava and pear adds a new level to the entire dish. As few people outside of Morocco are likely to keep a tagine pot alongside their cookware and baking dishes, one can easily use a large casserole or a saucepan with a lid to make the tagine. I used a tagine from Emile Henry from their gorgeous collection of tagines, but the instructions below are given using a casserole. If you do have a tagine for cooking, use it in the same way substituting the casserole.
The entire design of a tagine is to capture the aromatic condensation, allowing the complex, spiced layers to merge into a delicious concoction. While it is certainly not necessary to use a tagine to cook a tagine, once you have used a tagine to cook a tagine you will taste the difference. If you are interested in buying a tagine, Emile Henry make some fine cookware.
While we’ve just wrapped up From Plate to Page Tuscany, we’re already hard at work organizing and planning the next series in our food photography and writing workshop.
If you follow us on Twitter, Facebook or subscribe to the From Plate to Page website then you already know where the next workshop is going to be held. If not, well come on over and check out the venue for Plate to Page UK. We’ve rented a gorgeous seventeenth century Manor House in the lush landscape of Somerset. We’ll be taking control of cheddar and cider country next year and have weaved a fantastic program for our participants. If you missed both Weimar and Tuscany, you now have the opportunity to make it to Somerset for an intensive 3 day, very hands on workshop. We will be opening registrations soon, so please keep track of our Twitter, Facebook pages and the website. Don not miss anything!
More Middle Eastern flavors from WFLH:
|Roasted Aubergine Salad with Saffron Yogurt, Pine Nuts and Pomegranate||Warm Lentil Salad with Dried Cherries, Feta and a Herb Marinated Lamb Fillet||Ras El Hanout Lamb Tagine with Pumpkin and Apricots|
All photographs and written content on What's For Lunch, Honey? © 2006-2011 Meeta Khurana Wolff unless otherwise indicated. | All rights reserved | Please Ask First