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How-To

Make a Meltingly Tender Lamb Tagine

This easy Moroccan stew is fragrant with saffron, cinnamon, and cilantro

Fine Cooking Issue 26
Photos: Mark Thomas
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Every cuisine has its own classic stew. Italy has cacciatore, France has ragoût, India has curry, and Mexico has mole. Morocco, the country I’m from, has tagine (pronounced TAH-jin and sometimes spelled tajine). This wonderful stew, with its many variations, is named for the earthenware dish in which the stew is traditionally cooked. The exotic-looking and often beautiful pot is topped with a conical lid that traps steam during cooking. The resulting dish is a fragrant stew with a meltingly tender texture and wonderfully blended flavors.

But the real art of making one of these fragrant stews lies not with the pot—you can substitute a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid—but with the slow cooking of ingredients in a sauce that’s exquisitely seasoned.

Tagines vary from region to region and from kitchen to kitchen. In towns along Morocco’s two thousand miles of coastline, fresh seafood, such as tuna, sardines, or mussels, form the basis of many tagines. Inland, you’ll find tagines made with meat and chicken. Most of the time, the meat is used sparingly to intensify the flavor of the sauce rather than to act as the focus. Vegetables and fruits often make up the bulk of the dish. Whatever their other ingredients, most tagines include generous amounts of parsley and cilantro, as well as paprika, powdered ginger (Moroccans don’t use fresh ginger), golden turmeric, a bit of Spanish saffron, and a good amount of freshly ground black pepper. One of my favorite tagines, and the one featured here, combines the rich, sweet taste of prunes and honey with the full flavor of lamb and onions. Though this pairing may seem unusual, the blending of dried fruits and meat is a hallmark of Moroccan cuisine. The result is truly luscious; the prunes plump up with the juices from the meat and give the whole dish a silken texture.

MIMIC A TAGINE WITH A HEAVY POT AND ALUMINUM FOIL

At home, I have a collection of tagines from Morocco. Some are made from plain unfired clay while others have ornate glazes. I use them from time to time, mainly as serving dishes—they’re quite dramatic when brought to the table—but more often I’ll simply use a deep, heavy pot like my Dutch oven. Whatever pot you use, cover it with foil before putting on the lid to get a truly tight seal.

Brown the meat and add the bone to the pot for more flavor. I usually use half a leg of lamb when making this tagine, cutting the meat into chunks and adding the bone for extra flavor. Lamb shanks also work well, and lamb shoulder and stew meat are even easier options. If you buy boneless lamb, ask your butcher for some lamb shank bones to add to the pot. Before adding any liquid ingredients, brown the meat on all sides in batches; an initial searing adds even more flavor.

Add the seasonings and liquids and then cover the pot. I gently crush the saffron threads and add them to the beef stock before pouring the stock into the pot. This step releases the saffron’s flavor and disperses the spice evenly.

The wonderful thing about tagines is that, like most stews, they’re easy to make. As the meat cooks, it creates its own wonderful sauce. My favorite moment when cooking a tagine is lifting the lid off the pot and watching my guests respond to the tantalizing fragrance that fills the room.

The stew’s namesake pot. Traditional tagines have a conical lid that keeps steam—and flavor inside. A heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid lined with foil will also do the trick
The best Spanish saffron has more red threads than yellow. It may be expensive, but just a little adds a lot of flavor. Crumbling the saffron into the beef stock before it goes into the tagine helps disperse its flavor more evenly.

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