Not long after my cookbook, Morocco, was published, I returned to that North African country to celebrate with friends. In Marrakech, we gathered around a tagine, an intensely flavored stew of slowly braised meat or seafood cooked in a vessel of the same name. The tagine and the table were round—in Morocco, they always are—to accommodate many, and as we leaned in, shoulders nearly touching, we scooped up tender chunks of lamb with cinnamon-scented onions. A few days later, in a Berber mountain village with another group of friends, we did the same, savoring succulent pieces of turkey gently sweetened with raisins. As is the custom, we didn’t use forks or knives, but rather pieces of bread torn from round loaves, the crust firm enough to carry morsels to our mouths and the insides soft enough to soak up all the saucy goodness at the bottom of the pan.
Tagines are central to Moroccan cuisine
The tagine’s importance in Moroccan cooking cannot be overstated. As a dish, tagine lies at the heart of simple family meals—one family, one table, one dish—as well as being an integral part of festive occasions and celebrations.
Tagines can be made from just about anything, and frequently exhibit Moroccan cuisine’s fondness for combining textures and marrying bold flavors. Lamb, the country’s iconic meat, is a perfect candidate for tagine braising and an ideal foil for Morocco’s signature blending of sweet and savory flavors. The sweetness often comes from fruit, sometimes fresh (quince or pear) but usually dried (prunes, figs, raisins, apricots, dates), along with lots of onions and generous seasonings of cinnamon, ginger, garlic, saffron, honey, or sugar. Chicken is even more versatile, a blank canvas for showcasing sweet and savory flavors, as well as tangy-savory ones. Along Morocco’s lengthy Atlantic coastline, cooks create various fish tagines, too—from monkfish and bream to swordfish, eel, and blue shark—that often skew into savory-only territory, flavored with preserved lemons and olives over a base of seasonal vegetables. But whatever the protein, the flavors and ingredients in a tagine are layered and complex, producing an aromatic stew that never fails to nourish and satisfy.
The lid is key to a tagine’s function
As a vessel, the tagine is unique. Traditionally round, shallow, and made of earthenware (clay, terra cotta, or ceramic), the key to its function lies in its tall, conical lid, which captures the moisture of the slowly cooking food, condensing and returning it to the stew to keep it moist and retain its flavors. The lid is rarely closed completely because a little bit of evaporation is useful for concentrating flavors. Instead, it’s left slightly ajar; many cooks in Morocco like to wedge the end of a wooden spoon between the base and the lid to keep it cracked, and that’s how I do it, too.
Not only is the tagine’s design useful for cooking, but it’s beautiful enough to serve from. Its earthenware construction keeps food hot for a long time, too.
As utilitarian as the vessel is and as succulent as the meat or fish may be, the real reason for using a tagine is the sauce that forms while the food slowly braises. Sopping up the rich melody of concentrated flavors from the bottom of the pan with hunks of fresh bread is the ultimate reward. I hope you find that to be true as you make the recipes on the following pages—no special occasion required.
The complex flavors of a great tagine come from layering the ingredients into the vessel and then slowly cooking them into a rich stew.
- Aromatic vegetables go into the tagine first, providing a flavorful base on the bottom of the pan that protects the meat or fish from direct heat.
- A snug layer of meat or fish sits atop the bed of vegetables, and any excess marinade is also added to contribute its flavor to the dish.
- Additional fruits and vegetables are arranged decoratively around the meat or fish, or laid on top. Sometimes they’re added raw or parcooked first, and other times they’re cooked separately and added near the end.
- The tagine ingredients slowly braise to tenderness inside the pot, with the lid slightly ajar to allow for a bit of evaporation and concentration of flavors. Swapping the spoon position halfway through cooking helps the stew cook evenly.
- There should be ample sauce at the end of cooking, so check on the tagine from time to time; add a few tablespoons of water if it seems to be drying out.
- If the sauce is watery or thin by the time the meat and vegetables are fork-tender, remove the lid and simmer until it thickens a bit. If it’s too thick, stir in more water. Keep in mind that the tagine ingredients continue to soak up the sauce as it sits, so any prolonged resting time will result in a less saucy, but no less flavorful, tagine.
How to Make a Tagine
- Tagines are available in a variety of materials, from traditional terra-cotta clay to modern glazed ceramic and cast iron.
- Earthenware tagines come glazed and unglazed. The latter impart an earthier flavor to food and darken over time with use; they are ideal if you plan to cook with the tagine regularly. Glazed tagines are best for tagine novices or those who cook with them infrequently, as they can be stored for longer without taking on any odors.
- Before using a traditional earthenware tagine for the first time, glazed or not, you may need to season it to strengthen the tagine and, if unglazed, remove the raw clay flavor. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Earthenware tagines shouldn’t be used over heat higher than medium to avoid scorching or damage, and some manufacturers call for low heat only; if so, the recipes here will take longer. Metal diffusers, which evenly distribute heat, are useful for prolonging a tagine’s life span.
- Do not subject earthenware tagines to sudden changes in temperature.
- If small cracks appear with use, they won’t affect the tagine’s performance. Deep cracks mean it’s time for a new tagine.
- You can use a heavy-duty Dutch oven or wide, heavy skillet with a lid instead of a tagine; keep the lid slightly ajar. As long as the food cooks slowly and gently, the results will be similar.
Cleaning and Storing
- Let your tagine cool completely before hand-washing in warm soapy water. Rinse, dry with a soft cloth, and, if earthenware, brush the interior with olive oil before storing in a cool, dry place.