Cooking is Like Love
One of my favorite food quotes says, “Cooking is like love — it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” And so it was with wild abandon that I attempted a recipe I never thought I’d ever make: Moroccan Lamb Tagine.
It was last April that Darling decided it was time that I make something for a main course. He had been creating menus and cooking for me often. This time, he said, he would make a few vegetarian sides, and I was to make the main course. And, he challenged, it had to be a meat dish. Having been a lifelong vegetarian, creating a meat dish as a main course was quite a thing to contemplate. Boldly, I chose lamb.
The act of creating something beyond my repertoire was unusually exciting. I’m happy using the few clay pots I have, and the idea of slow cooking pleases me. So when I discovered that cooking lamb in a tagine took hours --- about six hours including prep time --- I was sure this was the right recipe for me.
I poured over my cookbooks and a few online recipes before I created my own version of Moroccan Lamb Tagine. My first time making lamb was not going to be some timid attempt from a dusty Betty Crocker cookbook. I didn’t follow exact directions but created this dish mainly based on a recipe from Paula Wolfert’s Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking. Then I guessed my way through it. (Thank you, Paula. You made my first attempt at lamb a delicious one).
The transformational moment was being alone in my kitchen, cutting the fat from the meat. I was faced with the wilderness of cooking lamb. The paper-wrapped package that I bought at the butcher’s was intimidating, but as I got used to the feeling of meat in my hands, something fascinating happened. I enjoyed it. The act of cutting up meat brought my primitive instincts out.
I began to understand carnivores and their passionate regard for sinking their teeth into the flesh of an animal. Perhaps I’ve been afraid or maybe I’ve been too delicate in my thinking. Since I was a child I avoided eating meat. My body did not crave it, I didn’t like the textures, it felt it too tough or gristly, my stomach sank with its heaviness, and my digestion slowed. I was meant to be a vegetarian, I thought. Plant-based and alive, my blood wanted chlorophyll. Yet, at the cutting board with the lamb meat in my hands, something almost magical occurred. I tapped in to its spirit. I recalled how lamb is the sacrificial animal most connected with ancient rituals throughout history. The sacrifice honored the animal for its meat. It was, maybe, the only way I could connect with it. Creating a lamb dish to please my lover was a meaningful act to this vegetarian, and soon I was concocting a sly lamb stew, aromatic with marvelous Moroccan spices. Was it similar to the act of love in cooking like Tita's Quail in Rose Petal Sauce from Like Water for Chocolate? I had hoped my Moroccan Lamb Tagine would inspire such romance.
Clay vessels have been used since ancient times to carry water, contain oils, edibles, and store grains. Clay earthenware was used to cook over fires and inside ovens. A clay tagine was what I wanted to cook my lamb in. I bought a blue and white ceramic tagine, which was so lovely, but not large enough to contain the lamb stew on the stove. I used a larger clay pot for the slow cooking and the smaller, prettier tagine for serving.
When my Darling came home he brought in his canvas produce bags full of beets, fava beans, radishes, and other wonderful things, among them a large round of Bucherondin cheese.
While the lamb stew was cooking we shucked fava beans out on the patio together. He prepared his side dishes of French Peasant Beets and made ricotta for the fava bean and radish salad. We cooked together and by evening, enjoyed our Springtime dinner with a crusty baguette and a bottle of wine. He loved the Moroccan Lamb Tagine stew served over a simple saffron couscous.
Moroccan Lamb Tagine
(Adapted from Paula Wolfert’s recipe for Moroccan Lamb Tagine with Melting Tomatoes and Onions)
Clay pot methods of slow cooking are best for this recipe. A glazed or unglazed large earthenware tagine or large clay pot with a cover is ideal. A heat diffuser is best for stovetop cooking with clay. You can find heat diffusers in gourmet cookware shops or order online. I found mine at Sur La Table. They allow slow, steady heat.
2 ½ pounds of good quality lamb meat, trimmed of fat, cut into chunks
2-4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 large red onions, 1 grated and 1 roughly chopped
2 cups chickpeas, drained
3 tablespoons olive oil
lemon juice from two lemons
splash of red wine
6 juicy tomatoes, concassé (peeled, seeded, chopped)
Tagine Spices-- *Tabil spices or ** Ras El Hanout spices
a handful or 4-5 dates, figs or ½ cup golden raisins
Trim the fat from the lamb and cut into 1½ chunks.
If using dates, figs or raisins, soak them in warm broth for about 15 minutes.
Caramelize the red onion in a separate pan. Set aside.
Place the lamb, grated red onion, Tagine spices, a little bit of olive oil, a little butter, and sprinkle of salt in the tagine. Place the tagine on top of the stove (using a heat diffuser if necessary for your range) and begin to cook slowly on a low heat. Do not brown the lamb meat. Cook for 10 minutes to release the spices. Add a ½ cup of hot broth and slowly bring to boil.
Cover the lamb with the caramelized red onion, tomatoes, and if you are adding dates, figs or raisins, add them in with their soaking broth. Add chickpeas and more broth as needed to cover the meat. Add a few bay leaves and cover. Cook for two hours on low heat.
Remove the top of the tagine and skim the fat off the top of the liquid. Allow the stew to simmer gently and reduce. Continue to cook on range at a low to medium heat for two more hours, seasoning to taste with tagine spices and splashing in red wine and a little lemon juice to balance the sweetness of paprika (and dates, raisins or figs). I used Williams-Sonoma’s Tagine Spice, however, I found the paprika in the blend was too sweet. When adding anything like tomatoes, golden raisins, dates, or figs, all of which have a natural sweetness, be sure to balance your stew. I was working on building a complex flavor and balancing the sweet with the spice. Lemon and wine saved it from being sweeter. Once it had cooked down for several hours, the flavors mellowed out. Find a paprika that isn’t overly cloying with sweetness, but at the same time, not too hot. You can try a smoked Spanish paprika or a milder sweet Spanish type. When in doubt, the Hungarian paprika blends can work well.
As the stew continues to reduce, add spices and taste until it has reached the right consistency and flavor.
Serve over saffron couscous.
About Tagine Spices:
*Tabil is the Tunisian spice blend given in Paula Wolfert’s Clay Pot Cooking cookbook. She calls it “Tunisian Mixed Spices” and gives the recipe as follows:
1 ½ teaspoons ground caraway seeds
1 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
1 ½ teaspoon cayenne
**Ras El Hanoutis an aromatic Moroccan spice blend. It varies, like the East Indian spice blend called Garam Masala. Most recipes include cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, pepper, anise, mace and turmeric.
Ras El Hanout
1 teaspoon cinnamon (Ceylon is recommended)
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cardamom
pinch of ground cloves
pinch of cayenne
pinch of cumin
Combine all the spices together.
Homemade Ricotta with Fava Bean & Radish Salad
Fresh ricotta has a luscious creamy flavor that enhances this side dish of fava beans and radish. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, it’s divine. Once you’ve made ricotta, you’ll never want to live without it.
Here are easy instructions to help seduce the gourmet in your life.
Ricotta. It is so easy to make. Heat some milk and cream, salt, and then add acid (vinegar or lemon juice) so it curdles. Let it sit, then strain with cheesecloth.
1 quart whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
¼ cup plain yogurt
2 teaspoon lemon juice + more if needed
½ tsp teaspoon kosher salt
Line a colander with cheesecloth.
Pour cream, milk and yogurt in a large pot on medium heat.
Add salt and stir.
Heat slowly, stirring occasionally.
As the mixture reaches temperature, little bubbles will begin to appear. This means it has reached the necessary temperature-- 185 degrees is near scalding temperature-- just before boil. Using a candy thermometer, make sure the temperature is correct. It will begin to curdle.
Remove pot from the heat and stir in the lemon juice in gently. Add salt. The way you stir affects the size of the curds. Try to stir it with care. Cover with a towel and allow the ricotta to sit for several hours.
After the ricotta has set, drain it through the cheesecloth-lined colander (you can also line a sieve or chinoise with cheesecloth). Allow it to strain so that all the liquid is separated from the ricotta. You will then have your ricotta ready in the cheesecloth. Transfer into a container or bowl and enjoy. Store in your refrigerator.
We used this ricotta right away while it was slightly warm to room temperature and it became even more delicious as it cooled down with olive oil and salt. We plated the ricotta in the center of our serving dish with the fava beans and radish.
Fava Bean & Radish Salad
We sat outside and shucked fava beans together. It was tedious but sometimes doing things like that is a perfect time to have a good conversation or just be quiet with each other. Darling brought home about 3 pounds of fava beans, which was more than we needed.
4 cups fava beans, shucked
1 cup radish, thinly sliced (use a mandoline for fine slivers)
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 oz. pecorino or parmigiano cheese, thinly sliced
Cook the fava beans in hot water for 2 to 3 minutes.
Drain and shock in cold water. Remove the skins and place on towels to dry.
Whisk together the oil and juice to make a simple vinaigrette. Season with salt and pepper. Toss the fava beans with the vinaigrette.
Spoon the ricotta on a serving plate. Garnish with fava and radish. Drizzle with quality olive oil and then scatter the fine slices of cheese. You can add pretty micro greens (such as micro arugula) to decorate your dish, however it pleases you.
French Peasant Beets
4-6 Beets with greens (a mixture of golden and red beets)
1 bunch Swiss chard
3 tablespoons butter
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons white wine (Muscadet)
2 tablespoons water
.5 pounds Bucheron Cheese (room temperature)
Crusty baguette (warmed in oven)
Scrub and peel the beets. Remove the greens and chop coarsely. Set the greens aside in a large prep bowl. Slice beets into 1/4 inch rounds.
Remove the ribs from the swiss chard and coarsely chop and toss into bowl with the beet greens,
In a large sautee pan, melt butter. Sautee shallots.
Add beet rounds to the shallot butter mixture. Crack some pepper over the beets and a toss on a pinch of salt. Reduce heat and sautee beets, turning over to ensure even cooking.
About 15 minutes later when beets are begnning to glaze and become tender, add greens and chard. Sautee for about 5 minutes, then add wine and cover. Cook until greens are wilted, adding water if necessary. Allow liquid to be mostly absorbed into greens, adjust seasonings.
Scoop greens and beets into a low shallow bowl. Garnish with a sizeable wedge of bucheron and some crusty bread. Crack a little bit of pepper over the entire dish.
'Cooking is Like Love' Romantic Dinner Menu
Moroccan Lamb Tagine (served with Saffron Couscous)
Fava Bean & Radish Salad with Homemade Ricotta and Olive Oil
French Peasant Beets served with Boucherondin & Baguette