What’s a Tagine?

I recently sent out a note to my church, asking if anyone had a tagine I could borrow.  Most people had to ask “what is a tagine?” – so if that’s what you’re wondering, just look at this photo above. THIS is a tagine (also sometimes spelled “tajine”). Luckily, there was actually one tagine in the congregation that I was able to borrow for a week.

The word “tagine” is also used to describe dishes made in the terra cotta cooking pot. Combinations of meat and vegetables, pretty much any kind of stew mixture is placed in the bottom of the pot (the lighter color in the photo above).  As the mixture cooks, the steam condensates in the conical top and drips back onto the ingredients in what is supposed to be a special way of slow-cooking.

I must say that I wasn’t very impressed with the method.  Without the history of cooking this way, it is very difficult to know how long to cook something, and when you open the lid to check, it disturbs the process.  Also, most of the cookbooks I was reading said it was just as good to cook a tagine dish in a large soup pot as in the clay pot itself.  I think a crock-pot would also work well for most of these recipes.  I’m sure there are Moroccan cooking devotees out there who might disagree, but I’m not going to be rushing out to buy my own tagine anytime soon!

The first tagine dish that I made was a beef, lentil and turnip stew. It was ok, but not outstanding enough to share the recipe, I won’t be making this one again.  Later, as the entree for my Moroccan dinner party, I made the most traditional tagine dish, a lemon chicken tagine. Somehow, I didn’t actually end up with a photo of that dish – oops!  Sorry, but I have to admit is wasn’t very pretty anyway :)  Chicken pieces (I used all dark meat since it stays moist better) were slow-cooked with garlic, saffron, ginger and lemon juice, then garnished late in baking with artichoke hearts and slivers of preserved lemon. The flavor was good, and it was fall-off-the-bone tender, but it wasn’t pretty.  Cookingwithalia.com has a recipe for this dish, traditionally it is served with green olives, but I don’t like olives so I served them on the side – chef’s prerogative!

While I’m talking about preserved lemons, let me go ahead and tell you a little about those. This is a jar of lemons I picked up at my local Middle Eastern market, lemons are preserved in a type of salt solution. To use them, you strip out all the pulp and rinse the peel a couple of times in cold water to get rid of some of the saltiness. They actually smell like a very strong cleaning solution – not something you’d want to eat. But in moderation, once you’ve rinsed the peel and cut it into very thin strips, you can use it to garnish a dish or add it towards the end of cooking for flavor.  And somehow, once it’s in the dish the preserved lemon loses that chemical flavor and adds a nice semi-lemony flavor. Hard to describe, but you should try it.  Actually, if anyone would like some, just ask – looks like I’m going to have this jar on hand for quite a while before I ever use them up!!

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