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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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Lamb tagine brings Mideast stew home with ease

Dates, shallots help brighten up dish

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Dates, commonly known as the &ldquo;bread of the dessert&rdquo; in the Middle East, give a sweet supporting hand to this easy lamb tagine.
Dates, commonly known as the “bread of the dessert” in the Middle East, give a sweet supporting hand to this easy lamb tagine. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) Photo Gallery

Most would agree one of the best parts of being on vacation is getting to try unfamiliar foods and cuisines and realizing, with the right recipes, you can re-create those tastes at home.

While my husband and I weren’t too crazy about the skewered sardines and fried cuttlefish found in seafood restaurants and in the beach bars on a recent trip to southern Spain, we couldn’t get enough of tagine, the traditional Moroccan dish we ate several times after taking the ferry from Tarifa in the province of Cádiz, Andalusia, to Tangier, Morocco, to celebrate a pretty big anniversary this fall.

Tagine refers to two things in this city famous for its mosques and medinas: a slow-cooked North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables that’s communally eaten with bread to soak up the fragrant sauce, and the namesake earthenware vessel with a conical lid it’s cooked in.

The perfect balance of sweet and savory, tagine is typically made on the stovetop with warm and aromatic spices like ginger and cinnamon, while dried fruits like dates, raisins and apricots add a sweet touch. It hits the spot as much in Morocco’s hot and sunny weather as it does in the dreary, overcast days of a Pittsburgh winter.

Another reason to make them: Tagines — which steam the stew as it cooks — also usually require little work from the cook, so they’re perfect for making comfort foods during the busy holiday season.

I bought a few requisite brightly decorated souvenir serving tagines in Tangier’s open-air souk to carry home on the plane, then promptly ordered a larger enameled cast-iron cooking tagine from Amazon so I could start making them. I started with this super easy lamb tagine, which is deeply scented with cinnamon stick, shallots and garlic and lightly sweetened with dried fruit and a drizzle of honey.

If you don’t have a tagine, you can use a Dutch oven or another lidded pot instead, so long as it has a tight lid.

I dressed the dish up with a handful of dried apricots and half a sliced red onion, and served it with plain couscous.

Lamb Tagine With Dates and Shallots

Serves 4-6. Adapted from “The Modern Tagine Cookbook: Delicious Recipes for Moroccan One-pot Meals” by Ghillie Basan.

3 tablespoons olive oil

Generous pat of butter

1½ pounds lean boned lamb, from shoulder or neck, trimmed and cubed

12 small shallots, peeled and left whole

4 to 6 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

2 cinnamon sticks

2 tablespoons runny honey

1½ cups pitted moist dates

2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Plain couscous or crusty bread, for serving

Heat oil and butter in the base of a tagine or a heavy-bottomed casserole dish.

Toss the lamb in and brown it all over. Once browned, using a slotted spoon, remove the meat from the tagine and set aside.

Add the shallots and garlic and saute, stirring occasionally, until they begin to color, about 3-4 minutes. Add the turmeric and cinnamon sticks and return the meat to the tagine.

Pour in just enough water to cover the meat, then bring it to the boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover with lid and simmer for about 1 hour, giving it a stir from time to time.

Stir in the honey and generously season with salt and pepper. Add the dates, replace the lid and cook for further 25-30 minutes, until meat is very tender.

Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve with chunks of crusty bread or a large mound of plain couscous.

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