Mastering the Tajine

Melissa Clark

Revered for its balance of sweet and savory flavors, the tagine journeyed from North Africa to France, a link to the country’s colonial past. The fragrant stew gradually found its way into home kitchens.

Tagine isn’t part of the codified French cuisine, nor is it something you’ll find at traditional French restaurants, either in France or abroad.

But given the estimated five million people of North African descent who live in France, and the excellence of the dish — soft chunks of meat, vegetables or a combination, deeply scented with spices and often lightly sweetened with fruit — it is no surprise that tagine has taken hold. A centerpiece of the chicest dinner parties, the dish exemplifies a modern wave of French home cooking, one that is exploring a host of diverse influences beyond the country’s usual repertoire.

Perhaps one reason the tagine has taken hold in France is that the dish is very similar to a French ragout, a slowly simmered stew of meat and vegetables. But while a ragout nearly always calls for a significant amount of wine (and often broth), to help braise the meat, a tagine needs very little additional liquid. This is because of the pot — also called a tagine — used to prepare the dish. With its tightfitting, cone-shaped lid, a tagine steams the stew as it cooks, catching the rising, aromatic vapor and allowing it to drip back over the ingredients, thereby bathing them in their own juices. (A Dutch oven with a tightfitting lid will accomplish nearly the same thing.)

The intensity of the spicing also sets the tagine apart from a ragout, which tends to use aromatics rather than ground spices for flavor. But a heady mix of spices, called ras el hanout, is at the heart of a good tagine. In North Africa, each cook traditionally makes his or her own often highly complex spice blend. In our tagine recipe, we use a very simple mixture of spices that are easy to find.

Cooks preparing a tagine usually strive for a balance of sweet and savory. That is why you see spices like ginger, cinnamon or clove used to bring out the sweetness of the meat, alongside braised fruit (apricots, prunes or raisins) and savory seasonings (parsley, pepper or saffron). The dish is usually served with flatbread for dipping in the complex and fragrant sauce.

Equipment You’ll Need

  1. Tagine or Dutch oven A tagine is the traditional clay cooking vessel for the dish; it has a base that is wider than its tall, cone-shape top. But you don’t need a tagine to make this recipe. Use a Dutch oven or another lidded pot instead, as long as the lid fits tightly. If it doesn’t, cover the pot with foil before placing the lid on top.
  2. Tongs A tagine, like most braises, starts with the browning of the meat. A good pair of tongs will help you maneuver the lamb as you sear it in the pot.
  3. Small skillet Sliced almonds, which are used in the topping, will toast quickly and evenly in a small skillet. Choose a heavy-duty one so you won’t get a hot spot, which could burn the nuts.

 

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Daniel Boulud’s Chicken Tagine

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE SPICE MIX

  • 3 ½ tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 3 tablespoons ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon ginger powder
  • ½ tablespoon ground cardamom
  • 2 ½ teaspoons ground allspice

FOR THE TAGINE

  • 8 chicken thighs, approximately 3 pounds
  •  Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons spice mix
  •  cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 Roma tomatoes
  • 1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets
  • 1 large white onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, diced
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 cups chicken stock, homemade or low-sodium
  • 3 tablespoons preserved lemons, approximately 2 lemons, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup green olives, like Castelvetranos
  • ½ bunch cilantro, leaves picked and stems discarded.

PREPARATION

  1. Combine the spices in a dry sauté pan set over low heat, and toast them gently until they release their fragrance, 2 minutes or so. Transfer to a bowl, and allow to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 350. Season the chicken thighs with the salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons of the spice mix, along with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil.
  3. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat, and set a large bowl of ice water to the side. Core the tomatoes, and score an X on their bottoms. Boil the cauliflower florets in the water for 3 minutes, then submerge them in the ice water. Boil the tomatoes for 20 seconds, and chill them in the ice water as well. Remove the cauliflower when it is cold, and pat the florets dry. Peel the skin off the tomatoes, then cut them into quarters lengthwise. Trim away the seeds to make petals.
  4. Heat the remaining olive oil in a large sauté pan set over medium heat, and sear the chicken in batches, starting skin-side down, until the thighs are browned. Remove the chicken to a large Dutch oven or tagine pot. Remove all but two tablespoons of the fat in pan, then return it to the heat, and brown the cauliflower and add to the chicken.
  5. Reduce heat below the pan, and add the onion, garlic, ginger and saffron. Cook, stirring, until the onions are translucent, approximately 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and chicken stock, and simmer until reduced by 1/3.
  6. Pour sauce over the chicken and cauliflower, cover the pot and transfer to oven for 20 minutes. Remove, stir in the tomatoes, preserved lemon and olives, then cover the pot again and cook for an additional 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Serve the chicken in the pot, garnished with the cilantro leaves, with couscous. Reserve remaining spice mix for the next batch or another use. It keeps well in a sealed container.

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