Story and Photos by Lisa TE Sonne
There is always more than outer appearance in Morocco. Like the veils that cover hair or faces, the doorways that shield magnificent courtyards and palaces, the intricate wooden boxes that hide treasures or latent space, and the millions of rolled rugs waiting to be unfurled to expose their masterful artistry – there is always more to explore inside. The clay pot tagines are no different. And they are ubiquitous
On the road from Casablanca to seaside Essaouira, a Moroccan truck stop had a café called Oasis that offered “fast food” from a dozen steaming tagines, not 30 feet from a prayer room in one direction and gas pumps in the other. Along the modern highway, new tagines were lined up for sale under hanging lanterns, awaiting their futures.
In the labyrinths of Moroccan medinas, vendors called out in Berber, Arabic, and French. Smells of the leather shops, spice stores, and woodcarving filled the air. Thousands of tagines were available for sale, many the color of plain clay, others glazed with colors for serving.
In the acres of the Monday open-air market in the Ourika Valley, men dressed in robes and sandals cooked meals in tagines amidst a barbershop under a tree, a cluster of donkey’s being shoe-ed, and a dentist working under the blue sky without walls or electricity. All the while, rich smells simmered out of those plain earthern tagines.
Even up in the magnificent Atlas Mountains, after two hours of hiking, near the base of a waterfall, a tagine sat on a boulder inviting speculation. What had been cooked in it? Would future hikers settle it on charcoals and fill it again with raw food waiting for transformation?
I was on a week long culinary and cultural trip in Morocco offered by Access Trips (link to www.AccessTrips.com) designed to provide special access. I was glad that we experienced not just seeing the tagine cooking pots, but also tasting and making tagine dishes to eat. Tagine specialties were on the menus of the restaurants we visited – from the touristy hot spots to the more local holes in the wall – but my favorite was our cooking lessons in different riads – learning how to layer edibles in the interior of clay pot tagines to create delectable tagine dishes to eat.
At our final destination, the mythical Marrakesh, the finale included tagines. That memorable day, I rode a camel through palmera palms, and while I was photographing a turbaned snake charmer and his black python in the city’s famed square, and a large monkey unexpectedly jumped on my back. When I returned to our quiet riad, I sat alone on the roof near sunset and heard the muezzin send calls for prayers into pink air that swirled over mosques and domes.
Then I went downstairs to join the preparation of our farewell dinner in an unforgettable country, and learned to make something worth sharing. Appropriately, it could be an “ode to tagine.”
BEEF WITH PRUNES AND TOASTED ALMONDS Recipe provided by Access Trips Culinary tour (http://www.accesstrips.com/sports/moroccan-cooking/)
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours Total Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6
Beef or lamb with prunes is a classic Moroccan dish that combines sweet prunes and meat with the fragrant spices of ginger, cinnamon and pepper. It's often served at holiday gatherings, weddings and other special occasions with Moroccan bread for scooping up the meat and sauce.
Meat and Prunes can be prepared in a conventional pot or ceramic tagine. Use tender cuts of meat (some pieces on the bone) for the best results.
· 3 pounds tender beef or lamb stew meat, cut into three inch pieces
· 2 tablespoons of safflower oil
· 1 medium onion, grated or finely chopped
· 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
· 1 cinnamon stick
· 1 teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon pepper
· 2 teaspoon ginger
· 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
· handful of cilantro sprigs, chopped
· 2 cups prunes
· 1⁄4 cup vegetable oil
· 1⁄2 cup of water
· 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon Garnish:
· 1⁄4 pound of toasted almonds
· 2 hard boiled eggs
Cook the Meat
Put the meat in a large pot with onion and oil and brown for a few minutes over medium heat.
Add ingredients through cilantro along with 2 1⁄2 cups of water.
Cook over medium heat (uncovered) for 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Cook the Prunes
While the meat is cooking, put the prunes in a small pot with vegetable oil and cinnamon and cover with water.
Simmer over medium heat, partially covered, until the prunes are quite tender. (How long this takes can vary greatly depending on the prunes, but the average time is 15 to 30 minutes.)
Drain the prunes, and add the 1/2 cup of liquids reserved from the meat.
Stir in the cinnamon and oil.
Simmer the prunes another 10 minutes, or until they are sitting in a thick syrup.
Cook the Almonds
Boil the almonds in water until skin loosens.
Cool and skin the almonds.
Toast the almonds over medium heat, stirring frequently until golden brown.
Put the meat in a decorative tagine and spoon the prunes and syrup on top.
Garnish with fried almonds and sliced egg.
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