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Tagine: Morocco’s Sumptuous, Spicy Dish


How many exotic ingredients can go into a Moroccan stew called tagine? As many as you might want — tagine recipes probably number in the thousands, especially counting those not written down.

A couple of Sundays ago we set up shop in Saundra Winokur’s kitchen for a day-into-evening cooking party. Scents of saffron and cinnamon, braised beef, preserved lemon, fresh ginger, coriander and cumin mingled with the sound of wine glasses clinking — and plenty of chatter.

Tagines and other Moroccan cooking implements from Saundra Winokur.

Tagines and other Moroccan cooking implements from Saundra Winokur.

Tagine also refers to the earthenware (clay or terracotta) cooking implement that funnels the steam through a hole at the tip of the conical top while the food slow-cooks to tenderness in the bottom of the dish.

My own glossy black tagine was new, a Christmas gift from fellow foodie and SavorSA partner John Griffin. He found this one (see photo at bottom) from Ten Thousand Villages at the Pearl. Up to this point, it held down a place of honor atop the fireplace mantel, where it looked quite exotic, full of promise yet unfulfilled. Now was the time to put it to use.

While I’d made Moroccan-style stews before, this was the first time using an actual tagine — and yes, there was a learning curve! First, it had to seasoned or cured. Fortunately, I’d read about this with enough time to spare that I was able to do the soaking, seasoning, heating, cooling and so for that was required for using the glossy dark pot.  (The information that came with my pot was not as detailed as this information on curing the tagine that is on about.com.)

Tagine Recipes:

What I also learned — it takes more time to do a stew in this clay pot when it’s done in the oven as the pot can only handle up to about 350 degrees, according to the information that came with it. Fortunately, I was making chicken, not lamb or beef, which would have taken longer to cook to tenderness. The bright side of long cooking, too, is that the incredible aromas have that much more time to perfume the whole house.

Beef tagine with finishing touches.

Beef tagine with finishing touches.

While I made Chicken with Cracked Green Olives and Preserved Lemon, John assembled a savory stew of Beef Short Ribs with Cauliflower. My husband, David, prepared couscous with help from guests Linda Perez and Kathleen Kelly. Two cats and a dog sniffed around for treats, but we’re pretty sure the powerful spice aromas didn’t appeal as much to them as they did to us.

Sandy, who owns Sandy Oaks Olive Orchard in Elmendorf, had put together her tagine the day before. That dish of beef with pumpkin (or in this case squash) had had time to rest overnight. “The flavors really were so much better the next day,” Sandy said.

She had also added honey, white raisins (which she prefers for the most flavor) and currants to add a touch of sweetness. Since this was party among friends, not a tagine cook-off, we didn’t need to decide whose was best. And in fact, we all agreed later that it was pretty much a draw — and each dish was enjoyed on its own merits.

Chicken with Cracked Green Olives and Preserved Lemon Tagine

Chicken with Cracked Green Olives and Preserved Lemon Tagine

The flavors of the beef and pumpkin were spicy, but really offered a comforting umami from well-blended flavors and tender beef. The chicken and green olives was a bit more spiky than sweet, with the preserved lemon and salty olives (though they were soaked in water for awhile which toned down the salt).

The tagine pot imparted a mild, earthy flavor all its own, which is an expected part of the flavor profile.

Beef short ribs are always delicious — add chopped fresh tomato and warm toasted cauliflower, along with the chopped fresh herbs and you have one great stew. John mentions that Paula Wolfert’s “The Foods of Morocco” offers several dozen recipes for tagine, including one that is demanding to be made next — Lamb Tagine with Pears and Green Apple. A look around the Internet brought some interesting options, too. One, Camel Tagine, we doubt we’ll make any time soon.

Couscous, the tiny, grainlike semolina pasta, is good with this dish as is rice. Sandy also mentions that cauliflower, too, can be processed and steamed to make a couscous-like side dish. Take your time with tagine. Whether you get the pot with the same name, or use a Dutch oven, the reward will be one of the most delicious stews you’ve ever made.

Brown the beef in turmeric, spices and herbs.

Beef browning in turmeric, spices and herbs.

 

Beef with Pumpkin Tagine

We don’t have a recipe as such for Sandy’s dish, as she put the dish together after combing through a number of recipes. It could be easily duplicated, she says.

Braise 3 pounds of beef, cut into chunks; brown/sauté chopped onion, garlic and three peeled and cut up carrots with a blend of Moroccan spices (ground cumin, cinnamon and ginger). Add to the ingredients a peeled and seeded 1-2 cups of diced squash, honey (perhaps a tablespoonful) as well as a handful of white raisins and currants. Add beef stock to cover and simmer until the beef is tender.

Tagine my pot cropped

 

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Enjoying a River Walk Idyll at Fig Tree


Tempura squash blossoms

Culinaria’s annual Restaurant Week came to a close with an impressive dinner at Fig Tree Restaurant, offering a rewarding finale to eight days of special tastes from some of the city’s finest restaurants.

It’s always a treat to dine at Fig Tree, with its spectacular view of the River Walk, and this meal was certainly no exception.

Our evening  started with a delightful amuse bouche of a fried pepper Jack ball with the tiniest bit of heat serving as a hint of bold flavors to come.

It would be hard to say which of the appetizer options was better, a dilemma that happily presented itself through all three of the meal’s courses.

Was the better dish the tempura-battered squash blossom stuffed with goat cheese? This was a happy blend of crispy hot dough on the outside while the cheese largely stayed cool and creamy at the center of the blossom. A tomato coulis added a welcome acidic brightness.

Watermelon soup

Or was it the watermelon soup with lime and jalapeño? This simple yet artful blending of three fresh flavors worked so well that you had to wonder why the trio hasn’t become a summertime mainstay throughout the state.

The main course options both had roots in northern Africa, with touches of general manager Moe Lazri’s heritage filling the dishes.

Grilled cobia

Grilled cobia was firm yet supple with the freshness of the fish making itself apparent in every bite. A chermoula sauce with garlic and preserved lemon worked well with both the fish and the caponata on the plate. Every detail of the dish merged into a richly satisfying whole.

And yet I would have to give the prize here to a tagine filled with tiny pearls of buttery couscous on which lamb, merquez sausage and a vegetable medley of zucchini, carrots, turnips and garbanzo beans as well as white raisins had been arranged. The presentation of the dish was particularly dramatic with the conical dish placed in the center of the table, and a miniature version filled with spicy harissa next to it.

Lamb, merquez sausage, turnips and more over couscous

We helped ourselves to spoons of fork tender lamb with a touch of jus, well-seasoned sausage and the delicate pasta, all made even more inviting with a touch of harissa adding a fruity and fiery touch. Yet the turnips were what won over everyone at the table — and they drew us back for seconds and thirds until they had run out. That is a sentence I never thought I’d type, but even the two non-turnip fans, myself included, were drawn to cubes of the firm, slightly sweet root vegetable.

Chef Byron Bergeron stopped by our table and explained the lengthy process by which the couscous had been made, according to Lazri’s instruction, and every forkful made it clear that it was worth the effort. (The chef also announced that he would be leaving Fig Tree at the end of the month, with his assistant Chris Spenser taking over. So, you have a few more days of sampling Bergeron’s distinctive cuisine.)

Almond Tart

Both dessert options pleased. Peach Melba featured the expected fresh peach and raspberry, but it was the pristine vanilla ice cream that sent spoons back into the glasses for more until the last drop could be scraped from the bottom. An almond tart was filled with several forms of nutty richness, from a not-too-sweet marzipan in the base of the tart crust to toasted slivers on top. A dollop of whipped cream and diced poached pears added color, texture and flavors, but they were surprisingly not needed, at least in the opinion of this almond fanatic.

A bottle of 2008 Simi Merlot was a nice companion to the lamb with the jus, the couscous, the squash blossoms and, well, even the hot buttered rolls, which had a dense crust and yet was so fluffy inside.

Service deserves a special mention for being among the most professional, best informed and least obtrusive that we have experienced recently.

This year’s Restaurant Week ably demonstrated how the celebration has grown in just a few short years. I may need to go on a diet, but I’m also ready for another run.

Fig Tree Restaurant
515 Villita St.
(210) 224-1976
figtreerestaurant.com

 

 

 

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Cataplana – A Portuguese Dish and a Cookware Store in Castroville


While driving back from Hondo Saturday, I saw a huge sign proclaiming Cataplana. I immediately turned the car around and headed back.

If you’ve ever been to southern Portugal, you might understand why.

Cataplana is a regional specialty made with clams, ham, sausage and all sorts of seasonings, from wine to parsley. I fell in love with it from the moment of my first taste. The word also refers to the clam-shaped dish in which it is cooked. It’s unique in that you turn it upside down halfway through the cooking process.

In this case, Cataplana turned out to be the name of a specialty kitchen supply store run by personal chef Cecelia Fetty.

She has plenty of kitchen gadgets and dishes with brands like Rösle, Viking and Emile Henry as well as Fiesta Dinnerware. And, yes, she has two sizes of cataplanas hanging in the front window. Tagines are more popular these days, however, she says, as the popularity of Moroccan and Middle Eastern foods continues to grow.

There are a few specialty foods, from vanilla paste to powdered egg whites, but the vast majority of items include pots, pans, scales, cookware and the popular six-sided Italian measuring jug that has side-by-side grams-to-ounces measurements for rice, sugar, flour and more.

I picked up a pair of elephant mugs with the trucks as handles.

The store has been open for six months now. In that time, Fetty’s special order business has taken off.

She also teaches a free monthly cooking class on the first Thursday of each month at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, 12525 Farm-to-Market 1957, San Antonio. Call (210) 679-7800 for the time and to reserve a seat.

Cataplana
810 U.S. 90 E.
Castroville
(830) 538-9911
Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday; and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday.

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