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Inessential Tool: Tagines

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The moment I landed in Morocco, I had a mission. I wanted to learn to cook tagine, the delicious and fragrant stew I smelled every time I turned a corner, stumbled into a souk, or opened the door to my host mother's house.

The lamb tagine with apricots, dates, and almonds that started my whole obsession.
The lamb tagine with apricots, dates, and almonds that started my whole obsession.

In Morocco, the tagine pots were ceramic, unglazed, and available to purchase in every neighborhood. In the States, they are typically "specialty pots," with a cast iron base, ceramic top, and a price tag that puts it out of a college student's budget. As soon as I returned stateside, I set about finding a way to make the dish without having to purchase a tagine pot. The internet suggested that a Dutch oven could produce similar results, so I decided to go for it, and cook a meal for ten people as a fun way to mix up family dinner.

The same base ingredients—onions, ginger, garlic, and ghee—can produce very different results depending on what you add to them.

The biggest problem with the Dutch oven is that it's too deep. A tagine pot has a shallow base, and for good reason: It allows you to brown the meat, and then add just enough liquid that it thickens into the most delicious sauce (which you can then scoop up with plenty of bread). The Dutch oven wasn't wide enough to accomodate the amount of food for 10 people while still keeping the liquid to a minimum. Plus, the special shape of the tagine's lid forces steam back down into the base, making anything you cook inside of it incredibly tender. The overall verdict? While the dish made in the Dutch oven was good, it was more of a traditional stew with a lot of spices. The broth wouldn't reduce and thicken, and the meat just wasn't quite what I wanted it to be. A tagine is hard to fake, and the real thing works for its keep.

At last!
At last!

A few weeks ago, I borrowed the Food52 test kitchen's tagine, and after making a lot of enemies while carrying it home on the 6 train at rush hour, I grabbed a few friends who'd never tried the dish before. Using the pot, I put together up a chicken and vegetable tagine that was slightly based on my host-mother's dish (chicken with mint), and slightly on Heidi Swanson's Near & Far recipe (lots and lots of delicious vegetables); the options for tagine are endless, as it's a great "throw-everything-into-the-pot" sort of meal, with vegetables, beans, and various meats. After tossing it over couscous, and sprinkling it with freshly chopped mint, the first bite told me everything I needed to know. This was tagine. All the wonderful memories of my trip came flooding back, and I happily went back for seconds (and thirds).

Tags: tagine, moroccan cooking, essential tools