This month’s Ethnic Exploration may seem very different from its predecessors as it is not attached to a specific market that touts amazing ethnic products. A market of that kind was difficult to find, we were scrambling for time to get to any market, and none of the markets had the most coveted spice that would make our dish sing. That sounds like a let down in a way, but we are more than positive that you will not be disappointed in our attempts and with the final dish. Just above these rambling words, you’ll find a gorgeous tagine with two hearty lamb shanks just waiting to be, well, tagine’d if you will. It was Amir’s chance to choose the month’s excursion, and he excitedly declared Moroccan to be the topic. I was more than ready and willing to get on board, and so we set about to create another meal worthy of a gold medal.
Los Angeles is full of Moroccan restaurants. All you have to do is conduct a quick search and names such as Marrakesh, Dar Maghreb, Moun-of-Tunis, Koutoubia, Chameau and the appropriately named Tagine will come up. We are even lucky enough to have the Morock’n Roll food truck rumbling about the busy streets. With our city’s diversity of people and food, especially from the Middle Eastern region of the world, it is no surprise that Moroccan food has found a place in the hearts and mouth of many. Including us. The North African country has such a rich influence of Berber, Arabic, Mediterranean and Moorish cultures that there is no doubt its food will reflect many of the contributions of each community. Many of us are familiar with couscous, the dried, pounded semolina grains that many of us reconstitute with hot liquid. Another popular dish is the pastilla (also spelled bastilla, b’stilla and basteeya). The savory pigeon, or sometimes chicken, and almond pie is encased in pastry and topped with a mix of cinnamon and sugar. We’ve seen the use of sweet fruits such as figs, dates, apricots and raisins tossed amongst savory items like onions, sour ingredients such as lemons or salty additives such as olives. You’ve probably heard of or seen photos of the gorgeously colorful spice souks in Moroccan medinas that are piled up with rich spices such as turmeric, paprika, cayenne, saffron and cumin. And then there is the tagine–a word that indicates the dish used to cook with and the dish that is cooked in it–which produces nothing but the most succulent meat or vegetable creations you could ever imagine. For these reasons alone, we were ready to rock through Moroccan food.
Amir chose the recipe for this one. There are many tagine recipes out there, but this was the only one that added a complementary dish to go along with it. That made it stand out for sure. He had also just purchased an appropriately turmeric-colored, glazed tagine that would do the job well. There are tagines for serving, which tend to be the most ornately decorated. Then there are tagines for cooking, which are usually a bit more plain and can either be glazed or unglazed.The tagine is made of two parts–the lower flat basin holds meat, veggies and liquid, while the conical top allows heat and moisture to circulate. Some of the moisture is released through the hole at the top, but most of it funnels back down to the bottom. The food inside is cooked low and slow, which produces meat that literally falls off the bone. In a dry, arid country such as Morocco the use of little liquid was the perfect attribute of the tagine when the Berber people–the first inhabitants of the region–were cooking meals over pits of fire. We chose lamb as the star of the dish as we both love the meat, and it is also one of the meats of choice for a tagine.
We needed to grab two ingredients for this tagine, and they were safflower threads and ras el hanout. Safflower oil is easy to find at almost any market, but your mainstream grocery store may not sell the little flower petals. Some people call them a substitute for saffron, but don’t be fooled. You won’t get the same color or flavor from safflower threads, but they do look pretty. Ras el hanout is in a class all its own though. It is the major spice in traditional and authentic Moroccan dishes. The name translates to “top of the shop”, and it is a blend of spices. This blend varies, and it has been said that some combinations can contain over one hundred ingredients. Your average blend may be a mixture of 30-50 ingredients, or as little as 10. Black pepper, cardmom, ginger, saffron, turmeric, cayenne, cinnamon, mace, allspice, nutmeg, white pepper, anise seeds, cloves and coriander are just some of the spices you will find in ras el hanout. More obscure additions could be ash berries, ajawan seeds, cassia, kalajeera, ginger, Grains of Paradise, oris root, chufa, cubebs, rose buds, monk’s pepper, etc. Talk about an intensely, sophisticated flavor. We had to find this!
Unfortunately, the process of finding a market that sold these ingredients, particularly the ras el hanout, was difficult. Actually, it was hard to make it to any market. Despite the number of Moroccan restaurants in our area, there are not many specifically Moroccan markets that seem to come up. Your best bet is to visit a Middle Eastern market and pick up what you need. There were a couple in Long Beach, but they had odd hours that did not mesh with our schedules. Others in the Hollywood or on the Westside sold safflower, not ras el hanout. As we ticked down the time clock, we approached Easter weekend, and in the days following, several markets were still closed for various holidays, which prevented us for making it there. So where did we go? Well, Whole Foods. There’s nothing inherently ethnic about it, but honestly, we ran out of time. Luckily for us, Whole Foods sold jars of safflower threads and an abbreviated mixture of ras el hanout that would do the trick. Back at his house, Amir had a streaming package of spices and herbs gifted to him by a friend who had recently traveled to Turkey. One of them was Turkish saffron, which we would use in the dish as well.
Fast forward to cooking day, and we hit the kitchen with a vengeance. For most unglazed tagines, you are advised to season it before using. That involves a process of soaking, washing, drying, oiling, baking, cooling, then washing, drying and oiling it again. Visit Gourmet Sleuth for the quick processs. Amir’s glazed tagine did not require the same process, so we went for it. Unlike true braising, using a Moroccan tagine does not require the meat to be browned first. You can do it for extra flavor if you like, but it is not necessary. We tossed everything into the tagine, popped it into the oven and waited. We actually held a brunch for a few friends while we gluttonously waited for the Moroccan lunch to finish. The aroma of the gamey lamb, along with garlic, ginger, saffron and ras el hanout was intoxicating once it was out of the oven. We served up slivers of lamb shank to our friends with a hefty helping of makfoul, caramelized tomatoes and onions, and a quick and easy couscous dotted with dates and cilantro and heavily seasoned with cinnamon and ginger.
This meal definitely received two thumbs up. Make that four as we are a Duo. The meat was so tender, and the spices added such a memorable kick. The broth inside the tagine was had a lovely heat to it that matched very well with the sweet dates in the couscous. The makfoul was just the right amount of acidity needed to balance out the flavors as well. We made a couple of small changes to the recipe, including using fresh ginger, adding safflower, increasing the amount of cinnamon sticks and substituting chicken broth for water. We also reduced the amount of liquid and eliminated the oil, so that the tagine could do the real work of keeping everything moist. Despite having just stuffed ourselves with brunch, we all gobbled up plates of lamb, makfoul and couscous for a great Moroccan lunch. Even without the market visit, we know that we can make a dish like this anytime. If for some reason, you’ve felt any hesitation to make Moroccan food, this is your time to give it a try!
Lamb Tagine with Makfoul (Adapted from About.com and Treasures of the Moroccan Gastronomy) – Serves 4
2 pounds lamb shanks, bone-in
2 large yellow onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon Ras El Hanout*
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon safflower threads, crumbled
4 cinnamon sticks
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves
1 1/2 cups chicken broth (or vegetable or beef broth)
1. Place the onions on the bottom of the tagine**, then top with the lamb shanks bone-side down. Sprinkle the remaining ingredients over the lamb, including the chicken broth.
2. Cover the tagine with the top and slide into an oven pre-heated to 325 degrees. Bake for 2 1/2 – 3 hours or until the meat is tender and sliding away from the bone.
3. Remove from the oven and cool for a few minutes before carefully removing the lid. Top with the makfoul (recipe below).
2 yellow large onions, thinly sliced
4 vine tomatoes, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Place all of the ingredients into a medium sized pot over medium low high heat. Cook down for 10-15 minutes, allowing the moisture to evaporate and the mixture begin to thicken.
2. Reduce the heat to low and cook another 20-25 minutes before removing from heat. Serve over the lamb shanks. (The onions may take on a deep, caramelized color if you cook them longer, which would be fine too.)
*This spice is very difficult to find in mainstream and sometimes even Middle Eastern markets. If you get your mitts on it, great. If not, try making a blend of your own with your favorite aromatic spices.
**If you do not have a tagine, you can make this recipe in a pressure cooker or large pot. The recipe we used has instructions for those variations.
Click HERE for the printable recipe.