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A Quick Look at the Moroccan Tagine
A tagine is a cone-shaped cooking vessel traditionally used in Morocco; it is made of either ceramic or unglazed clay. Both materials are quite common in Morocco, but the unglazed clay adds rustic, earthy flavor and aroma to whatever is being cooked in it. The base of a Moroccan tagine is wide and shallow while the conical lid helps return condensed steam back to the food. Whether ceramic or clay, both types should be seasoned before first use. Tagines should also not come in direct contact with the heat source so if you have an electric stove or flat cooktop you will need to use a diffuser.
Most tagine recipes (which are referred to as tagines) layer aromatics, meat, and vegetables, along with spices, oil, and water. As the mixture cooks, a stew-like consistency develops, making a rich, flavorful sauce that is often scooped up with Moroccan bread. This step-by-step instructs how to make a Berber tagine, which includes lamb (or beef) and a variety of vegetables and spices.Continue to 2 of 14 below.
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Arrange the Base Layer
Once seasoned, tagines are quite easy to use. The first step of making a tagine recipe is to place a layer of sliced onions across the base of the tagine, creating a bed for the remaining ingredients. The bed of onions will prevent the meat from sticking to the bottom and burning.
Other recipes might call for chopped onions to be scattered in the tagine, or perhaps celery or carrots will be crisscrossed to make a bed for fragile ingredients, as is the case in a fish tagine. Small bamboo sticks can also be used.Continue to 3 of 14 below.
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Add the Garlic
Next comes the garlic. You can use a garlic press, but you can also just as easily chop the garlic or, if you like, leave the cloves whole. By adding the garlic with ingredients at the bottom, you are assured that it will fully cook and meld with the sauce.Continue to 4 of 14 below.
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Add Olive Oil
Ample oil is the foundation of a rich sauce in a tagine, so don't be afraid to use the full amount called for in a recipe. Most tagine recipes specify 1/4 to 1/3 cup oil. If you do reduce the oil, know that you will end up with less sauce or a watery sauce.
For this particular recipe, the oil can be added at any time while assembling the tagine. Many Moroccan cooks will use a mix of olive oil and vegetable oil, either because the olive oil is extra virgin and contributes lots of flavor in lesser quantity, or as a matter of frugality, as vegetable oil costs less.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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Arrange the Meat in the Center
Meat, poultry, or fish is usually arranged in the center of the tagine. If you're using meat on the bone, place the pieces bone-side-down to reduce the risk of scorching the meat.
For this recipe, arrange the meat into a mound in the center so you can add lots of vegetables around the perimeter. Sometimes you'll encounter recipes which direct you to brown the meat first, which is really not necessary. If you do decide to brown the meat, however, it's best done in a separate skillet since a clay or ceramic tagine should not be used over high heat.Continue to 6 of 14 below.
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Mix the Moroccan Spices
Although not absolutely necessary, combining your Moroccan spices before using them does allow for more even distribution of seasoning. This recipe calls for mixing salt, pepper, ginger, paprika, cumin, turmeric, saffron, and a little cayenne pepper in a small bowl. You can also mix the spices in a large bowl and toss the vegetables and meat in the spices to coat everything evenly before adding to the tagine. Alternatively, you can sprinkle the spices one at a time directly into the assembled tagine. There's no right or wrong way—it is a matter of preference.Continue to 7 of 14 below.
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Season the Meat and Onions
Distribute some of the spice mixture over the meat and onions. You can use up to 2/3 of the mixture at this step, concentrating the seasoning on the onions so the spices will meld with the oil and liquids to make a rich, flavorful sauce. The reserved spices will be used to season the vegetables.Continue to 8 of 14 below.
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Arrange the Vegetables and Season
When using a tagine, the vegetables are usually added at the very beginning of cooking along with the meat. Some recipes call for layering the vegetables around the meat, poultry, or fish, but in a Berber style tagine they're arranged in a conical fashion. Although challenging, try to get them to stand upright, as it makes a lovely presentation. Once you've added the vegetables, season them with the rest of your spice mixture.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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Garnish the Tagine
Now you can dress up the tagine with color and flavor by adding strips or slices of bell pepper, preserved lemon, olives, and an herb bouquet of parsley and cilantro. A jalapeño or chili pepper is optional.Continue to 10 of 14 below.
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Add Water to the Tagine
The last step before you place the tagine on the stove is to add water (sometimes stock or broth is used instead). Pour it carefully into the tagine near the side so that you don't wash away any of the spices. Be aware that you should not add a hot liquid to a cold tagine, and vice versa, as thermal shock can crack a clay or ceramic tagine.
If a recipe doesn't specify the amount of water to add, follow the general rule of thumb of 2 to 2 1/2 cups water for a large lamb or beef tagine with vegetables (half that amount of water for chicken due to shorter cooking time), and 1 to 1 1/4 cups water for a small lamb or beef tagine with vegetables (half that amount for chicken).Continue to 11 of 14 below.
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Cook the Tagine
To avoid cracking or breaking a clay or ceramic tagine, make sure it sits above the heat source and not directly on it (use a diffuser if you have an electric stove or flat cooktop). Place the tagine over low to medium-low heat and be very patient while the tagine slowly reaches a simmer.
Tagines can also be cooked outdoors over coals. In Morocco, you may find special tagine braziers, but the tagine may also be placed on the rack of a grill or over a small fire on the ground (use rocks to keep the tagine over the flames.) These methods are a bit trickier to maintain adequately low temperature and require more attention than stovetop cooking.
Once a tagine reaches a simmer (it can take up to a half hour if there is a lot of liquid), it can be left relatively undisturbed to slowly stew. Reduce the heat slightly if the tagine is simmering rapidly; ideally, you want a slow or medium simmer instead. A beef tagine could require about 3 hours of simmering; chicken might need only half that time while lamb can take an hour longer.Continue to 12 of 14 below.
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Check the Liquid Level
Check the level of the cooking liquids after about 2 hours. If the liquid has already reduced to a sauce-like consistency, you will need to add more water (about 1/4 cup) since the meat needs another hour of cooking.
If there is still ample liquid, you don't need to add any water for the last hour of cooking. Simply close the lid and leave it alone. If this much liquid remained when the meat was nearly cooked, however, you might want to prop the lid open with a spoon to allow for a quicker reduction.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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Serve the Tagine
Tagines double as serving dishes which help hold the food warm on the table. Be forewarned, though—it's best to allow the tagine to cool for 10 or 15 minutes before digging in or there will be burnt fingers and tongues!
Moroccan tradition is to gather around and eat communally from the tagine, using pieces of Moroccan bread to scoop and sop up the sauce, vegetables, and meat.Continue to 14 of 14 below.
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Now you are ready to try cooking different types of tagines! To get you started, try a lamb and prunes tagine, chicken with preserved lemon and olives, chicken and apricot tagine, or Kefta Mkaouara, a Moroccan meatball tagine. Fish is also wonderful in a tagine, as in fish tagine with potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers.