It has been brought to my attention that I have been remiss in documenting a particularly spectacular dinner that was recently prepared and eaten in my home. Mainly, I feel badly because we didn't photograph any of it - the preparation took so much time and concentration that honestly, we never even thought about it, and by the time it was ready, all we wanted to do was eat it. But document it I will, because it was awesome, fun to make, gorgeous to look upon (you'll have to take my word for it) and damn tasty.
The dinner in question was a Moroccan meal in honour of my brother-in-law's birthday. He lived in Africa for many years as a child and teenager, and has a strong affinity for the flavours of that region. I thought it would be a great opportunity to press into service the tagine we bought him and my sister for their wedding - it's exactly the same one as they bought me two years ago for Christmas, so we had the ability to make two tagines. D was thrilled at the idea, and so were the remaining members of my family, so my sister and I had a look through the North African cookbook that was also part of their wedding gift, and found two meat dishes that interested us: a lamb with dried fruits, and a chicken with fresh apricots.
As J doesn't care for lamb, I took charge of that, and assigned her a chicken dish that she would enjoy, along with the rest of us. We also made a salad in the style of the one served at Au Tarot in Montreal, and some plain couscous to accompany the stews. The tagines take a long time to prepare and cook: the lamb stew simmered for an hour; the chicken for 45 minutes, plus we had to chop up onions and fruits and cut up a whole chicken into its parts. Never having mastered this particular skill, I turned to Google, and Cook's Illustrated did not fail me. They have an amazing primer on cutting up a chicken - detailed instructions accompanied by diagrams. The result was perfect, and left me with two wings and a carcass to use for stock. I may never buy chicken parts again.
While J and I slaved away happily in the kitchen, my parents, Chris, and D sat and chatted and nibbled on olives, roasted almonds with cumin and paprika, and a quick dip I threw together made of jarred roasted peppers, cream cheese and fresh lemon juice whirled in the blender. It turned out to be the surprise hit of the afternoon, and J and I had to make sure we scored some before it left the kitchen!
It was one of those perfect days when everything you cook works well, all the flavours come together properly, and everyone enjoys their meal. The lamb tagine was chunks of stew meat, simmered with onions, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, dried apricots, raisins and prunes, sprinkled with toasted whole blanched almonds. The conical lid of the tagine allows the condensation to roll back down into the meat, rendering it perfectly moist and fork-tender. It was one of the best dishes I have ever had the pleasure of making and serving. I think it's my new go-to special occasion dish, in fact.
The chicken was cooked bone-in, browned and then slowly simmered with chicken broth, onions, honey, ginger root, saffron and a touch of cayenne, with chunks of fresh apricot and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds. It was just as tender and well-balanced as the lamb stew. Between the six of us, we devoured every morsel along with a pile of couscous and the salad. My father brought a gorgeous bottle of Vacqueyras, which went beautifully with everything.
For dessert, my sister made an incredibly dense and decadent chocolate mousse cake, with coffee-infused mascarpone on the side. Unbelievably rich and delicious, in small doses! D also brought over the Moroccan silver tea pot and tea glasses we bought him for Christmas, and made us all "whiskey berbere", the traditional Berber mint tea made with fresh leaves, sugar and honey. It's so flavourful and a perfect digestive. All in all, quite a memorable meal, and one I'd be thrilled to make - and eat - again sometime soon. The birthday boy was well-please by it as well, which was, after all, the goal.
Tagine el ain (Lamb with dried fruits)
2 lb boneless lamb stew meat
2 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cups water, divided use
salt and pepper to taste
3-in cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp ground cumin
zest of 1/2 lemon
3/4 cup dried apricots
3/4 cup pitted prunes
1/2 cup raisins
1 tbsp orange flower water
2 tbsp brown sugar
Cut meat into 3/4 inch cubes. Heat oil in tagine; brown the lamb until browned all over. Push the meat to one side,
add the onion and cook 5 minutes. Reduce heat, add 1 cup water, salt, pepper, cinnamon stick, ginger, cumin and lemon zest. Cover and simmer 1 hour.
Add apricots, prunes, raisins, orange flower water and sugar. Stir, cover and simmer 30 minutes more. Add a little more water during cooking time if necessary to keep fruit from sticking. Remove cinnamon and serve hot with couscous.