Thursday, 4 November 2010

Lamb Tagine

A tagine is the prettiest way to prepare a casserole, but I’m not at all sure it’s the most practical.  The shallow dish doesn’t contain a great deal, and the tall, conical lid makes it impractical for transferring from stove top to oven, particularly if you might want anything else in the oven at the same time, so it’s not really much use for dinner party cooking.  Better suited, I guess, to a romantic diner a deux.  As to whether or not any unique qualities of flavour, aroma or tenderness are imparted to stew cooked in a tagine as opposed to a regular old casserole, frankly I don’t know.  If there are, we are certainly in the realm of nuance.  Nevertheless, the tagine does looks good, and it is fun to get it down from its high shelf every so often, and it does lend a hint of exotic glamour, a hint of the souk, a touch of the casbah, to an otherwise ordinary midweek stew for two.  Like this one.  And by ordinary, I don't mean bad, just really, really easy.

You will need (for two):
2 neck fillets of lamb, marinaded in lemon zest and juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, chilli and garlic, thyme, parsley and a sprinkling of sumac (if you have it, crushed coriander or cumin seeds if not).
1 red onion
½ red pepper
a handful of mushrooms
a handful of dried apricots
a glass of sherry

This is a light, quick stew, not a long slow cooker like the ox cheeks the other day, and much of the flavour in the dish will come from the marinade, so do this well in advance – in the morning, or even the night before.  Bear in mind though that the longer in advance you do it, the lower the concentration of lemon juice you’ll want in the marinade – you don’t want to pickle the meat.  Conversely, if you’ve forgotten, or haven’t had time to marinade in advance and are doing it just before, then use plenty of lemon, and maybe I’d even add a dash of sherry vinegar.  Also, with a long marinade I’d keep the fillets whole, for marinading in a hurry, dice them.   

On this occasion I marinaded in the morning and used the zest and juice of one smallish but juicy lemon on whole fillets.  I use a garlic crusher to mince together a couple of cloves of garlic and a thumb’s length of fresh chilli (more or less depending on the strength of the chilli and personal taste) and rub the paste into the meat along with olive oil, fresh thyme, plenty of fresh ground black pepper, a little sea salt, and a good pinch of sumac – a turkish spice, ideal for lamb, made from dried berries, with a tangy, fruity flavour.  If you’ve ever had the grilled onion salad in a Turkish restaurant, with the pomegranate juice and the red powder sprinkled on top – that’s sumac.  If you haven’t ever had the grilled onion salad in a Turkish restaurant, with the pomegranate juice and the red powder sprinkled on top, then you should.

When it’s time to cook, slice the fillets into shish kebabish sized chunks and brown in the base of the tagine (or your casserole).  As this is a quick cooking dish I wouldn’t bother removing the browned meat, just chuck in the onion, sliced wedgewise, and the red pepper, similarly sliced, once the meat is a good colour, and let it all cook together until the onion and peppers are softening, then add the mushrooms, halved or quartered depending on size, and the apricots, pour over enough sherry to cover the base of the dish but not the other ingredients and then cover with the lid.  Leave it simmering away gently on the stove top for about half an hour, by which time the meat should be meltingly tender.  It may require a little longer.  Add another splash of sherry if it looks like drying out, but that’s generally not necessary with a tagine, the conical lid is very good at returning the steam to the pan.

Finish the stew with a sprinkling of fresh parsley or coriander, and serve with couscous or rice.  On this occasion I’d also roasted some butternut squash with garlic and sage which accompanied the stew very well, and neatly matched the apricots for colour.

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