Sunday, 26 January 2014

A Dream in a Tagine

Carciofi & Riso al Ras el Hanout, Cotto in Tagine
Artichokes & Rice from the Tagine with Ras el Hanout

It is not as if I have ALWAYS wanted a tagine... but I did always find them- "kinda cool", I must admit. And last week, in the sales- there this thing was at a price that was, for this poor Sicilian guy, "an offer I couldn't refuse"- lol! And so, thinking of all kinds of great dishes I can make in it for guests, in future- into a bag it went and back home with me it came!

You may be asking yourselves just what I would be planning on making? Well, after many years of Arabic rule in Sicily, we have many great traditions of various couscous dishes- not least the famous "Couscous alla Trapanese"- wonderful, ancient and exotic... and many more dishes besides.

So, although I knew that I would not really be doing the thing justice by cooking a single portion in it, where it is much better suited to making a fill meal for a family of 4 at least, I decided I needed to "season" it and at least try the thing out this evening- just to get a feel for cooking in this very different kind of pot.

I decided to make a dish using the lovely fresh, young artichokes I picked up at the market hall yesterday, as one thing is for sure- a tagine is not meant to be used for any quick dishes- it is better suited to slow cooking at moderate temperatures than high heat. Which is why you need to "season" it, by soaking it in water for at least 2 hours and then baking it in the oven at around the same amount of time at around 200°F. This will help prevent it from cracking too easily- but that can still happen if you add cold water to your dishes whilst they are bubbling away, or cook at too high a heat in the first place. 

So, as you can see, I had a small bunch of young artichokes, a couple of shallots, a mild chili pepper, mint, parsley and rice... those were the basic ingredients. The prep-work involved was the classic trimming of the artichokes- top third off, outer leaves plucked, then cut into quarters and the "choke! at the heart removed... but fortunately for me, these were so young and tender that there was hardly any there.

I am also very fortunate to have a really wonderful Ras el Hanout spice mixture, which has plenty of rose petals, which make so much difference! The name Ras el Hanout, translates to "the best blend", more or less and each merchant in Morocco will have his own version- some consisting of up to 30 spices! If you look into my mortar and pestle photo, you will see cumin, coriander, cloves, mace, chili, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom, pepper, fennel seeds, star anis, anisette and more! Oh- and yes... rose petals, as I said... lovely!

But back to the tagine and to the method I tried out this evening. As I was a little worried about putting the tagine directly onto a hot stove, and mine is such, that I have to turn it up to the maximum heat before it will even turn on and can only THEN turn it down, I first poured a little boiling water into the tagine from my kettle- to gently warm the clay. Once the stove was on, I reduced the heat to medium and put the tagine back on top and added the artichokes and just enough water to cover them.

I let the temperature get to the point that the water was just gently simmering and then put on the lid and let the artichokes steam for 15 minutes or so.

In the meantime, I sliced the shallots, ground up the spices, plucked the mint and parsley from the stalks and sliced up a little of the mild chili- so nice that it had hardly any seeds and would make for pleasant eating- I had already seen there were quite a few dried chilies in the spice mix! I also cut a few slices of lemon to add, as I find that is also a nice addition to any artichoke dish.

After 15 minutes the artichokes are just about half done and look pretty sorry for themselves- but not to worry! The water will be filled with flavor (sadly, for most palates a little bitter- but we will tend to that later ;-) ) and that is a good thing though, as we will use that broth to steam our rice in... and everything else of course! And now we can start having fun adding all of those other yummies!

I first added the lemon slices, then sprinkled in a cup and a half of rice, the shallots, the mint and parsley and the chillies... and of course the spices! I ground up just a good teaspoon to make this amount- which would have been good for 2 portions... but I was hungry! I gave everything a light stir and added another little bit of warm water, just enough to cover everything. I seasoned it with a little salt and pepper, waited for the temperature to come back up to a gentle simmer and replaced the lid. And let it cook with the lid on for a further 40 minutes... 

After 40 minutes were over and I could hardly stand it, I lifted the lid and there was a bowl full of fluffy, delicious rice and tender artichokes... and the most wonderful aroma! So spices and pleasant- you really have to try this out as there is now way I can describe it... other than saying it was like something out of a dream... no kidding! But it was right here in my kitchen!

Obviously, after steaming away for so long, it did look a little "dull", but that was quickly changed with just a sprinkle of freshly, finely chopped parsley and mint and the final, finishing touches that I added, which were a nice drizzle of both sesame oil and also a little honey. The honey balances the bitterness of the artichokes and the sourness of the lemon wonderfully, whilst still allowing those flavors to come through... and for me at least- that is the secret of good food. The balance. It's all about the balance. You could pour away the broth from the artichokes and boil the rice in water and have no bitterness- but then you would not be eating my dish. Likewise with the lemon. But look- just be brave and do the right thing! You are reading my blog for a reason after all! 

And this I would propose is the reason. This kind of wonderful, simple but still complex and delicious meal. You know you want to try it! This is neither a traditional Moroccan dish, nor is it based on anything other than my instincts and my preferences in the kitchen. It was an experiment and of course, all you have to go by are my words... but I am being as honest as I can and descriptive as I dare!

There is spice, there is bitterness and sweetness... there are delicate rose petals and lovely rich artichokes and the fresh herbs. And there is nothing else. It is just good, simple, honest food cooked in its own broth and essence- and that is what I wanted the tagine for. To keep all of the flavors trapped in the food. 

And of course you can do the same thing with your saucepan- absolutely- that is what I do every day... but this was my little Sunday night adventure and my little dream come true!

And here is one more shot just before I say good bye- just in case I haven't managed to convince you yet... but I hope I have managed! And I hope you enjoy it!

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