I dreamt recently that I was in conversation with good friends but couldn’t remember anyone’s name…seems so familiar to my waking life, that maybe it wasn’t a dream. In the same way, I read a blog yesterday which lauded the effect of spices on both taste-buds and spirit, but I can’t remember the name of the author….or was that a dream. Yesterday afternoon, whether asleep or awake, I remember cooking an aromatic, flavoursome and colourful Moroccan tagine with couscous.
Cooking a tagine offers the added pleasure of handling utensils specifically made for purpose. The round dish of glazed earthenware, with a heavy conical lid that fits the dish exactly, is known as a tagine slaoui, or slaoui as a diminutive. The slaoui, in which the tagine is prepared and cooked, sits directly over the gas flame. In this instance I cooked a chicken tagine with preserved lemon, chickpeas, sweet potato, dried apricots, almonds, olives and merguez.
Although there are many formally written recipes, I tend to cook tagines “freestyle”, whilst remaining as faithful as temptation allows to the Moroccan concept. Sometimes I find that I am missing specific spices or herbs and I make substitutions which I judge by tasting. Tasting food whilst cooking is probably the most important part of making delicious food. It’s knowing what’s missing that is the problem and, by its very nature, this judgement has to be subjective. As one person’s “delicious” is another’s “unbearable” there can be differing opinions of one’s cooking from those at the dinner table. Like writing or picture making, you have to follow your instincts.
The unmissable starting point of a meat or poultry based tagine, is the chermoula which is a paste of herbs and spices, lubricated with lemon juice and olive oil, that is used as a marinade.
Chermoula paste by Neil Perry
½ bunch of flat parsley roughly chopped
½ bunch of coriander roughly chopped
2 Spanish onions peeled and roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic
1 tsp ground coriander
2 tsps ground cumin
1 tsp ras al hanout
1½ tsps ground turmeric
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsps sea salt
2 fresh lemons, juiced
Method: Simply place all the ingredients into a tall slim steel or firm plastic container and blend, until it is a rough paste, with a stick blender.
Coat the poultry or meat in a thick layer of paste and leave to marinate: overnight in the fridge if possible, but otherwise for as long as you can afford in your cooking timetable.
Chicken and merguez tagine: As there is no formal recipe for the tagine that I cooked yesterday, I will write it as I cooked it…on the hoof. We start at the moment where I take the six, chermoula coated, chicken thighs from the fridge. The thick bowl of the slaoui is already sitting on the gas and the olive oil within is hot and ready to go. I’ve found it best to scrape the majority of the marinade off the chicken pieces before putting them, skin side down, to brown in the hot oil. Previous experience has shown me that the chermoula paste quickly burns, creating a charred layer in the base of the slaoui, that does nothing to improve the final flavour of the dish. Once the skin on the chicken is golden brown put the pieces in a separate bowl, to rest, whilst quickly searing the merguez. At this point I scrape away any burnt remnants of the chermoula paste, add some fresh oil and return the chicken pieces to the slaoui. I then add some Pomegranate Molasses, cut up pieces of sweet potato, chick peas ( from a can), chopped preserved lemons, dried apricots, green olives and some good vegetable stock. A final sprinkling of sea salt, sumac, and black pepper is the cue to put the conical lid in place and let the juices bubble and commingle. A small hole pierced in the lid of the slaoui, near to the apex, to let out steam, whilst the moisture clinging to the interior walls of the cone simultaneously bastes the tagine. The merguez, which were browned earlier, can be added, as can a handful of blanched almonds, near to the end of the tagine’s cooking time which is around 1½ hours.
Cous cous steamed over vegetables in a highly flavoured broth; The complete couscousiere can be seen in the top picture, the steamer sitting on top of a lidded metal cooking pot. The vegetables in broth are cooked in this pot.
Put some vegetable oil in the pot, over a low flame, and add cumin, sweet paprika, ras al hanout, and any combination of spices that you feel will be a useful addition. Yesterday I used some garam masala and a spoonful of curry paste, thus spanningthe distance between the Middle East and the Sub Continent. I also added a spoonful of an intense tomato sauce. a bowl of which I had in the fridge, so that Southern Europe could make its contribution to the whole. It’s not long before the spiced aroma begins to fill the kitchen marking the point where I add quartered onions and small chunks of potato and carrot, which are all thoroughly coated in the aromatic paste that has been created in the pot. A good litre of vegetable stock is added and the hard vegetables are left to simmer in the pot, with the lid on. After 20 minutes, I taste the broth, and season with salt and black pepper if I deem it necessary. Once the potatoes and carrots are soft I will add some chick peas, drained of their juices, from a can.
The cous cous, or semoule, is the last step. I allow 40 grams per person, when the couscous is an accompaniment to a tagine, more when it is eaten with just the vegetables and broth . Put the couscous in a bowl and pour over it a glass of cold water. Once the grains have absorbed the water, transfer them to the steamer section of the couscousiere, and put them to steam, lidded, over the bubbling broth for a good 20 minutes. Take the steamer and tip the steamed grains into a separate bowl. Season the hot grains with sea salt and lubricate them with a few tablespoonfuls of olive oil. Use a fork to turn the grains over and to mix in the oil and salt. Now return the grains to the steamer top which is placed atop the broth for a further 10 – 15 minutes. Once finished, tip the grains into a warmed bowl. This way you will have perfectly separated and very delicious couscous. You may well question as to whether the meagre allowance of 40 grams per person was sufficient. Don’t forget to put a bowl of rust red harissa on the table to add any piquancy that may be found to be missing.