Seasoned cook puts tagine through the paces

  • Long before the slow cooker, there was the tagine. This recipe for Prune and Turnip Tagine is a particularly tasty way to put one to the test.

    Long before the slow cooker, there was the tagine. This recipe for Prune and Turnip Tagine is a particularly tasty way to put one to the test. Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post

 
By Joe Yonan
The Washington Post
Posted3/18/2015 5:00 AM

Long before the slow cooker, there was the tagine: a clay cooking vessel from northern Africa whose conical lid promotes condensation and moisture retention, bathing the stew inside (also called a tagine) with steam and coaxing its ingredients to silky tenderness. In Morocco, it was the original set-it-and-forget-it cooker, set on bricks over coals and left to do its thing for hours.

Don't you feel a little warmer just thinking about it? This winter's cold snap has me, and pretty much every cook I know, scrounging for new ways to take the chill off. When a particularly brutal stretch hit recently -- freezing my pipes and knocking out water in my kitchen -- I filled pitchers of water (and did more than one load of dishes) in an upstairs bathtub, cranked up the heat in my townhouse, and pulled out my tagine.

 

To be honest, I've had the thing for years without using it; I got it from friends who, well, had it for years without using it. It looks striking on my tower of pots, with its dramatic red lid, but for some reason I had never before put it through its paces.

Maybe it was the height of the tagine, which takes up pretty much the whole oven, requiring rack-shuffling to make it fit. Or maybe it's because I associate tagines so strongly with lamb, poultry and other meats, and, well, need I say more?

But the fact is, vegetables -- especially roots -- cook wonderfully in a tagine, and they pair just as well with traditional ingredients: dried fruit, honey, warming spices like cumin and cinnamon, nuts. Best of all, just when I was wanting to avoid washing more dishes than necessary, these stews can come together in just one pot. (If you don't have a tagine, don't let that stop you from making one of those dishes: Go with a Dutch oven instead.)

Traditional clay tagines can require special attention to be appropriate for both stove top and oven use; you need to heat them gradually or place a diffuser on a burner. But mine, made by Le Creuset, is the best of both worlds: It has a cast-iron bottom that can handle the highest of direct heat (and works on my induction stove), letting me brown ingredients if I want, and a glazed stoneware lid that works just the way a tagine should.

To inaugurate my tagine, I tried a recipe from Sally Butcher's wonderfully witty "The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian: More Recipes from Veggiestan" (Interlink, 2014) that calls for many of my favorite winter staples: turnips, carrots, shallots, prunes. And when it emerged from the oven just 40 minutes after going in (turnips don't take nearly as long to cook as, say, lamb shoulder), the result was just as intoxicatingly fragrant -- sweet and savory -- as any tagine I've had in the best Moroccan restaurants.

I don't know whether it was the turned-up heat in my townhouse or the magic of the tagine, but within eight hours after I pulled it from the oven, my pipes had thawed and I could do dishes in my kitchen again. After I washed the tagine, I didn't return it to the tower but left it on the countertop. Just in case.

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