Taken with Tagines!

I’m always drawn to distinct pieces that reflect the richness of world culture. Every once in a while, though, I get just a little obsessed with a particular item. It may be its shape, its origin of use, its prevalence in its home country, the experience I had when encountering it, or the direction of my imagination in finding decorative uses for it.

Tagines have captured my total attention!

I’ve been delving in a Moroccan aesthetic of late. I still love the idea of a low table surrounded by pouf ottomans in a sparsely furnished, richly decorated room.

Add to that vision of distinctive, cultural entertainment a selection of tagines from which delicious, hours-long cooking odors are wafting. Carefully, you lift a hot, conical lid, and inside, once the steam clears, you find a delicious, savory meat and vegetable stew…..it is so tender, a fork cannot hold it! So you raise a spoonful to your lips, blow a little, and take a bite….

Think of a tagine as an earthenware slow-cooker, but one that needs very little water, and no electricity. Tagine also refers to the food prepared in it.

Indeed, the tagine cooking method developed precisely because of limited water supplies and nomadic lifestyle. Traditionally, the highly portable tagine is placed on a portable, fired clay surface over large bricks of charcoal, which remain hot for hours. The shape of the lid is specifically designed to capture and hold moisture and steam, and return it to the pot, encouraging a long, slow, consistent simmer, and deep infusion of spice and flavor. Additionally, because the cooking method renders meats so tender, a less expensive cut of meat is acceptable; further, the method does not require initial browning. Consequently, the tagine is a highly efficient and effective piece of cookware.

As a decorative piece, the tagine is equally effective. Its shape is distinct, with its conical lid and wide, smooth, bowl-shaped base. Consider a tagine as a dining room table centerpiece, or a tabletop accent in a den. Perhaps in a bookshelf nook or side table, or even a conversation piece for your kitchen. Something more unusual? How about on the hearth of your fireplace in a small grouping?

And while true cooking tagines are, indeed, quite lovely, there exist serving versions made of metals and nacre; their colors can be bright and striking, or they can be fired pottery versions with more ornate surface designs.

Online you can find a wide selection of tagines, including serving tagines (beautiful, but not designed for cooking or the dishwasher), traditional Moroccan tagines, and other ceramic tagines in a variety of colors and patterns.

Should you decide to experiment with Moroccan tagine recipes, and you choose a traditional terracotta version, you will need to season it before its first use, which will remove any “pottery” taste, and strengthen the piece. Allow me to provide those instructions:

First, submerge your new tagine in water for at least an hour.

After soaking, rub the interior of the base and lid generously with olive oil.

Place the tagine in a cold oven, and set temperature to about 300 degrees F (150C). Leave the tagine in the oven for two hours, then remove and let cool.

When completely cool, wash in warm, soapy water, and dry with a clean cloth.

Need a recipe? Try this one, provided by fescooking.com:

Chicken Tagine with Olives and Preserved Lemons (Djaj Mqalli)

This dish is a traditional Moroccan tagine. It is a fairly common recipe enjoyed by Moroccans at lunch time in their homes.

For 2-3 people

* 1 small chicken around 1 kg, quartered
* 2 large sliced onions
* 1 tsp. powdered ginger
* one pinch of saffron (best if pistils)
* 2 preserved lemons
* 1 cup green olives
* 1 cup lemon juice
* sea salt
* pepper
* 1 cup water
* olive oil

One hour before preparation, marinate chicken with sea salt, lemon juice and a cup of water in a large bowl.

Heat olive oil in a large pot or tagine. Cook sliced onions until they start to change color.Add ginger, pepper, saffron and chicken.Add water. Remove the pulp of the preserved lemon and mix it in the Cuisinart. Add to the pot. Cut the skin into quarters. Add to the pot. Cook on a low flame until the chicken is soft and easily falls off of the bone. You don’t want it to be too dry, or too chewy. Add olives before serving.

I hope you will experiment, in both the decorative and culinary sense!