A Lovely Moroccan Meal

Chris might love kale, but this Valentine's Day, I'm in love with Moroccan cooking.
Ever since we returned from our fabulous holiday vacation, I've been trying to replicate the delicious food we ate there. Here at home, we've had orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert a few times, and we've made the tasty vegetable salads, zaalouk and taktouka several times, too -- I can practically make them by heart now. And, I've made a delicious fish dish with vegetables and a chermoula marinade in our new 1 1/2 quart terra cotta tagine (made in Morocco, purchased here). Tagines are awesome by the way.  You should get one.

First, a few things about cooking in a tagine: It's suggested that you cook in an un-glazed terra cotta tagine for best results, but you can then transfer your lovely dish to a decorative, (lead-free) glazed tagine for serving if you want to get fancy. Before we used our tagine for the first time, we spent a good several hours seasoning it. We had to soak it in water for about 3 hours, let it dry, then cover it in olive oil, fill the bottom with water and bake in a 250 degree oven for 2 hours more. But, that was the first and last time the tagine will be in the oven. Per our Moroccan friends, tagines are not to be used in ovens. They are to be used on the stove or over hot coals. However, you shouldn't place them directly on the heat on the stove -- always use a heat diffuser, a metal plate that most tagine vendors will also sell. I seems like a lot to do for one pot, but once you've cooked your first meal in a tagine, you'll see why all of that is worth it. The flavor is unlike anything I've ever tried.

And that wonderful flavor is best shared with the ones you love, so I'm sharing this amazing beef tagine recipe with all of you. It's one we learned to make in Morocco, with a couple minor tweaks. If you don't have a tagine, a dutch oven would work fine, although I can't promise the smoky flavor and cut-with-a -butter-knife-tender meat that comes from using a clay pot. As always, please use the best quality ingredients you can find for these dishes and enjoy the process. There are several steps, but it's the perfect opportunity to grab your significant other or a couple of friends and spend some time together in the kitchen. Pour some wine, turn up the stereo and have some fun. Isn't that what life, er cooking is all about?

Beef Tagine with Prunes and Toasted Almonds (Serves 4)
1lb beef stew meat (I used local, grass-fed, Angus beef), cut into chunks
2 TBS olive or safflower oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp turmeric
1TBS cilantro, chopped
2 cups water
1 cup unsalted almonds
2 cups pitted prunes
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick

To Do:
  • Place tagine on heat diffuser and turn heat to medium.
  • Add the meat, onion and oil and brown on all sides.
  • Once browned, add the garlic, cinnamon stick, salt, pepper, ginger, turmeric and cilantro along with the 2 cups of water. Cover and cook over medium heat for about 90 minutes, checking every so often for tenderness and whether you need to add more liquid, adjust heat, etc. The lid on my tagine is a bit uneven, so it allows for venting (contrary to popular belief there isn't a hole at the top of the lid, just an indentation for easy lifting) but you can also just lay a spoon in the tagine and let the lid rest on the handle for a bit of a vent.)
  • While the meat is cooking, fill a small pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the almonds and boil for a few minutes until the skin loosens. Drain and cool, then slip the almond skins off and place the peeled almonds on a paper towel to dry. Discard the skins.
  • When dry, place the almonds in a small pan over medium heat and stir constantly, until toasted and brown. Remove from heat and set aside.

  • In a medium pot, add the prunes, oil, cinnamon and cinnamon stick and add enough water to just about cover the prunes.  Partially cover the pot and simmer over medium heat until the prunes are soft and the liquid has thickened, about 20 mins. Remove from heat and discard the cinnamon stick.
  • When the meat is very tender, and the liquid has reduced by about half, remove the cinnamon stick and turn the heat to low. 
  • Measure out about 1/2 cup of the meat juices from the tagine and add to the prunes.
  • Return the prunes to medium-low heat and cook about 5-10 minutes more, stirring until the liquid is thick and syrupy. Then, pour the prunes over the beef and stir until combined. Top with the toasted almonds and serve in the tagine or transfer to decorative one. Serve with bread for scooping. (Note: While most tagine recipes you'll find online will include couscous, we learned in Morocco that couscous is actually a meal unto itself and is not usually served as a side dish. Bread is the main accompaniment to tagines and salads.) 

Moroccan Vegetable Salads:
Chris never liked eggplant, until he had zaalouk in Morocco. Now he can't get enough. We've been making a batch of these two salads every other week. They are pretty easy to prep and are great for light dinner with a big loaf of crusty bread for scooping. Add a bowl of olives and/or almonds and maybe some smoked cheese and you have a lovely meal. Or, serve the salads before or with the tagine for a special meal. (Like all good things, they're even better the next day.) 

Note: We learned to make both of these salads in Morocco, where I was surprised to see that a "tablespoon" just means "a large spoon," and is not necessarily the same amount as a measured tablespoon. Same thing for a "teaspoon" -- it's just a regular spoon. Thus, if you use traditional measuring spoons to measure out everything below, just keep the spices handy so you can add more to taste at the end if necessary-- you'll probably need to.

Zaalouk (Eggplant Salad)
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
2 medium eggplants (I like to use about 4-5 baby eggplants since they have fewer seeds)
2 tsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp cumin
1/4 cup olive or safflower oil
4 TBS lemon juice
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/2 cup water
2 TBS tomato paste

To Do:
  • The easiest way to peel the tomatoes is to cut an X in the bottom with a knife and then put them in a pot of boiling water for a few seconds. Transfer to an ice water bath for a few seconds.  Dry, then peel the skin right off. To seed, cut in half and push out the seeds/pulp. Cut the tomato sections into strips, then dice.
  • For the eggplant, cut the top stem off and peel the skin off every other inch or so (you want some ribbons of peel for texture and color), then cut into 1-inch thick slices.  Cut those slices into 1-inch strips, then dice.
  • Place all ingredient except tomato paste in a large pan over medium heat and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring often.
  • Add the tomato paste and stir.  Cook about 20 minutes more, adjust seasonings and serve cold, hot or at room temperature with bread, pita chips, etc.
Taktouka (Cooked Tomato and Green Pepper Salad)
3 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
2 large green or red peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded and diced
4 fat cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
3 TBS fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 TBS paprika (I like to use hot paprika for this dish)
2 tsp cumin
1 pinch red pepper flakes or cayenne
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup vegetable oil

To Do:
  • See above for tomato prep.
  • Roast your peppers over a flame (carefully) until charred and blistered, then let cool.  Rub the blackened skin gently to remove it (in Morocco they used a plastic bag to rub the skin off, but I just use my clean hands).  
  • Cut off the top stem, remove the core, cut the pepper into strips, then dice.
  • Place all ingredients in a large skillet over medium heat and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring often, until the tomatoes are soft and the liquids have reduced to an oil-like consistency.
  • Remove from heat, adjust seasonings and serve hot or at room temperature (it's great cold, too), with bread, pita chips, etc. for scooping.

Happy Valentine's Day and Happy Cooking!