Simple, Seductive Tajine: Add something exotic to your one-pot repertoire

The cold days and dark nights of winter are perfect for stewing up something warm and filling. Chicken noodle and Italian minestrone are classic comfort foods, but if you have gone through your entire soup repertoire (maybe twice by now), perhaps it’s time to spice up your dinner menu with something more exotic.

One of my favorite winter dishes is a tajine, a seductive North African stew. A tajine, sometimes spelled “tagine,” is a combination of meat, vegetables and spices slowly cooked to savory-sweet perfection. The dish gets its name from the terra-cotta pot in which it cooks, which has a conical-shaped lid.

Meat or poultry is the main ingredient in a tajine, but its complex flavor comes from simmering the meat and vegetables in myriad aromatic North African spices like cinnamon, coriander, saffron, paprika and ginger, as well as dried fruits or olives. Tajines are usually accompanied by couscous, Morocco’s national dish. These puffy, golden grains of pasta awaken the senses, their unusual texture a delightful change from rice or Italian pasta. Top it off with toasted nuts – almonds, pine nuts, pistachios – and a sprinkle of cilantro and you have a meal fit for a
grand vizier.

My taste buds were lured by the flavors of Morocco many crescent moons ago when I was a college student living in Madrid. Spanish cuisine is spiced with Moorish influences, including figs, spinach, eggplant, rice, almonds, saffron, citrus fruits, sugar cane, cinnamon, nutmeg, sesame, caraway, cumin and aniseed, just to name a few. I remember taking my first bite of flaky, yellow couscous with a spoonful of tender garbanzos and vegetables gently braised in a sultana-sweetened chicken broth. The evenings that my host family cooked a tajine, I would study at my desk, salivating from the enchanting kitchen smells, and restlessly await the call to dinner.

I love serving tajines because they are simple to prepare. A traditional tajine pot consists of two parts: a shallow, circular base unit on which the food rests, and a large dome-shaped cover that conducts the braising. Home cooks will find that a Dutch oven or large skillet works just as well. Once the food is browned, the heat from the pot does the rest – so the dish requires little attention. The result is melt-in-your-mouth meat, juicy vegetables and a silky sauce that is out of this world.

I frequently prepare vegetarian versions by substituting the meat with garbanzo beans and adding fresh seasonal vegetables – zucchini and tomatoes in summer, pumpkins and carrots in winter. A diversity of spices separate the cuisines of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, so home cooks should feel free to experiment with North African flavor staples such as caraway, cumin, fennel, mace, mint, rosebuds, saffron and white pepper or even the Moroccan spice mix ras al-hanout, which contains anywhere from 15 to 30 spices.

The next time the doldrums of St. Louis’ wintry weather have you feeling disenchanted, plan an Arabian culinary escape. The mystical flavors of this quintessential Moroccan dish are sure to seduce you.

Ligaya Figueras is a Central West End-based freelance writer and home cook extraordinaire. She wishes her kids would eat mushrooms.