April 2, 2010
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Not Easy

Most cookbooks try hard to make things fast and easy. That’s good. But it’s not always what you want.

I volunteered to bring a lamb tagine to a small feast. (Or maybe a tangia.) This is a little awkward because (a) I’ve never made one, and (b) tagines are usually cooked in a special pot, called a tagine, and I don’t have one. Tangia is supposed to be cooked in the ashes from the local bath house, and I don’t have one of those either. But I have recipes, and I’ve got a perfectly good Dutch oven. I have a bunch of recipes, but they all seem simplified for busy cooks. This is a festive dish, and it seems wrong to cut corners.

So I tried an experiment in cookbook psychology. Given the simplified version, could I extrapolate the recipe that someone’s mother used to insist was the only right way to do it?

I almost didn’t have the lamb. I got to Savenor’s at 8:02. They close at 8. The cashier was counting the till, the butcher was sweeping. The door was locked. I knocked. Nothing. I knocked some more. Nothing. I knocked again; the butcher opened up. “I was wondering where you were,” he said. “I have your lamb, but I’m not sure how you can pay for it.”

We worked it out. (Thanks, Savenor’s)

Now, it seems that Moroccans don’t brown lamb in tagines. But I do like braising, and I can't see that searing the lamb would do much harm. So I rubbed the lamb with spices, let it marinate overnight, and then seared it in the morning. This is extra work, sure. And it’s not by the book. But I think really braising the meat will make it more delicious.

I was working from a bunch of recipes in various books. Most add some water to the stew. But I’d just bought a honking big lamb shoulder, and so I had nice lamb bones. I roasted them last night, and then let the roasted bones simmer overnight in a very slow oven. I didn’t have quite enough lamb bones, and I did have some veal bones at the bottom of the freezer; they’ll do no harm. So, instead of water, the tagine will be cooked in rich dark lamb stock.

The tagine should be seasoned with ras el hanout, a special spice blend that literally means “front of the shop”. You can sometimes find it in stores, but it seems that everyone has their own secret ingredient. Besides, the ras el hanout you buy in Boston is never going to be as good as the stuff you bought in that little place near the Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech. But even if you knew someone in Marrakech who could get you some, it really hasn’t been as good since The Tall Guy let his son take over. Nice boy, but it’s just not the same. It’s always that way.

So the lamb is now simmering away. Six hours! We’ll see.