Tagine Technique

It would perhaps surprise you to know that a Moroccan tagine, Croatian peka and Hungarian kettle goulash have something in common. These seemingly diverse dishes all involve the same technique of cooking meat and onions in oil very slowly, with little or no added liquid, at least not until the meat and onions have progressed towards tenderness. The meat and onions in these dishes are cooked essentially in their own juices, the onions reducing to become part of the sauce and the liquid added later is to adjust the consistency and add extra layers of flavour. For a peka that liquid/flavour addition may be white wine and herbs, for a tagine it is often saffron infused water and honey. For a goulash it is water but variously also red wine vinegar and a little tomato paste. In fact Hungarian shepherds would cook the goulash to a very dry paste for travel and reconstitute it with water into a paprika laden soup or a stew; an early form of a packet soup. There is a tendency to adapt traditional slow cooked dishes to our quicker modes of cooking and notions of what makes a sauce or gravy. To that end lots of recipes add tinned tomatoes, lots of water or wine and let everything bubble away in a lot of liquid. It may well turn out to be a fine stew but textures and flavour stray from the original concept of slowly sweating meat and onions.

This brings me back to cooking a tagine in the very vessel that gives the dish its name. The ceramic dish with its tall conical lid is superbly designed to cook meat in its own juices. As the meat and onions cook, the moisture given off is constantly condensing off the conical lid back down into the stewing meat, keeping it moist. Importantly, the tagine base is quite a shallow dish, so there is no room for lots of liquid. What also sets this traditional Moroccan cooking apart from Western styles of braising is that it does not require meat to be browned thoroughly.  Most Western adapted recipes seem to do this, even browning the meat in a separate frypan and often not using the tagine at all, except for presentation purposes. As the onion cooks down, the meat will develop colour. It just takes time. 

Tagine cooking is a matter of layering the components as the cooking continues. Starting with a really good cover of olive oil on the bottom. Spread a layer of chopped onions over the base and then add the meat which has been marinated in the spices. After about 40 minutes of cooking, the saffron infused water is added and a layer of sliced onions that will make up part of the vegetable or fruit component (e.g., pumpkin, carrot, quince, pears, eggplant, peppers,zucchini) is also layered on at this stage. The denser vegetables like potatoes are added first with softer vegetables or fruit last. One or more hours later a garnish of separately cooked dried fruit and toasted nuts is sprinkled on top. Herbs, like coriander, parsley or mint can be strewn on top at the table.  A tagine is quite a dense combination of meat and concentrated gravy with infused vegetables and sweet fruit elements; a result of time and layers of flavour. So, if you have a cooking tagine put it directly on the gas stove, cook in it and present it to the table to spectacular effect. 

Here is a recipe for a goat tagine, using shoulder meat cut off the bone. Choose the combinations of vegetables and fruit you prefer to build layers of flavour.

  • 1 kg goat shoulder, boned and cut into large pieces
  • 1/2 tbs ras-al-hanout spice mix
  • 1/2 tbs ground ginger
  • 1/2 tbs ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
  • large pinch saffron
  • 1 tbs honey(optional)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • olive oil
  • one large onion, diced
  • 2 potatoes cut into quarters
  • green and red peppers, sliced
  • small Lebanese eggplant cut into quarters
  • purple onion, sliced
  • 1 cup dried sour cherries
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • handful of blanched almonds, toasted until golden
  • fresh parsley leaves for garnish

Mix the spices, meat and potatoes together with a little olive oil and massage well into the meat. Marinate for several hours or overnight in the fridge.

Heat the tagine on the stove. Cover the base with olive oil and fry the chopped onions. Cover the tagine and let the onions soften. Add the marinated meat, cover and cook for 20 minutes. Stir the meat and onions to brown all sides. Grind the pinch of saffron in a mortar and pestle and add a little boiling water to disperse it. Add the saffron in about 100 ml of water to the tagine. If using honey you can add it at this stage but add a good grinding of black pepper to counter the sweetness. Add a stick of cinnamon. Stir and cook over low heat for another 20 minutes. Add the vegetables and cover and cook slowly for another hour or so. Add a dash of water from the kettle if required but keep liquid levels low to maintain a thick concentrated gravy. In the meantime dissolve the sugar in enough water to cover the dried cherries. Add the ground cinnamon and cook in a small saucepan until the liquid is reduced and the cherries swollen. Add these to the tagine along with the almonds towards the end of cooking. Garnish with fresh herbs. Serve with flat bread, couscous or bulgar wheat salad.

I obtained goat meat from Lakey Farm, Sunbury which is available at Melbourne Farmers Markets. Goat is also available from John Cester, Prahran market and Queen Victoria Market.

An Altered Marketplace

Everything changes and 2020 has been a year of immense change. While we lost some food businesses, some new ones sprung into view and some old ones adapted to a new format during lockdown. Some eateries that pivoted to producing ready meals have decided the new direction actually suits them better. Small specialized food businesses like bakers and coffee shops have generally done well, retaining their loyal customer base and growing new ones. The Queen Victoria market was on a trajectory towards a more slimmed down and sanitized food precinct long before COVID-19 hit, its heyday long gone, when it served as a major Melbourne fresh food hub. Then you could find stalls such as the one that just sold watermelons, stacked so high and deep the young lad working there would climb to the top of the mound and toss down melons to his machete wielding dad who deftly cut them in half with one blow. Other stalls specialized in selling just oranges or in the meat section there was a stall selling all kinds of offal, all the soft bits from nose to tail. That colourful chaos of the market has largely gone along with peoples fondness for brains and lambs fry. During the COVID-19 lockdown Melbourne farmers markets limped along, some doing quite well, others merging and relocating with reduced numbers of stalls. We missed some well known traders, like Bridge Farm and their fabulous asparagus. It is uncertain whether they will return. More and more of us have turned to online food shopping and it will be interesting to see if that trend as well as the enthusiasm for home cooking will endure. It has been a bit of a strange growing season too with some vegetables not making an appearance while some have been reduced in size, quality or with a shortened season. Extensive bushfires, lack of farm workers, fluctuations in export markets and the weather have all had a substantial impact. Despite this we may not see a lot of difference at the supermarket as Australia is a large country with vast food producing areas in several geographic locations ensuring we nearly always have year round supplies. However, I have noticed some high prices in green grocers and if you are used to buying seasonal, local produce you may need to be more flexible. The loss of restaurant trade has meant that some specialty foods, like quail and game birds, will not be available until production ramps up again. On the bright side our Southern Rock Lobster is cheaper this year because of a halt in exports to China. After what we have all been through perhaps it’s best that we concentrate on friends and family around us this Christmas and not fret about the menu. Well, maybe not as much.

Have a wonderful Christmas.

Dining Out In Melbourne

Where do we go from pandemic lockdowns to a new normal with dining out in Melbourne? I think dining out will become dining outside, especially with the warm weather on its way. I remember when I lived in Germany for a time I was amazed that once summer came along Germans really came out of their winter hibernation and their seemingly reserved mien to enthusiastically dine and drink outside. The desire to dine outside was so strong that the inside of restaurants became completely empty and if there were no seats available outside then people would go on to the next place rather than sit inside. Visiting Paris one January when it was so cold that there were snow drifts in the parks and frozen fountains I was amazed to see all the outside seating at bistros still full of Parisians in overcoats enjoying a drink. Melbourne councils should be a bit forgiving and let restaurants use footpaths and maybe even allow the closing of some streets after 7 pm. It would be wonderful to let bicycles and foot traffic claim the streets instead of cars for a change. This take over by the people of local streets has sort of happened by default during lockdown in some neighborhoods. I know some restaurants on busy thoroughfares would miss out on this opportunity but perhaps those places would be eligible for some compensation provided their indoor dining arrangements met with COVID-19 restrictions. Pubs that base their business model on large crowds of punters with sport on screens for “atmosphere” may have to change. I’ve always lamented the lack of proper beer gardens in Australia: apart from the wonderful Belgium Beer Cafe that used to operate in Prahran, there are few if any that actually have a garden or even a single tree to sit under. Most are just dreary concrete spaces. St Kilda Road has really good set backs, something long gone with building developments, and some of these spaces would make lovely, treed beer gardens or outdoor dining spaces. Greening the city with more street plantings is a great heat mitigation strategy by councils but there is scope for commercial property owners to be encouraged with reduced rates to include gardens with trees as part of their redesign. Many coffee shops have been ahead for some time with their take away coffee windows and concertina doors and windows that open out to the street seating. Modern housing and redesign of terraces have long been merging the indoor with the outdoor eating spaces, so perhaps we need that extended to more restaurants and cafes. Size is also an issue with restaurants, we have tended to go big for economies of scale as profit margins are impossibly tight. Perhaps a rethink is needed on the excessively high rents and restrictive council regulations. There should be a possibility for small local eateries that seat only a dozen patrons to actually work. After all tiny neighborhood izikaya, kaiseki and ramen shops are commonplace in Japan. The pandemic will cause many permanent closures but with every massive change in history people do adapt and pivot to create something new and enduring. I am hopeful.

Unburdened By Soup

Soups, particularly of the vegetable kind, are perfect for lunch or dinner when you want a lighter meal or want to lose a bit of weight. A soup is easy to prepare as it is not exact like baking, there is no need to measure ingredients, so you can just proceed intuitively. Once you accept that, all you need to do is see what’s in the crisper of the fridge and go for it. Most soups don’t need a stock, the flavour of the vegetable(s) is enough. One of my favourite soups is minestrone which is a great way to use up remnant vegetables at the end of the week. I start by chopping an onion and adding it to the pot to sauté in olive oil. While that is gently sizzling I pull out other vegetables and chop, say a stick of celery or a carrot, by which time the pot is ready to accept another lot to mix through the softened onion. Chopped parsley, particularly the stalks, are a great aromatic addition. I might have a small piece of cauliflower, a handful of beans and one lonely zucchini to chop and add. Finely chopped garlic adds a bit of punch. Any soft vegetables, like sliced Brussels sprouts or peas, I add last with just a quick stir. Finally a tin of chopped tomatoes and a couple of tin fulls of water to rinse out the tin are added, enough liquid to cover the vegetables. The most important ingredient that will give it a bit of Italian authenticity is the crust end of a piece of grana padana or Parmesan cheese. I always save the ends of my cheese for minestrone, it gives the soup a wonderful umami flavour and it’s comforting to know that a great cheese can keep on giving, even at its end. Simmer the soup for an hour, it tastes even better reheated the next day. To bulk it out add a tin of beans or a small handful of soup pasta (very small shapes) or spaghetti broken up into small pieces. Season with salt and pepper. Soups need not be a jumble of vegetables like this. The simplest soups consist of one or two ingredients, think pumpkin cooked in milk, seasoned and blitzed to creamy smoothness with a stick blender or parsnip sautéd in olive oil with sliced leeks, covered with water, simmered until tender and similarly blitzed. Fennel bulbs roasted with a whole head of garlic and caramelised to bring out the flavour and sweetness can then be put in pot, just covered with water, simmered until tender and blitzed. Roasting root vegetables before cooking them in water will add flavour. Then you have a huge variety of pulses to play with. Red lentils cook down to a soft creamy soup to which you can add vegetables such as kale or chard. Canned chickpeas and tomatoes can be really spiced up with harissa or other chilli mixes. Cannellini or borlotti beans cooked with onion, garlic and tomato can be made into a rich, creamy soup full of beans by just blitzing one third of the mix (pictured). There is no need for added cream to make these soups taste creamy, the starch of the beans will give it body and the flavour imparted by a cheese crust will top it off nicely. If you are uncertain what spices or herbs to add to a vegetable consult Stephanie Alexander’s book, The Cooks Companion, it lists flavour combinations at the start of each chapter and is a great guide but I would free yourself from the constraints of recipes and just cook. Soups are very forgiving.

Persimmons And The Art Of Patience

Some things take time and learning to be patient is an important life lesson. Whether it is waiting for plants to grow where they are happiest without the temptation for an instant garden, cooking something slowly rather than resorting to ready meals or reading long form writing instead of newsfeeds, there is a lot to be gained from taking some time over things. Being stuck at home these past months has been a test of self reliance and patience. Maybe some have been able to explore the pleasure in simple things, like watching the changing colours of Autumn or getting to know your neighbourhood for the first time during daily walks. I have done a bit of Autumn watching. An old friend dropped off a large bag full of persimmons he had cut from his tree sometime during the start of the social isolation in March. These were astringent persimmons; hard, inedible fruits with huge amounts of tannin that ripen very slowly. If left on the tree to ripen they would have quickly been eaten by the local wildlife. I placed them on a large tray near the window and watched and waited from March to mid May when they started to change from yellow to orange and then a couple took on the telltale translucence of ripeness and sweetness. At this point a ripe astringent persimmon can be scooped out and eaten with a teaspoon and it is wonderful. A persimmon tree is a beautiful tree that really shows its glory during Autumn, dropping its leaves to reveal golden and ruby orbs in the soft light of the cooling months. A lasting memory I have of Japan is of persimmon trees glowing with red fruit as the train I was on glided past the backyards of suburban houses. It resonated with the many Japanese paintings I’d seen of sparse black branches with red fruits; art elevating the simplicity of urban life. Persimmons require patience, an almost meditative patience, which this year I have had the time to enjoy, and the reward of this patience is absolutely delicious.