Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Preserved Lemons

lamb tagine

From Asia and the Middle East to Africa, Europe, and back, spices have traveled far to find their place in the cuisines of many nations. But there's something very special about the flavors used in Moroccan food. Even though individually the spices seem similar to ones used in other cuisines, Indian per se, it's the unique blend that makes them so distinctively Moroccan. Arabic, Mediterranean, Moorish, and nomadic African cultures have had a great influence on the food culture of Morocco. And the ancient spice trade profoundly effected the play with flavors, contributing to how we recognize Moroccan cuisine today.

The need for preservation led to the liberal use of spices and the techniques of drying, salting, pickling, and fermenting. It's quite common to find dried or preserved fruits in many Moroccan dishes. This slowly braised lamb tagine features dried prunes and preserved lemons. Dried dates, apricots, and raisins are also very common. Lemons, preserved in salt, are used in a variety of dishes for adding citrus flavor or as a condiment. The tart/bitter lemon flavor truly brings out the savoriness of meats, particularly lamb. Instead of the usual roast lamb for Easter, how about a Moroccan tagine?

Tagine, named after the vessel the stew is cooked in, is pretty much the nationally recognized dish of Morocco next to couscous. It can be made with almost any meat and even seafood. The clay cooking vessel has two parts, a bowl-like pan and a conical lid, sometimes with a small vent hole. Cooking in a tagine produces the most succulent meat because the dome top locks in moisture by allowing condensation to recirculate and help along the cooking process. The meat ends up being so tender that it just about falls apart when pressed with a fork. There's really no better stew than a Moroccan tagine.

I cook this dish in a traditional glazed earthenware tagine, which I have seasoned first. To do so, soak the tagine overnight in water and dry thoroughly. If the tagine is unglazed, rub it inside and out with olive oil. Place it in the oven, turn it to 300 degrees F., and cure for 2 hours. Let it cool completely in the oven before using. This procedure ensures the tagine won't crack. When cooking on the stove-top, use a heat diffuser under the tagine to ensure even heat distribution. It's another step in safeguarding the vessel from cracking. For stove-top cooking, bring the heat gradually to medium. Do not use the tagine on high heat. Some cookware manufacturers make tagines with cast-iron bottoms, which work well with high-heat. But in keeping with tradition, I prefer a clay tagine.

Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Preserved Lemons

Note: Instead of a tagine, a small Dutch oven or braiser can be used.

2-1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-1/2-inch chunks
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
6 cilantro sprigs
6 parsley sprigs
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes with juice
1-1/2 cups vegetable stock or water
pinch of saffron
12 pitted prunes
1 preserved lemon (4 quarters), rinsed, pulp discarded, thinly sliced
steamed couscous, for serving
toasted slivered almonds, for garnish
cilantro sprigs, for garnish

Add lamb to a large resealable plastic bag. Combine spices and pour over lamb, seal bag, and shake until lamb is coated in mixture. Let marinate in refrigerator overnight or for at least 1 hour. Let lamb rest at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before cooking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Prepare the bouquet garni by combining cilantro and parsley sprigs on a square piece of cheesecloth. Bring corners together and tie securely with kitchen twine.

Heat a seasoned 13-inch tagine, with a heat diffuser, over medium heat. Drizzle a thin layer of olive oil in the bottom. Season the marinated lamb chunks with salt and pepper. Sear in batches until brown all over. Refresh oil as needed. Remove to a plate.

Add onion and a pinch of salt and saute, scraping up any brown bits, until soft and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes with their juice and bouquet garni. Add back seared lamb. Cover with stock. Crumble in saffron and season with salt and pepper. Slowly bring liquid to a simmer. Cover with lid and place in oven for 3 hours. Half way through cooking time, check to make sure lamb is still covered by liquid. Additional stock can be added. Add prunes and preserved lemon slices 20 minutes toward end of cooking time. Check seasoning. Serve over couscous and top with toasted almonds and cilantro. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.