Sunday 9 March 2014

Tagine Mayhem!

I try my best to have a variety of different dishes and recipes on the blog. I know I've already shared two tagines recently, but I'm going to give you two more. I have two reasons for you:

1) My Moroccan coworker recently gave me some spice mixes that she brought back from her visit to her country. They are incredible! She said that in Morocco you go to a market and they will grind and mix personalized spice blends in front of you. So nothing has any labels. She let me know which ones were good for what (beef/lamb, fish, chicken and one designed for burgers). Admittedly, her husband is more of a cook than she is so she leaves most of it to him. So I have these authentic and mysterious-in-a-romantic-kinda-way spice mixes that I get to play with. 

2) In my chicken & apricot recipe, I mentioned the dish was similar to the tagine that I prepared for my MasterChef Canada audition, beef and prunes. I expressed interest in making it for the blog. The intention was already put out there and now that I have these Moroccan spice blends there is no excuse. In preparation for the show I practiced that dish eight times. I hadn't made it since the show where I was just one yes away from getting an apron. Even though I love that dish I have this weird emotional connection to now. It's the only dish I got to make in the competition and it sealed my fate. I think for myself I needed to face it again and really turn out a spectacular tagine. I think I achieved that and it gave me my confidence back.    

Since we're on the topic if tagines, here is a link for my merguez meatball & egg recipe that started this whole phase. 

The first spice mix that I used was the poultry one. It is very yellow in colour. I am sure that there is turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cumin and probably paprika in there. I am familiar with those spices myself but something else is in there that I can't figure out. I'm not 100% sure about any of them but they smell and taste fantastic. I had some skinless, boneless chicken thighs in my freezer so I decided to use those. All tagines pretty much have onion and garlic. That's standard. So I had my chicken thighs, Moroccan chicken spice blend, onion and garlic as my base. Tagine always speaks comforting winter food to me, so I wanted to go with some classic, comforting vegetables. I went with waxy potatoes, carrot and peas. 


I cut the chicken thighs into quarters and seasoned with salt and pepper. Over medium heat and a little oil, I browned the chicken in batches and set aside. Then I sweat a grated white onion along with a diced carrot for several minutes until it started to turn golden. Grating an onion accumulates a lot of juice so the onion doesn't fry so much as it reduces. The liquid should not be evaporated fully at this point. Then I added 2 finely minced garlic cloves. After a couple of minutes, I added a tbsp of the spice mix and a tsp of harissa paste for heat. I stirred that until it was evenly distributed through the onion. 

Then I added about 3/4 cup chicken stock and stirred to combine. Bring the liquid up to a simmer and add the browned chicken and any accumulated liquid. I also added some peeled, chopped waxy potato that I had parboiled separately in lightly salted water. I placed the lid of the tagine over everything and turned the heat down to low. I left it for about twenty minutes, Afterward, I removed the lid, gave everything a stir, added some frozen peas, replaced the lid and gave it another 3-5 minutes. I gave everything a final stir, tasted for seasoning and adjusted. Then I removed it from the heat and scattered over some fresh chopped parsley and cilantro. 

It was delicious. I served it with fluffy couscous with a few diced, dried dates and more fresh parsley and cilantro stirred in. Any tagine is just as great eaten with bread instead. 

One of the biggest flops with my MasterChef Canada tagine is that to truly enjoy that dish it needs to be braised for longer than an hour. I took a huge risk by trying to make a version within an hour and it didn't do justice to its cultural authenticity. On the show, I chose a sirloin steak and browned the pieces first, set them aside and focused on the sauce. Then I added the seared pieces into the sauce for the last few minutes of cooking so they would remain tender. But they were tender in a steak sort of way, not a stew sort of way. I tried to do something bold and instead I should have stuck with what I know works. Oh well, the experience alone, though less than a year ago, has really transformed the way I look at cooking and what my best abilities are. 

So I decided since I was making this at home, I could cook it any way I wanted. I could do anything to make it as great as possible. I chose a tough cut of meat. If you have the time to spare, a tough cut of meat is the tastiest part of any animal. You just need the time to cook it properly. The cut that I chose were beef cheeks. Cows spend a significant amount of their lives grazing (unless of course they are cooped up in a factory farm with little place to move and probably fed corn and god knows what else). This means that they do a lot of chewing over the course of their lives. This makes their cheeks very tough and rubbery in texture. I you let it simmer in a flavourful liquid for long enough, the meat will relax and all of the connective tissue will melt away into liquid flavour. After 3 hours they were amazing but after almost 4 they were perfect. To call it tender would be an understatement. 

Similar to the previous tagines, I sliced the cheeks into bite sized morsels (roughly the same size as the prunes I was using), seasoned them and browned them in batches. I removed the beef and added a grated white onion to the tagine with a pinch of salt to help break it down. When it just started to turn golden I added 2 cloves of minced garlic and stirred that. Then came a tsp of harissa, a tbsp of the beef spice mix and about 3/4 cup of beef stock. I brought that up to a simmer and reintroduced the browned cubes of beef cheek. I replaced the lid and let that cook for nearly four hours, stirring on occasion. At first the beef will turn stiff and practically inedible but over time it will get so perfectly soft and melt-in-your-mouth.


The prunes are prepared similarly to the apricots in the chicken version. Only this time I sautéed a bit of onion before adding the liquid (as I did on the show). In a pot, I sautéed a couple tbsp of diced onion with half a cinnamon stick in a little oil. When the onion had sweetened and gone translucent I added 2 tbsp of runny honey. Then I added a handful of pitted, dried prunes and stirred everything for about 30 seconds. Then I poured in enough hot water to just cover everything and stirred, Then it's just a matter of keeping that mixture at a simmer for about 20 minutes, During that time the prunes will plump up as they soak in that aromatic nectar. When the tagine is completed, I garnished with the drained mulled prunes, fresh pomegranate arils, fresh parsley and fresh cilantro.


To serve I plated it next to the same couscous combination as the chicken and vegetables at the beginning of this post. It was perfect the way it was. In my MasterChef Canada audition I also added fried almonds but they aren't really required in this dish. I added almonds to the chicken and apricots because they provide a great crunch but pomegranate works so well with this dish and their seeds are crunchy on their own so almonds are not needed here. I am learning to edit. In hindsight I realize that there was too much going on on the plate that I presented. 

Well, that's it for now. Since I have a tagine I'm sure there will be more recipes in the future. They are great during the winter months but we are hopefully coming to the end of what has been a very bitter and cold winter. Spring will bring forth new ingredients and dishes to play around with.

Until next time,


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