The word "tagine" is Moroccan and has a double meaning in the culinary world. It refers to the glazed piece of cookware with the cone-shaped lid, and it also refers to a particular stew made with lamb or beef, spices and vegetables that is most often cooked inside. Despite its position in North African cuisine, you can find the cooking vessel tagine in many kitchen stores and department stores in North America.
The base of an authentic tagine is shallow and wide and the lid is tall, creating a snug fit inside the base. As the food inside the tagine heats up and begins cooking, the tall cone part of the lid fills up with steam. This steam then condenses and starts to drip back into the bottom of the tagine. This steam element cooks the food slowly and requires less liquid. Tagines are usually available in sizes from one to four quarts. Because of its portable size, moving a tagine from the stovetop into the oven is not a problem.
Stews are one of the more traditional dishes to cook in a tagine. Traditional stews include either lamb, chicken, beef or fish with several other ingredients to create the flavor base. A mixture of vegetables, onions, garlic and aromatic herbs are all common in a tagine stew, and couscous is a common bed for the stew to rest in after it has finished cooking. Couscous, a North African pasta consisting of tiny granules of semolina wheat, is another food that you can cook inside a tagine, and it is an ideal choice to soak up the juices produced by the stew.
Whatever type of meat you use for a traditional tagine stew, if you want to ensure it is authentic, adding some complementary North African flavors is a must. These may include dried fruit and almonds, dried or fresh ginger, fresh coriander or coriander seeds and cinnamon. Harissa, which is an extra-spicy condiment, is often served on the side, and a spice blend known as ras el hanout is a common addition. Saffron is another common ingredient that adds both flavor and color to any tagine.
Although tagine is traditional and part of Morocco's national cuisine, it is acceptable to think outside the lines with ingredients. You can use a tagine for nearly any dish you would cook in a standard Dutch oven. If you leave the lid on the sidelines, it can be used as a roasting dish, delivered straight to the table from the oven to enhance the overall presentation.
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