I have a confession to make, and you may not like it… I don’t own a slow cooker, nor do I have any intention of ever buying one. Whew, it feels good to get that dark secret off my chest. I know many of you love and swear by your slow cookers, but they just don’t float my boat. I can hear you muttering to yourself angrily, and I’m sure I’ll see some comments later wherein I will be referred to by a word that rhymes with ‘bass bowl’, but hear me out first before you pass judgement.
I have a fundamental problem with the slow cooker as a culinary utensil; it’s not possible to wring all the flavour out of the ingredients you put into the cooker. What do I mean by this? When you cook a stew or braised dish, browning the meat is a key step to adding flavour to the finished product. Adding flavour to the dish you’re cooking isn’t just about salt and pepper, there are important steps that are necessary for achieving true depth of flavour. Steps like sweating vegetables, or caramelizing onions, or cooking off the raw alcohol taste of the wine you add to a dish, are a big part of the process of creating food that really speaks to our tastebuds. Cooking is about creating an experience, or sensation that produces a sense of pleasure and joy as we eat. If eating was merely about the efficient consumption of nutritious sustenance, all our meals would look like the goop they eat in “The Matrix”.
The thing about cooking with a slow cooker is that to get that great depth of flavour, you have to use another pan for those important preparation steps that begin the cooking process. Here at The Small Kitchen Cooking Blog, we abhor creating unnecessary dirty dishes, which is why I’d rather use a high quality, oven-proof Dutch oven instead. A Dutch oven gives you the opportunity to do all those extra flavouring steps, and then you can still pop it into a low temperature oven and go about your day. Everybody wins!
All this ranting and raving about slow cookers brings me to the tagine (don’t worry, I might ramble on a bit, but I get to the point eventually). You might have seen this specialized cooking vessel in kitchen supply stores; it’s an earthenware pot with a relatively flat bottom, and a tall, conical lid. Traditionally found and used throughout North Africa, the specialized shape of the lid allows for maximum return of steam condensation to the food below. This allows you to use less liquid to cook the food, and the long cooking time required creates utterly tender and delectable food. The best part is that modern tagines are made with a cast-iron bottom, which allows for browning of meat before the liquid is added. I’ve always wanted a tagine, but I’ve never been able to justify purchasing one. Not only because the good ones (with the cast-iron bottoms) are quite expensive, but in a small kitchen, cabinet space is always at a premium. That doesn’t mean I can’t look at them longingly whenever I’m passing through Willams-Sonoma though. (However, staring at them whilst chanting over and over “You will be mine my precious, oh yes, you will be mine” is not looked kindly upon by the staff.)
Tagine is also the name of the stew that is commonly served in the eponymous vessel. A wonderfully flavourful stew, tagine combines savoury meats, hearty vegetables, and sweet fruits in a rich, heady broth. Lamb or chicken is the preferred meat, and sultanas or dried apricots are the popular sweetening agent. I make lamb tagine, but usually as a treat or for guests, since lamb is a bit dear. For best results, buy a boneless leg of lamb and cut it down into stewing meat cubes yourself.
(Prep time: 45 minutes. Cook time: 2 hours. Serves: 3-4.)
- 1 1/2 lb boneless leg of lamb, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 1 tsp ground coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large eggplant, cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 red onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 3 medium tomatoes, chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled, quartered, and cut into 1 1/2 inch batons
- 1 540 mL can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 1 cup dried red lentils
- 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 2 tsp herbes de Provence
- 2 large bay leaves
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp honey
- 1 lemon, juice and zest
Place the lamb into a large freezer bag with the paprika, cayenne, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, coriander, cumin, and black pepper. Toss the lamb in the spices inside the freezer bag until the meat is well-coated, then place in the refrigerator to marinate for at least one hour.
For the eggplant, place the cubes into a large colander, rinse with cold water, then toss with kosher salt. Allow the salted eggplant to sit for 30 minutes, then rinse off the salt. This step will remove any bitter flavours from the eggplant.
Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven, or stew pot. Brown the lamb in the oil over medium-high heat, for 5-7 minutes, until all pieces have a nice brown crust. Add the onion and garlic, and cook with the lamb for 3-4 minutes, until the onion has softened. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot, and give everything a big stir. Cover the pot, and either place into a 300 degree Fahrenheit oven, or leave it on the stove over low heat.
Cook the lamb stew for at least 2 hours for the best results. The most important thing you can do is LEAVE THE DAMN THING ALONE! Don’t keep taking the lid off every couple of minutes, don’t raise or lower the temperature, just let it be. While you are waiting, go for a walk, do some chores, play with the kids next door, or dance around the house like Kevin Bacon in “Footloose”.
After a couple of hours have passed, give your lamb “tagine” a taste, and adjust the seasoning. The lamb should be melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the broth fragrant, and rich. I like to serve my tagine with lemon-herb couscous, or saffron rice for a truly decadent (and gluten-free) meal.
I hope you’ll find that after you try tagine, you’ll never go back to the slow cooker again. Instead join me in the tagine cooking dream, because it’s not as creepy if there are many of us standing and chanting in front of the display case. (At least that’s what I assume.)