tagine | The Proof of the Pudding

Something strange happened to our chilli plant. It went on holiday to my parents’ house for two weeks (while we holidayed in France for two weeks), and while sunning itself in their conservatory our humble little green jalapeños turned red! We bought the plant early last summer and had a generous crop of mild, but delicious jalapeño peppers for months. It stopped flowering over winter, but came back with gusto this summer and we began to use the green chillies again. I don’t know if the plant needed time to mature, or if it was the intense sun and warmth of the conservatory, but either way we returned to a glamorous plant bejewelled with fiery red chillies…

We’ve used some of the red chillies in stir-fries and curries, or fried them with garlic and kale for a simple side dish, but we used the final one (for now) to flavour this gorgeous chicken tagine. This is an amalgamation of a few different tagine recipes, and is also inspired by a tagine I was served by friends and one we had in our riad in Marrakech last November. It combines sweet honey, sharp preserved lemons, hot chilli and salty olives with succulent chicken legs and, with the essential addition of ras el hanout (a North African blend of spices), feels like an exotic treat. It’s a great dish for serving a large group, but the chicken is also perfect as leftovers for lunch salads or sandwiches during the week. My favourite bit is the plentiful gravy that surrounds the chicken legs by the end of cooking, and in my opinion requires a great hunk of crusty bread for dipping.

One year ago:
– Fennel and courgette salad (using red chilli, funnily enough!)
– Sangria
– Spanish prawns and chorizo

Ingredients (serves 4-5) 5 chicken legs (skin on) 4 small cloves of garlic, crushed Thumb-size piece of ginger, grated 1 tbsp runny honey 1 tbsp cumin ½ tsp turmeric 1 generous tsp ras el hanout 1 tsp salt 1 tsp pepper 5 tbsp olive oil 2 small white onions 1 red chilli 1 medium tomato 7 half slices of preserved lemons 15 green olives

Method 1. Place the chicken in a large bowl or tub (or the container it came in!) and add the marinade ingredients (garlic, ginger, honey, cumin, turmeric, ras el hanout, salt, pepper and olive oil).

2. Preheat the oven to 180C/160C fan/Gas Mark 4. Thinly slice the onions and place at the bottom of your tagine.
3. Prepare the chilli and tomato – deseed both and thinly slice.

As my dad used to say (in a funny voice): “Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the birdies is.” Weird, I know. But it’s true and we’re making the most of it with adventures into the outdoors and seasonal cooking. Nothing says spring to me more than lamb with mint sauce, and our little kitchen window-sill mint plant was getting dangerously out of control, so last Sunday lamb and mint was what we had to have.

Usually we would always choose a leg of lamb to cook with, but with only two of us eating we decided that lamb shanks were much more economical and manageable. If you’re cooking for more, then the recipe will easily double, triple, or more. Of course if you’re treating yourself then you can also halve the quantities. The same goes for the mint sauce: make as much as you need. The measures below are a generous amount for two, as I like to drown my lamb and potatoes in the stuff.

We decided to use our new tagine again (last time we did BBQ pulled pork) and were once more amazed with the results. There is something magical about a tagine that transforms meat into the most delicate, moist dish after just a few hours in the oven. We have also discovered that sliced onions cooked in a tagine soak up all the surrounding juices and end up sweet, caramelised and melt in the mouth. Our new rule of thumb? Onions in every tagine dish. However, don’t worry if you don’t have a tagine to cook in. This recipe will work well in any heavy-based pot that has a lid and can go in the oven, or you could simply use a roasting tin well-covered in tin foil.

Lamb Shanks
Ingredients (serves 2)
4 sprigs rosemary 2 small onions 4-5 garlic cloves 1 chicken stock cube 1 tbsp olive oil Salt and pepper

2 lamb shanks

Method 1. Preheat the oven to 150C fan/ 170C/Gas Mark 3. 2. Remove the thin rosemary leaves from the woody stalks and roughly chop. Thinly slice the onions and crush the garlic cloves. Place in the tagine and sprinkle with the stock cube.

3. Generously season the lamb shanks and heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Quickly brown the lamb on all sides over a high heat.

4. Nestle the shanks amongst the onion layer and fill the tagine to roughly ¼ of the way up with boiling water. Pop the tagine’s hat on and cook for 3 hours.

Mint Sauce

Ingredients Bunch of mint (about 10 sprigs) 2 tbsp white wine vinegar 1 tsp sugar

5 tbsp hot water (e.g. from a recently boiled kettle)

Method 1. Remove the mint leaves from the stalks and finely chop.

2. Put the chopped leaves in a small jug or bowl and mix with the vinegar, sugar and water. Adjust the balance of vinegar, sugar and water to suit your own taste.

After three hours in the oven, the lamb shanks will be ridiculously tender and the meat will fall effortlessly from the bone.

Serve with the soft onions, the mint sauce, steamed new potatoes and spring vegetables. We had a stunning vegetable side dish which I will give you the recipe for next time – it was a real treat! I don’t think this dish needs an additional gravy: the meat is so moist, the onions come swathed in a thick gravy-like liquid and the mint sauce is an added bonus.

Eating this meal, with the windows thrown open and the evening sun sinking over the neighbouring buildings, made me so happy and excited for the months ahead. Spring really has sprung.

Since I started this blog, Ross has been angling to be featured and is constantly trying to get a thumbs-up in a photograph. Unfortunately, when it comes to baking Ross can leave much to be desired…I speak from experience and vividly remember him dropping not one but two eggs while attempting to make brownies. And no, we did not have spare eggs. However, when it comes to savoury food I have to give him his dues: Ross is a great cook. This recipe was very much a joint creation, using our all-time favourite meat. Although I love a juicy steak as much as the next chap and my mouth waters at the smell of roast duck, the versatility of pork is just amazing. Our favourite way to cook pork is slowly until the meat falls apart and needs shredding rather than slicing. You can’t beat it.

We were recently very kindly given a magnificent red and black tagine as a housewarming gift, and wanted to try it out immediately. Although tempted by a traditional lamb tagine recipe, we decided to go a bit more experimental with a BBQ flavoured slow-cooked pork shoulder. At first glance, the fairly lengthy ingredients list may fool you into thinking that this is a complicated recipe. Don’t be fooled! This recipe could not be simpler: chuck a load of flavourings on a piece of meat and leave it to marinade, slice some onions, pour over some liquid and then bung everything in the oven for 6 hours. All the magic will happen as the pork rests in the fridge, soaking up the sweet and spicy flavours, and while it slowly bubbles away in the oven, becoming melt in the mouth. The only thing you need to commit to this recipe is time. (And on a side note, if you really don’t have that, then the marinade sauce should work nicely in other situations – perhaps barbecued pork kebabs or grilled chicken drumsticks or wings).

Ingredients (serves 5-6) 1.6kg pork shoulder 3 tsp light brown muscavado sugar 3 tsp paprika 2 tsp thyme 2 tsp cumin 2 tsp salt 1 tsp ground black pepper 1 tsp chilli flakes 4 cloves of garlic, crushed well with the back of a knife 5 tbsp ketchup 4 tbsp BBQ sauce 3 tbsp soy sauce 2 tbsp white wine vinegar

3 tsp honey

2 large onions 1 chicken stock cube 330ml apple juice

1-2 tbsp olive oil

Method 1. Wash your pork shoulder and pat dry with some paper towels. Pro tip: remember to remove any string from your pork before you start on the marinade. Makes for less mess later….

2. Place the pork in a large bowl and add the dry marinade ingredients (sugar, paprika, thyme, cumin, salt, pepper, chilli and garlic). Now it’s time to get your hands dirty and give that baby a bit of love and attention. Alternatively your sous chef can do the massaging….

3. Add the wet marinade ingredients (ketchup, BBQ sauce, soy sauce, vinegar and honey) and give everything a good mix up. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge. Ideally you really want to let the meat marinade over night to let the flavours infuse properly, but if you don’t have this much time then just leave it as long as you can.

4. The next day remember to take the meat out of the fridge for a couple of hours before cooking to allow it to come to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 130C fan/150C/Gas Mark 2. 5. Thinly slice the onions and place in the bottom of the tagine. It will seem like a huge amount of onions, but trust me you want this – these will cook down beautifully and soak up all the delicious flavours from the meat. Juicy, sweet yumminess.

6. Place the meat on top of the onions, scraping out every last drop of the marinade. Crumble the stock cube and pour the apple juice around the pork. Top up with a little water so the liquid comes about a third of the way up the tagine dish. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top of the meat, top the tagine with its elegant hat and pop in the oven for 6 hours.

When 6 hours is up you will be left with succulent, tender meat that just falls apart, a sticky, sweet, spicy and sour sauce and soft onions underneath. Don’t be scared of how dark the crust of the meat is – this happens because of the high sugar content in the marinade, but the inside will be as moist as you could want. Remove the dark skin and fat from the pork and use two forks to shred the meat.

(Apologies for the poor quality photo. I could try and blame it on the steam rising from the pork but really I think it’s down to a combination of eager anticipation for dinner and already having had a large glass of bubbly and a G&T…)

We served the pork with crusty rolls, buttered corn on the cob, grated cheese and homemade coleslaw. You could also go down the tortilla-wrap-salsa-guacamole route.

If the above description and pictures hasn’t convinced you to make this, I wish there was some way I could transfer the smell of the dish through the computer screen because that would definitely have you converted. I had to sit in the flat, marking assignments, for 6 hours as the mouth-watering scent wafted through the flat. It was unbearable! Please don’t worry if you don’t have a tagine – you can still make this in a heavy cast iron pot in the oven covered with a lid, or even in a roasting tin covered in foil. Just treat your pork lovingly with a well-infused marinade and low, slow cooking and you cannot go wrong!