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How to cook the perfect vegetable tagine | Felicity Cloake | Food


The idea of there being a single perfect formula for vegetable tagine is as absurd as there being just one way to make a good chicken casserole. A tagine is simply the name of the cooking pot in which the stews are traditionally made, rather than the name of a specific recipe (though these days, I’m assured, a saucepan or pressure cooker are more common in Moroccan homes).

And, as Nargisse Benkabbou explains in her book Casablanca, there are four popular styles, regardless of whether the main ingredient is goat, sardines or artichokes. These are mqualli cooked with olive oil, turmeric, ginger and saffron; mhammer made with butter, cumin and paprika; mchermel cooked with chermoula, a zingy herb paste; and one made with tomato, cumin and paprika. Each, Benkabbou says, “can be customised with seasonal vegetables, dried fruit, preserved lemons, olives and nuts”.





Nargisse Benkabbou’s tagine: customise with seasonal vegetables, dried fruit, olives and nuts. Thumbnails by Felicity Cloake.



Nargisse Benkabbou’s tagine: customise at will. Thumbnails by Felicity Cloake.

Which you go for, and what you choose to add to it, depends on both season and taste; as we’re still firmly in early spring, culinarily speaking at least, I’ve avoided recipes calling for broad beans and summer squash and focused instead on the hearty, starchy, winter carbs still keeping well in cold stores – winter squash and potatoes, turnips and carrots, along with pulses and other dry goods. That said, the recipe below is versatile and can be adapted to suit the circumstance. As Sally Butcher of Peckham’s Persepholis writes in her book of the same name:

“The making of a good tagine is a state of mind, rather than a culinary art. Once you have grasped the basic principles of seasoning, balance and contrast, the opportunity is there to have fun creating your own. Have a play.”

The vegetables

As suggested above, this is a dish that will happily adapt to just about anything you fancy throwing at it: Rawia Bishara has a recipe for cauliflower tahini tagine in her book Levant, Kerstin Rogers goes for carrot, pepper and lentil in V is for Vegan, Bethany Kehdy has broad beans, peas and fennel in the Jewelled Kitchen … and so on. Having decided to concentrate on winter vegetables, however, I try squash in Alice Hart’s recipe from The New Vegetarian, potato in one from John Gregory-Smith’s Orange Blossom & Honey, sweet potato and carrots from Anna Jones, potato, parsnip, turnip and celeriac from Benkabbou, and turnip and carrot from Butcher’s book Veggiestan.





Anna Jones’ veggie tagine.



Anna Jones’ veggie tagine.

All, I can confirm, are good candidates for the tagine treatment, even parsnips, much as I dislike them – whatever you go for, though, aim for a range of textures and flavours. Some sweetness, in the form of squash or sweet potato, is often welcome, and I’m going to balance that with the slight bitterness and more robust texture of turnips. Both are best in bite-sized pieces, as most recipes recommend; Hart’s 5cm chunks are a bit unwieldy, and take for ever to cook through. I also wouldn’t bother to peel the turnips, unless they’re huge.

Jones bulks out her stew with chickpeas, while Hart uses “inauthentic” puy lentils; both help turn what can seem like a light side dish into a satisfying main event. Chickpeas feel a better fit, though they make for a less pretty result, the deep green of the puy setting off the vivid orange of the squash to quite beautiful effect.

The aromatics and fruit

Some sort of onion seems to be mandatory in these tagines – Butcher keeps her shallots whole, but I prefer to cut my onions thinly and allow them to melt down into the sauce, where their savoury flavour is most welcome. If you’d like the dish to be even sweeter, consider, like Gregory-Smith, going for red onions, especially if you choose to eschew the fruit. I like Butcher and Benkabbou’s prunes, however; along with the customary honey, they give the dish an intensity of flavour that makes the contrast with Hart’s salty preserved lemons particularly pleasing, though if you’re not a fan, you could also use dates or Jones’ dried apricots.





John Gregory-Smith: use red onions.



John Gregory-Smith uses red onions in his tagging, for sweetness.

Instead of adding them to the dish as it’s cooking, Benkabbou boils the fruit up with some of the gravy, a spoonful of honey and a cinnamon stick to make a thick, intensely sweet sauce that she then pours over the top of the tagine. If you’re serving the tagine in smaller, more elegant quantities, as a side dish perhaps, or simply prefer less sauce, then this is a good way to go.

Gregory-Smith and Jones are the only ones to opt for a tomato base, which works particularly well with the starchy blandness of potatoes, but less so, to my and my testers’ minds, with sweeter vegetables and dried fruit; a simple vegetable stock allows them to shine.

The spices

Cinnamon, ginger and saffron are the most popular spices, with Gregory-Smith, Hart and Butcher adding earthy cumin, Benkabbou vivid turmeric and Jones zesty coriander. Paprika is also common in tomato-based sauces. I’ll be sticking to the classic mqualli combination of ginger, saffron and turmeric, but adding cinnamon, too, because it works so well with the prunes.





Tagine versions and from Sally Butcher, John Gregory-Smith Nargisse Benkabbou.



Variations on the tagine theme from Sally Butcher, John Gregory-Smith and Nargisse Benkabbou.

The topping

Jones makes a deliciously punchy “herb smash” to go with her tagine, while Gregory-Smith mixes up harissa, lemon juice and oil to serve alongside his; both are excellent accompaniments. Keeping things simpler, I’m sold on the combination of Hart’s salty green olives with sweet prunes, while her buttery blanched almonds bring some much-needed crunch. A final scattering of coriander leaves isn’t just for show: the clean flavour seems to lift the entire dish. Serve with bread for dipping, and plenty of harissa.

Perfect vegetable tagine

Prep 15 min
Cook 1 hr
Serves 6

2 tbsp olive oil
2 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves , peeled and thinly sliced
1½ tsp ground ginger
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 cinnamon stick
¼ tsp saffron threads
600g winter squash or sweet potato, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces
400g baby turnips, quartered or halved if on the large side
500ml vegetable stock
300g soft prunes
1 preserved lemon, skin only, finely chopped
1 tbsp butter
50g blanched almonds
2 tbsp honey
50g green olives, pitted
1 x 400g tin chickpeas, drained
1 small bunch fresh coriander
Harissa
, to serve

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based pan for which you have a lid over a medium heat, then fry the onions until soft and translucent. Stir in the garlic and spices, and cook for another couple of minutes, until you can smell the spices.





Felicity Cloake Vegetable Tagine 01



Fry the onion until soft, then add the garlic and spices and cook until aromatic.

Add the squash and turnips, then stir in the vegetable stock, scraping the bottom of the pan to clean it.





Felicity Cloake Vegetable Tagine 03



Add the prepped veg, then pour in the stock and scrape the bottom of the pan.

Add the prunes and preserved lemon skin, bring to a simmer, then cover. Turn the heat right down and leave to simmer for 30-40 minutes, until the vegetables are soft.





Prunes and preserved lemon skin.



Add the prunes and preserved lemon skin, then cover and cook for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, fry the almonds in the butter until golden, then set aside. Stir the honey, olives and chickpeas into the pan, taste and season if necessary, then roughly chop the coriander and scatter over the top along with the almonds.





Felicity Cloake’s vegetable tagine 05.



Add the olives, chickpeas and honey, top with lightly fried almonds and chopped coriander, and serve.

What’s your favourite kind of vegetable tagine, wintery or not? Is is true that only tourists eat couscous as an accompaniment and, if so, what kind of bread would you recommend instead?

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