lamb tagine with preserved lemons & figs

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dinner parties are SERIOUS BUSINESS in manchego's kitchen. they really, truly, are the time for both my and the somm's type a personalities to shine. slash terrorize our friends and loved ones. the sum of what we (or is that just me!) want to do always exceeds what is reasonable . . . or even feasible.

water spots on the glasses? the horror!

fewer than 6 to 7 homemade dishes? i must be slacking!

i kid you not. slider night featured two types of burgers, homemade buns and mayonnaise. i only didn't make the ketchup, because why mess with heinz? one year, i lovingly recreated the entire gourmet tomato feast. the bruschetta alone had about five subrecipes.

the food - i hope – is generally good. but, i've come to realize that while i'm having fun, this is not always relaxing for our (many) guests. i am frantic, wild-eyed in the kitchen, which is mostly a sea of dirty dishes. the somm tries to get everyone inebriated so they can't tell dinner's half an hour behind schedule. friends hover at the kitchen's periphery asking if they can help, but fearing to come too close.

but i think i've broken the streak. the solution? take a full week off work before said dinner party!

just kidding. sort of.

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said time off did give me time to put together some lovely flower arrangements. to get the shopping and some of the ingredient prep out of the way. and to sufficiently ruminate about the flavor of homemade ice cream (you see, i'm not completely cured . . . but that recipe is for next time).

but mostly, i think this dinner party was much calmer thanks to the make ahead lamb tagine.

a tagine is a stew/braise with moroccan flavors and spices. this one is loaded up with lamb!

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i am not sure if this photo adequately captures the insane amount of lamb that was browned and on it's way to melt in your mouth deliciousness a good 30 hours before go time.

my tagine is also loaded up with chickpeas for a one-two protein punch. lamb is such a rich, strong flavor, i thought the chickpeas helped lighten and mellow it out. tagines are easily made vegetarian if that's your thing – think mostly chickpeas with more veggies or even potatoes.

meet the supporting cast:

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plus some dried figs. apricots would also work. or prunes? go for it.

this was my first time cooking with preserved lemons, and they added such wonderful pops of tangy, salty flavor. olives are often added to tagines for similar effect, and you know i love me some olives, but i thought the lemons were surprising and perfect.

stews are great dinner party food – or cook once on sunday for the week food – because the flavor just gets better over time. and it reduces the running-around-like-a-chicken-with-its-head-cut-off effect it has on hostesses.

the one hitch was that since i wasn't cooking like crazy, i maybe had a cocktail too many to remember we'd planned to give salad it's own whole course to itself. 

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the tagine survived a warming period in the oven just fine, and with a salad like that who wouldn't mind the wait? perfect pink cara cara oranges on a bed of arugula with feta and olives. it hit all the right notes – sweet, savory, salty, and bitter. i stole the idea from this recipe . . . the dressing was fantastic.

i also roasted a big mess of root vegetables, but they all turned fushia from the beets. not photogenic. not that parsnips are particularly photogenic to begin with, as they resemble bulbous albino carrots. anyway, they and the cumin vinaigrette tasted sweet and smoky and divine, inspiration here.

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Garnished with some bright cilantro over a bed of couscous, and you've got yourself a hearty, filling and completely satisfying winter dinner.

Lamb Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Figs

Adapted from Epicurious - Serves 8

Note: Ras-el-hanout is a blend of spices that is often used in Moroccan cooking. It means "top of the shelf" and usually represented a blend of the best spices offered by a spice shop. Like Indian curry, there are many different ways to blend. You can buy it in specialty shops, or put together your own blend from relatively common ingredients like cinnamon, ginger, cumin and turmeric. Here's one blend - feel free to tinker with the proportions based on flavors you like or what you have in your kitchen. 

  • 4 lbs lamb shoulder, in 1 inch dice
  • 1 to 1.5 large onions diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, diced
  • 2 tbsp Ras-el-Hanout
  • 1.5 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
  • 1 can diced tomatoes with juices
  • 2 – 3 cups low-salt chicken stock
  • 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained (I feel I should get credit for not making these from dried)
  • 1/2 cup dried figs, quartered
  • 1 preserved lemon, rind only, diced

Heat olive oil in a large dutch oven or other large (not-nonstick) skillet with lid. Sprinkle lamb with salt and pepper and brown in batches. Lamb should sizzle at it hits the oil, but only take a few minutes to brown. Each batch should only be one layer of lamb in the pot to allow each piece to brown and develop the fond – the brown sticky bits on the bottom of the pot that'll add amazing caramelized meat flavor to the dish. Keep adding oil as you need to to keep the fond and meet from burning instead of browning. Transfer all browned lamb to a bowl, set aside.

Add more oil if needed and saute onion until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add garlic, spices and ginger and saute for a minute or so until fragrant. Add the tomatoes and lamb with any juices at the bottom of the bowl and bring to a boil. Add about 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock and bring back to a boil. 

Allow to simmer until the lamb is falling apart, about 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally and adding more chicken broth if it reduces down to a thicker stew than you'd like. Add the chickpeas and simmer for about 15 minutes, then add the figs and preserved lemons and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Tagine can be served now over couscous with a sprinkle of cilantro – but it might be even better the next day!

DIY: Preserved Lemons

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do you like moroccan food?

i will confess, i don't know much about moroccan food. but i do know my way around a tagine. it's like a stew. my roomie and bff after college and i made many a tagine. it was in our cooking light repertoire of chicken tacos, quesadilla, bbq chicken pizza, quesadilla, chicken tagine, repeat.

it was a lot of bock bock. i always had to handle the raw chicken. she was queen of the deli rotisserie chicken.

that division of labor is still true when we have girls nights.  but these days, we've stepped it up. you know what really belongs in tagine? lamb. glorious lamb.

but i'm getting ahead of myself.

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preserved lemons. a signature flavor of moroccan food, but wikipedia also tells me it's common in indian and cambodian food. who knew?

as a part of my insane DIY christmas, i made preserved lemons. along with pretty things like these:

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so much infused vodka was consumed in the celebration of baby jesus this year.

back to the lemons. this was ridiculously easy to execute. slice your lemons in four . . . but not all the way. apply salt. lots of salt.

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really get in there. curse as the salt and lemon juice gets all up in your ragged-when-will-i-ever-grow-up-and-stop-picking-at-my-cuticles cuticles.

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jam them in your jars. with lemon juice . . . bay leaf . . . cumin seeds. more salt. we are preserving here.

cumin is a bit of mercurial spice. the seeds look like bugs and smell like old gym socks. the right amount adds a lovely dusty earthiness to a dish. too much and you're back to the gym socks.

i had to slice little wedges out of my lemons to get two to fit in the mason jar. i just added the slices right on top. you could probably just quarter the things and they'd turn out ok, but i haven't tried it.

most recipes are going to have you use just the rinds, chopped up, so you want to leave them in large enough pieces that it's easy to scoop out the flesh.

preserved lemon rind . . . salty, tangy. like an olive but with a brighter, cleaner, lighter flavor. 

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I'll be back with a tagine recipe for you to use these bad boys soon!

Preserved Lemons

  • 3-4 large lemons
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 + 4 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds

Take two lemons, slice lengthwise twice, as if you are quartering the lemon, but leave the last inch of the lemon intact.

Sprinkle about a tablespoon or two of kosher salt into each lemon.

Or, just quarter the lemons and toss with salt. Whatever takes your fancy.

Juice the other two lemons. Really, you're just looking to fill the jar.  It will depend on the size of your lemons, obviously. You're welcome for that incredible, very clear advice.

Add about 1/8 a cup of salt and juice of one lemon to the jar.  Stir to try to dissolve the juice a little. Add one lemon, then about half the cumin seeds and one bay leaf.  Repeat. Top with another 1/8 cup of salt.  Fill up jar with lemon juice.

Screw on the lid!  Give it a good shake!  Give the jar another good shake every day for the next two weeks, and you're good to go. If you plan to keep them around longer than a few weeks, store in the refrigerator.