Tagine Home Cooking

February 19 2008 - 3:35 AM

Over the holidays, a friend of mine who loves to cook turned me on to a very affordable tagine from Sur La Table. As a fan of cooking and experimenting with new foods, I thought a tagine would be a perfect addition to my kitchen-arsenal and I figured for the price (~$20), it would be a great idea for my Christmas list. Sure enough my husband bought one for me but unwrapping the gift was just the start of my adventures in tagine cooking.

 

Per Dictionary.com, a
Tagine (or Tajine) is a Moroccan earthenware cooking dish with a tall
conical lid, used for slow-cooking stew. The word also refers to the dish or stew itself. For
my first cooking attempt, I choose a simple Moroccan dish of chicken
thighs, almonds and apricots slow cooked in broth and served over
couscous. Little did I know that this simple meal would result in a mess and a return to Sur La Table for an exchange!

 

The recipe called for
browning the meat and vegetables on high which I did with no issues but
after adding the liquid and bringing to a boil then simmering with the
conical lid on, the bottom of the tagine cracked completely through,
draining the broth onto my oven, counters and floor! I wasn’t sure what went wrong: did
I cook at too high a temperature, should I have done something to
prepare the tagine before hand, was this more of a decorative/serving
dish… Unfortunately, my tagine did not come with any instructions so I turned to the Web.

The first debate was if there should be a vent hole or not in the tagine. My
friend who turned me on to tagines, had bought a version from Sur La
Table that did have a hole and had already made several great dishes. My husband had selected the more colorfully decorated one that did not have a venting hole at the top. Come to find out many of the high-end tagine’s (Le Creuset and Emile Henry) do not have vent holes.

The website, www.tagines.com, says:

Most tagines do not have a hole punched on the lid and its presence makes no difference. It is merely a design preference.

But
their FAQs give the impression that a hole or some method for venting
is required, even suggesting using a spoon to let some steam escape. Their tagines are on average about $30 but they do sell Emile Henri’s for $89.95 (a little cheaper than at Sur La Table). The Beldi tagine seemed to be the closest to mine, glazed inside and out with no hole. Tagines.com says it can be used on the stove top (up to low-med heat) as well as in the oven up to 350F. There
didn’t seem to be a straight answer on whether or not to have a hole,
but certainly I had cooked with too much heat, not only the high
setting but also putting the lid on at the same time to bring it to a
boil.

My friend had also
soaked her tagine in water for 24 hours prior to cooking with it. I
recalled doing something similar with my Romertopf Clay Baker, but had
done nothing to prepare my tagine. The last thing I considered was price; maybe a pricier tagine would work better. But my friend had paid about the same price as I had and been very successful.

 

Finally I just decided to go and talk to the folks at Sur La Table. They were really helpful – some of the best customer service I’ve seen in years! They walked me through all their tagines and basically taught me the tenets of slow-cooking – low heat and patience. I was wrong to brown the food on high with the tagine and then to use the same setting to bring it to a simmer. Sur La Table suggested starting at low and slowly raising the heat to no more than medium. Also
a diffuser is a must – it helps ensure the heat is evenly spread out
across the whole tagine base (you can get the Nordicware one for
$11.95). In addition, you can stick a room-temperature tagine in the oven up to about 350F.

They also suggested that I season my tagine or prep it for use. Emile
Henry’s tagines suggest simmering milk for an hour or you can follow
tagines.com’s recommendation to soak the tagine and then put it in the
oven for a few hours (http://www.tagines.com/tagine_care.cfm). The folks at Sur La Table also set expectations that my tagine would end up with fine cracks over time.

Sur La Table graciously allowed me to exchange my broken tagine for a new one. Since I liked the look of my tagine and didn’t want to spend a lot for it, I chose the exact same one. My only wish is that it had come with instructions and a recipe book as my friend’s had. Oddly enough the tagine I bought is no longer for sale at Sur La Table but my friend’s is.

I decided my next
recipe from Grouprecipes.com with the new tagine should be simple too and it was; you just
added all the ingredients and tossed it in the oven. It was a great success. The seasonings were perfect and I made a sauce of Harissa and yogurt to accompany it.

 

My most recent attempt did include browning and stove top cooking. The browning worked well at a low-to-medium temperature but just took some time.  The hardest part was bringing the mixture to a simmer. It took a long time but eventually it got there. I was then able to put on the lid and bring the temperature to low for well over an hour. This was a recipe I copied from my friend’s cookbook which was included with her tagine. She has cooked several recipes from that book and loved them all. I
even experimented with preserved lemon (it adds a really strong, tart
flavor; get it at Whole Foods or Sur La Table) and made my own
ras-el-hanout (its hard to find but you can find lots of recipes
on–line).

 

Ultimately if you enjoy cooking and really like trying new techniques or dishes, a $20-$30 tagine is not a bad way to go.  You can experiment with slow cooking and new spices/seasonings like harissa, ras-al-hut, quince and preserved lemon.  The
more expensive tagines don’t have holes but they are designed to be
more forgiving for those of us who don’t have as much patience or time! Le
Creuset’s Cobolt Blue Tagine is beautiful and is made of cast iron and
coated with high quality vitreous enamel; but they also suggest low to
medium settings. There are other benefits to the high-end models as well; it clearly depends on what you want out of it.

Regardless, I would recommend getting one that includes instructions and recipes just to be on the safe side. Sur
La Table has Le Creuset’s, Emile Henry’s, All-Clad’s and my friend’s
(Glazed Terra Cotta Tagine) and as I mentioned they have great customer
service (if you are really into this, ask them to recommend a cookbook)! I’ve also found great recipes on several sites including tagines.com, foodandwine (I can’t wait to try the Cauliflower Tagine), and, of course, epicurious.

Would love to get your comments or hear about your experiences. And please, pass on any recipes!!

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