It’s pretty clear that my first love in cooking is baking, hands down. I’m fascinated by the chemical process behind leavening; I love the smells that waft from my kitchen when there’s a batch of muffins or a cake in the oven. We get it, Jen, you’re a sugar addict.
But, one cannot live by sugar alone.
One must cook “real” food: meats, vegetables, grains–the stuff that nutritionists nod their heads and say, yeah, that’s much better for you.
And, when it comes to cooking meals, one of my favorite cooking processes is braising. I mean–look–it’s part of the title of my blog. When a home cook masters braising (and, really, it doesn’t take that much to learn how–it’s rather forgiving, this cooking method), a world of rich stews made from inexpensive cuts of meat opens up. Granted, it’s not a technique that turns out a fast meal–the key to braising is a long cooking time in a low temperature oven. It has the ability to take cheap, tough cuts of meat, and with some aromatic vegetables, flavorful liquid, and some patience, to the end result of tender, luscious bites in a rich sauce. Part of the magic behind this technique is that the cuts of meat used for braising are full of connective tissue; it’s the slow, moist cooking method that allows the connective tissues to break down and not only creates a tender piece of meat, but those connective tissues break down to gelatin to help create that rich sauce.
A tagine is an excellent example of a braised dish; the name comes from the clay pot that was perfectly designed for braising, as the conical-shaped top allows the steam that rises from the stew to collect and condense at the top, and drip back down into the pot. (Don’t worry about buying a tagine, really–as long as you have a dutch oven or a heavy pot with a lid that can go stove-to-oven, you’re fine.) This type of tagine is a Moroccan tagine–you’ll often see them as either chicken or lamb (but beef and vegetarian versions with lentils are not uncommon), with various vegetables, fruits such as quince, preserved lemon, dates, dried plums or apricots, and seasonings such as garlic, cinnamon, ginger, cumin, paprika and pepper. You’ll want to serve a tangine with couscous or some flat bread–anything to soak up the leftover sauce, as you’ll not want it to go to waste.
So, let’s go over the basics for braising–tagines and other dishes:
1. A heavy bottomed pot with a well-fitted lid that can go stove-to-oven.
2. Inexpensive tough cuts of meat. An already-tender cut of meat will dry out in the long cooking period–a cut of meat such as lamb shoulder and shanks, beef brisket, short ribs, and chuck roast.
3. A flavorful liquid such as chicken or vegetable stock, red wine, or juice.
4. Aromatic vegetables and herbs–onions, celery, bell peppers, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, cinnamon sticks, etc.
Let’s start: Heavy-bottomed part. Check. Tough cut of meat. Check.
Don’t skip the step of browning the meat first. I know it’s kind of a pain, especially when you want to get it all in the oven and started already. It’s not about “sealing in the juices” because that’s a myth. Browning meat is all about flavor–that bit of caramelization will infuse the dish with a depth you will miss if you skip it.
Once all the meat is browned and removed from the pan, the vegetables are added and sauteed briefly, then the liquid, any other seasonings are thrown in, then the browned meat is returned to the pot. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover the pot, and immediately pop into the oven to cook for 1 1/2 hours.
In this particular dish, the butternut squash and dried plums are stirred in later, as they would fall apart too easily with the long cooking period.
Serve tagine on a bed of couscous (the Fastest Pasta in the West) and top with chopped cilantro. But, Jen, there’s no cilantro in your picture. I know, I know, that’s what happens when I’m shopping at Trader Joe’s where all their fresh herbs are packaged in the little clear boxes, and being in a rush, I grab a box of cilantro, and carry on with my shopping. Choo helps unpack when I get home, and come the day I cook this tagine and I’m all ready to grab my box of cilantro and LO AND BEHOLD my fresh cilantro has turned to MINT.
This stew is absolutely perfect for a cool Autumn evening, and it’s healthy and packed full of good-for-you things. Another part of the magic of braising is that leftovers are often better the next day, once all the flavors have had a chance to marry. That is, if you have any leftovers to begin with.
Lamb, Butternut Squash & Red Pepper Tagine
1 pound boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed and cut into 1″ cubes
1/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, 1″ dice
1 red bell pepper, 1″ dice
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 cinnamon sticks
2 pounds butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1″ pieces
1 cup pitted dried plums
Salt & Pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
- Preheat oven to 350°
- In a large bowl, mix flour with cumin, paprika, ginger, salt and pepper, and dredge lamb pieces.
- Heat large pot on medium-high, and add oil. Brown lamb in two batches, transferring to a bowl.
- Turn heat to medium and add onion and red peppers. Saute 2-3 minutes then add garlic, tomatoes, chicken stock and cinnamon sticks.
- Return lamb to pot and bring to a boil. Top with lid, and place into preheated oven. Cook until lamb is tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
- Stir in butternut squash and return to oven for 30 minutes, or until squash is fork-tender. Stir in dried plums and return to oven for 10 more minutes. Check for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.
- When tagine is done, set aside for 10 minutes before serving (perfect amount of time to prepare couscous).
- Serve on bed of couscous, top with fresh cilantro.
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