"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."
(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.)
This is a tale of two tagines. A tagine, of course, can be either a particular sort of Moroccan stew (for want of a better word) or the dish it is cooked in.
I'm not comparing our misadventures to the hope and horrors of the French Revolution, but some years ago we bought a pottery tagine on a visit to Marrakesh. The man who sold it to us turned out to be unpleasantly weird and aggressive. That's no reflection on the majority of Moroccans, who I've always found to be extremely kind and hospitable people.
This man, though, was just plain nasty and then the tagine base got broken on the flight home. We stuck it together but (call me over-sensitive if you like) the tagine felt oddly tainted by the experience we'd had when we bought it.
Glued-together pottery is, obviously, useless either on top of the stove or in the oven. So when we made tagines it only ever got used to serve the finished dish. This rather defeated the object, because the whole point of a tagine (no pun intended) is that its conical lid condenses the steam produced during cooking, helping to keep the meat succulent and juicy.
Things took a turn for the better when I got into conversation with my Egyptian friend, Magdi, who urged me to buy one with a cast iron base and a pottery lid. You won't regret it, he said. It's the best of both worlds, as you can use it on the stove and in the oven. So although I already had more cooking pots than the average restaurant, I followed his advice. We had the best of times eating the results.
Lamb and Apricot Tagine
800g-1kg shoulder of lamb, trimmed and diced into bite-sized pieces
2 tbsp light olive oil
1-2 tspn ground coriander
1-2 tspn ground cumin
1-2 tspn ground ginger
1/2-1 tspn cayenne pepper
3 fat cloves of garlic, crushed
2 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
400 ml lamb stock (or use a chicken stock cube dissolved in water)
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 tbsp runny honey
1 large bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
1/2 tspn saffron threads, dissolved in a little warm water
250g dried apricots, soaked in a little hot water (I used dark, chewy Hunza apricots but the bright orange ones look prettier)
Salt and pepper
In a large, deep pan, melt the butter and oil together over a gentle heat and add the coriander, cumin, ginger, cayenne, garlic, onion, half of the fresh coriander and the lamb chunks.
Stir to coat the lamb and cook for a few minutes to allow the aroma of the spices to develop, without browning the meat.
Add the stock, honey, saffron and cinnamon stick. Bring to the boil, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer gently for an hour to an hour and a half, until the meat is tender.
In the meantime, cover the apricots with a little hot water and leave them to swell.
When the meat is done, remove it with a slotted spoon and keep it warm. Reduce the sauce until it thickens a little, then put the lamb back in and add the drained apricots. Heat through gently but thoroughly.
Scatter the remaining fresh chopped coriander on top of the tagine and serve with rice or couscous.