I love Moroccan food, and it always surprises me to hear of people who don't have any experience of the cuisine and so don't know the wonders that they're missing. The cuisine artfully ties together the different cultures and influences across the centuries: Middle Eastern, Moorish, Spanish, Jewish. It's the interplay of warming, infusing spices with some element of sweet and element of meat, drawn together in a stew and served with thirsty cous cous that helps you lap up all the wonderful juices the stew gives off. Our choice of honeymoon destination was almost solely guided by our stomachs, placing Japan and Morocco on our (very) shortlist. In the end, we went to Japan because of the greater probability of curious computer games and bizarre vending machine opportunities, but Morocco remained a close second.
Since it is a former French colony, you can also find excellent Moroccan food in France. When we were last in Paris we visited a Moroccan restaurant housed in an old bistro. As I walked to my table, I cast a glance into the kitchen and saw one of the most wonderful sights my eyes have seen: a tub, the size of the sliced-off end of an oil-tanker, filled with cous cous. The man trying to stir the cous cous didn't attack it with a spoon but with a broom with a large paddle attached to it. I had loved Moroccan food up to that point; after I saw this, though, I said a quick prayer to be granted forgiveness as I felt an urge to renounce my husband and pledge myself in marriage to the man who was running that kitchen.
I was recently given a beautiful tagine as a gift by my brother. A typical tagine is an glazed clay affair and acts as something of a slow cooker, trapping the steam produced during cooking and returning it to the wide-based bottom and keeping the food moist. This tagine is even more glorious than your usual one since it's a crimson red Le Creuset version, and sits in your kitchen like a smooth erupted volcano, aglitter in the sunlight.
Tagine is the name for both a style of cooking and the dish it's cooked in. The tagine we made came from our reliable Moro cookbook. Beef and prune tagine, the book tells you, is one of your most classic tagine combinations but shouldn't be dismissed for being predictable. Since it spent nearly 3 hours cooking, we all got to smell it developing its flavors. The aroma was torturously good, and the four of us eating were hungry in a manner that not even an empty stomach can induce. There was enough to generously serve four, and none of us could bear leaving any behind uneaten. A trip to Morocco will come some day, but in the mean time I'll always have Paris. And my shiny red tagine.
Beef Tagine with Prunes, from Casa Moro cookbook
- 40g unsalted butter
- 2 Tbs olive oil
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 3 Tbs finely grated onion
- 4 Tbs roughly chopped fresh coriander
- 1.2kg / 2 1/2 lb stewing beef, cut into 3cm cubes and trimmed of excess fat
- 40 threads saffron, infused in 2 Tbs boiling water
- 400g / 1 lb stoned prunes, soaked in cold water
- 2 Tbs runny honey
- salt and pepper
- To serve:
- 1 Tbs sesame seeds, lightly toasted
- 180 g whole blanched almonds, friend in olive oil until just golden
- 4 Tbs fresh coriander leaves
- In a heavy-bottomed saucepan or tagine base, heat up the butter and olive oil over a medium to high heat.
- When the butter starts to foam add the ginger, 1/2 tsp of black pepper, cinnamon, onion, and coriander.
- Fry for 30 seconds, then add the beef and stir well for a minute or two so it is coated in the spice mixture.
- Cover the meat with water and add in the saffron infusion. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.
- Drain the prunes, then add half to the meat.
- Cover the pot, and simmer gently for about 1 1/2 hours until the beef is very tender and juicy (or, cook in an oven at a low temperature, at around 140 C / 280 F).
- Add the remaining prunes along with the honey and some salt and pepper.
- Simmer for a further 30 minutes or until the meat is tender and the sauce has thickened and reduced some. (We did this final stage with the tagine uncovered on the stove rather than in the oven, but the choice is yours)
- Serve with sesame seeds, almonds, and coriander leaves over the top.