” Five tender apricots in a blue bowl, a brief and exact promise of things to come. ” Frances Mayes.
Imagine a valley full of apricot laden trees standing high above the ground under the bright blue summer sky, towering in all sides by mighty snow-capped Himalayas, a beautiful ambiance to invoke the artistry in every mind. The beauty of those small Himalayan hamlets nestled amidst the alpine forest are so untouched, flawless and uncorrupt like a small piece of heaven on earth.
Apricots are the finest fruit summer has to offer, looks so adorable in their rosy cheeks, mellow, a musky flavor with a faint hint of tartness, and its delicate taste bonded so well with any dessert , salads and even meat dishes.
History of Persian cuisine is embedded with annotations of using fruits like prunes, apricots and other citrus fruits in meat dishes with the abundance of almonds, walnuts, pistachios and other nuts. As the Arabs set to conquer the world, this rich tradition travelled westward to Iberian peninsula which they renamed it as Al Andaluz, and Morocco being located centrally, become the hub of spice markets, Arabic culture, medicine, architecture, cooking. A strong reflection of this is still present in Moroccan cuisine which has now blended beautifully with the ethnic Berber cuisine.
The most celebrated dish from Morocco is perhaps the tagines, more precisely the lamb tagines cooked in a flat circular shaped earthen pots with a conical dome-shaped lid that traps the flavours and helps to return the condensation to the bottom. Tagines are cooked with season’s best fruits and vegetables, a handful of aromatic spices thrown in good measure and as the dish slowly cooked over the charcoal fire, it gradually absorbs the flavors from the earthen tagine pots intermixed with the smoky charcoal flavor and the aromatic spices.
Tagines are thick juicy semi stew kind of dish bursts with ambrosial flavors and are usually served over a bed of couscous , that’s a traditional way to serve the tagine. A Moroccan meal however remain incomplete without a warkha pastry and glass of hot mint tea or coffee after a hearty feast.
It would be a wholesome experience to cook in a tagine complete with all the finery of rustic kitchen , but even if you do not have tagine, then please do not deprive yourself from enjoying this fabulous dish, it scream delicious in every mouthful. The key to make this tagine is the long marination time and slow cooking.
Prunes and dates marries so well with the slow cooked meat, that I never thought of trying something else in their place. A week ago I happen to buy two box of Turkish dried apricots, its shiny skin with a leathery sheen completes with a fruity flavour are so good and nutritious to eat, that I can snack upon them all day long. These Turkish apricots together with silvered almonds makes very festive looking lamb tagine and the exquisite Ras-al-hanout spice blend intensify the flavour taking it to a different level.
Ras-al-hanout (translates as “storekeeper’s choice” ) is a highly fragrant spice blend used extensively in Morocco and other Mid Eastern cuisine, is considered as fine blend of at least twenty-six different spices and each blend is different from the other, much depends upon the storekeeper’s trading routes and every house in the Morocco has its own traditional way of blending it.
All spice is almost indispensable in Moroccan and other Mid eastern cuisine and without it the famed Ras-al-hanout spice blend is incomplete too. The recipe for Ras -al-hanout spice blend has been adapted from the book mentioned below. Sometimes this spice blend is also flavoured with dried rose petals, lavender buds etc.
Harissa imparts a subtle kick of heat to this tagine, apricots melts and enriched the gravy with its inherent sweetness, and together they strike a beautiful balance of heat and sweet. The flavor of meat slowly braising in this juicy liquid intermixing with range of flavors makes tagine the most delectable meat dishes ever cooked on earth.
The inspiration for this beautiful dish has come from the book ” Cooking Moroccan” by Tess Mallos, a book that I am reading now. This book has lots of tagine recipes adorned with beautiful photography of food, spices and colorful visuals of Moroccan souks.
- Lamb : 2 pound
- Ras al hanout spice blend : 2-3 tbsp
- Harissa : 2-3 tbsp (as per your taste)
- Onion chopped : 1 big
- Dried apricots - 8 oz / 1 cup
- Sliced almonds : a handful
- Honey : 1 tbsp
- Salt to taste
- Tomato puree : 1cup +
- Mint (fresh) : few twigs
- Saffron : a medium pinch
- Olive oil : 3-4 tbsp
- Wash the lambs in running cold water. The dish taste best if the lamb is tender one.
- Wipe the lamb dry and keep aside.
- Blend ½ tsp each of ground cloves and cayenne pepper ; 2 tsp each of ground allspice, cumin, turmeric, black pepper, cardamom ; 1 tbsp of ground cinnamon and nutmeg.
- Rub half of this spice blend over the lamb pieces together with salt, and extra cumin powder if you prefer.
- Rub olive oil generously over the meat, cover it with thin wrap and refrigerate it for atleast 12 hours.
- I did it for 18 hours. Longer the marination time, better it is.
- Next day, bring the marinated lamb to room temperature.
- Rub few drops of oil over the marinated meat and let it stand for another hour.
- Soak 4-5 cayenne pepper in hot boiling water for around one hour.
- Drain the chillies and grind them in a food processor along with 10 chopped garlic cloves, 2tsp of dried or fresh mint, 4 tsp olive oil and ½ tsp salt. Blend until it becomes a smooth puree.
- In a separate bowl, soak the saffron in one cup warm water. To heighten the flavor of saffron, you can roast it on a pan, crush it and then soak it in the water.
- Heat some oil in a deep bottom pan and brown the lambs well on both the sides.
- Drain the lamb pieces on a separate dish and add more oil if requires.
- Fry the onions, do not brown it. Just let the color changes to a slight brownish hue.
- Add the harissa, saute for couple of minutes and add the tomato puree.
- Fry on medium heat till the oil separates out.
- Now add the lamb pieces, almonds (reserve few for garnishing), apricots, remaining ras al hanout, honey, one cup saffron soaked warm water and give it a good stir, lower the heat, cover tightly (seal the lid with dough if requires) and cook on sim until done.
- Tagine will have thick gravy like consistency, neither too runny nor clingy.
- Garnish with fresh mint (please do not garnish with any other herb), few slced apricots and almonds.
- Serve the lamb tagine with couscous, a traditional way to serve the dish or else you can enjoy it with cardamom scented basmati rice or with flat breads paratha as we did.
Other versions include, lamb tagine with potatoes, squash, olives, prunes (one of my favourite ) etc.
If you do not have access to ras-al-hanout spice blend or cannot make it at home, then you can blend 2 tbsp of ground allspice with good quality of ground Indian garam masala (like shaan).
Mint is indispensable here.
This is a very festive recipe and to my all readers who are celebrating the holy month of “Ramadan” they can enjoy it as their iftaar meal.
Coming up next is another apricot based dessert, so watch out for my next post.
Meanwhile enjoy this and have blessed days ahead