We recently took a trip to Morocco to celebrate my husband's 30th birthday. Morocco is a very special place, and we just touched the surface by exploring Marrakesh and the Berber villages in the surrounding Atlas mountains. The experience was a positive sensory overload; there was an explosion of vibrancy everywhere we turned. The souks (street markets in the old, walled city) were buzzing with vendors selling spices, pottery, jewelry, rugs, and produce for what they all promised was a very special price just for us. We stepped off the busy streets into calm, welcoming riads (Moroccan-style B&Bs) and restaurants impeccably decorated with original tiled walls, large area rugs, art, and pottery all in the most beautifully rich bronze, orange, yellow, and blue hues. And when it came to the food, well it wasn't hard to feel inspired by one of my favorite cuisines. We were generously offered a smorgasbord of Moroccan delights; lentil soup, couscous platters, slow-cooked tagines, smoky eggplant dips, olives, and refreshingly cold vegetable dishes spiced with cardamom or mint and lemon.
I hope to share with you several inspired recipes from these meals, but I first must share one of my favorites and probably one of the most well-known Moroccan dishes, the tagine. Tagines are nothing more than a slow-cooked meet or vegetable stew. The name actually refers to the dish in which the stew is cooked: a clay pot with a dome-shaped lid that effectively traps heat and circulates it, allowing the stew to steam to perfection. It is served right in the clay pot with bread and sometimes caramelized onions with raisins on the side. I don't use a tagine pot at home. They are fun but not necessary to achieve a flavorful Moroccan-style stew.
I've been making versions of tagines over the years because I really enjoy the ease and rusticity of a one-pot meal, and I am in love with the balance of sweet and savory achieved in the dish; the warmth and smokiness from cumin, cinnamon, and harissa play off the citrus, sweet dried apricots, and briny olives added at the end. If I had one complaint about an authentic vegetable tagine though is that the vegetables are overcooked and limp. Here I try to cook the tagine long enough for the flavors to really develop but not too long so that it becomes mush. For this reason I add the zucchini in during the second half of the cooking time.
The caramelized onions and raisins were served alongside to top our tagines and couscous dishes in Morocco. It was an unexpected but fun addition and yet another layer of flavor. I've included the recipe as well in case it piques your interest. With or without it though, the tagine is delicious. Serve the tagine over quinoa or couscous in shallow bowls, top with nuts and fresh herbs, and you will have some very happy diners.
Notes: If you do not have ras el hanout see Moroccan tomato sauce recipe for suggestions on spice substitutions.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
Spice blend (below)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
2 tsp. harissa (if very spicy, start with 1 tsp.)
4 carrots, halved lengthwise and sliced
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced in large bite size pieces
1 tsp. each salt & pepper
1 15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1/2 large preserved lemon, finely chopped (or zest and juice from 1 large lemon)
1 small cinnamon stick
4 cups/1 qt./32 oz. vegetable stock
10 dried apricots, quartered
1 zucchini, quartered and cut in bite size pieces
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. cumin
3 tsp. ras el hanout
1/2 tsp. paprika
Few handfuls good quality large green olives, halved (~12 olives)
Half a bunch each fresh cilantro and mint, chopped
1/2 cup toasted pistachios and/or almond slivers
Squeeze of lemon (optional)
Heat olive oil in a large soup pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and spice blend. Let sweat out for several minutes, until spices are fragrant and onions begin to soften. Add garlic and ginger and cook for a minute. Then add harissa and next 7 ingredients (through vegetable stock). Stir to combine, cover with lid and lower heat to simmer for 20 minutes. Taste broth for seasoning and adjust if necessary, then add apricots and zucchini and simmer, covered, for 20 more minutes.
Add olives just before serving and sprinkle with fresh herbs, nuts, and a squeeze of lemon juice if desired.
Serve over cooked quinoa or couscous and top with caramelized onions.
Caramelized Onions with Raisins
Adapted from The Wimpy Vegetarian
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 medium to large onions
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. salt & pepper
1 tsp. honey
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
Heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add all ingredients except for honey and balsamic vinegar and cook for 25 minutes or until onions are soft and caramelized, stirring frequently. Add honey and balsamic vinegar, and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve alongside tagine.