Ceramic vessels have been used for cooking for centuries the world over. The sand pot in China, cazuela in Spain, and the tagine (tajine, or طاجين in Arabic) in Morocco all take advantage of ceramic’s porous nature and the moist environment created by these covered casserole vessels that release steam gradually. Vessels like these are used to cook food slowly, creating juicy and tender proteins simmered in rich, flavorful sauces with little need for additional liquid or fat. I recently bought a contemporary version of the tagine from the French company Le Creuset. Our first tagine dish was savory, a little buttery, with a kick of spice, and included incredibly moist, succulent fish and enough broth to dip bread in to our heart’s content. Oh joy.
Unlike the traditional terracotta tagines, mine has a ceramic lid but the base is enameled cast iron. The benefits are that cast iron is a great conductor of heat, cooks food evenly, and the material is much more durable than terracotta. However, I have not cooked in one of the all terracotta dishes, and do not know if they produce more steamy environments. Also, due to its thickness, cast iron probably requires slightly longer cooking times. If you’ve had the opportunity to compare or own a different brand that you like, please share!
Many traditional tagines (also the dish name) call for lamb or beef cooked for 3-4 hours. In addition to getting becoming very tender, the meat also browns well in a tagine. Vegetable, fish, and chicken also benefit from this technique but conveniently require much less cooking time.
Besides being able to serve food in a sleek, exotic, and brightly colored vessel which requires little to no additional cleanup, the labor is also minimal. Due to the low temperature and sealed moisture, the dish only needs to be checked for doneness. No stirring necessary. This makes for an all around dinner party pleaser.
My first use of the vessel was not so. I couldn’t imagine an independent vessel that wasn’t attached to a cord with a digital timer on the front. I continually opened the pot to check for doneness, moisture, and nibble at the potatoes. My fussiness proved unnecessary, and now I can confidently say I could have spent more time drinking with my guests and less time in front of the stove. The key is just to keep the temperature low.
Tagine of monkfish, potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and olives
2 pounds monkfish tail, washed and cut into even chunks
12 small red or yukon potatoes of relatively equal sized, washed and with eyes removed
3-4 cloves garlic, sliced thinly or minced
12-16 cherry tomatoes, washed
2 red peppers, charred on the stove, placed in bowl with saran wrap until cool, peeled, and cut into strips
1/2 cup kalamata or black brine-cured whole olives (*see footnote on olives), sides sliced off
Freshly ground black pepper
chermoula (variation on the popular Moroccan spice mix)
4 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
3 teaspoons cumin, dry roasted in a saute pan on medium, ground or crushed
2 red chilies, seeded and chopped
2 lemons, juiced
4 tablespoons olive oil
A bunch of cilantro, washed, stemmed, and chopped
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon curry powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 lemon, seeded, and cut into wedges with pith end of each wedge removed
Whole wheat (we got a loaf of whole wheat with five grain from Amy’s Bread to excellent effect)
1 clove garlic, minced
First make the chermoula. Using a mortar and pestle, pound the garlic with the salt to a smooth paste. Mix in the cumin, chili, cinnamon, cayenne, curry powder, cloves, lemon juice, olive oil. Stir in the cilantro with a fork.
Put the fish in a dish and mix with half the chermoula. Cover both and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.
Bring a saucepan of water to a boil. Drop in potatoes and boil vigorously for 8 minutes, until they’ve softened. You want to be able to pierce them through with a fork before they are completely cooked through (they will simmer for 15 minutes with the fish). Drain and rinse under cold water. Peel and half or quarter (depending on size).
Heat two tablespoons olive oil and a slab of butter in the tagine or saute pan on medium. Once hot, add the garlic and saute until it starts to brown, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes to soften. Add the peppers and reserved chermoula. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and set aside until ready to cook the fish.
Bring the fish out 15 minutes in advance to warm up to room temperature. Turn the stove on to 250 degrees. Mix the garlic and some butter. Cut 8 slices almost all the way through the loaf and arrange in tinfoil. Separating the slices slightly, spread the butter on one side of each slice. Heat in the oven for 10 minutes, until toasted.
Arrange the potatoes over the base of the tagine and spoon on half the tomato and pepper mixture over the top.
Add the fish.
Spoon on the rest of the mixture. Sprinkle the olives over the top. Drizzle the remaining olive oil. Pour 1/2 cup water over the top.
Cover with the lead, heat on medium low, and steam for 15-20 minutes until the fish is cooked. Serve with lemon wedges and bread. ♣
* Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s on olives (in Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating): “Real olives have pits. Putting up with the inconvenience of the pits is a small price to pay for carefully picked and naturally cured olives.
“To pit an olive mechanically, the producer has to add chemicals to the brine that firm up the olive enough so it can survive the stress of the pitting equipment.
“These chemicals impart off flavors, which is why so many prepitted olives are sold in marinades, where the garlic and spices can cover the poor quality.”
Check out these helpful links:
Cooking with Shirley provides a lot of excellent information on the benefits, care, and techniques for cooking with ceramic vessels.
Safety information on different materials used in cooking vessels.