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The Tagine: Spicy, independent, and oh so tender by Anjuli

Posted on 03-06-09 · Tags: , , , , ,

Monkfish tagine with potatoes, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and roasted peppers

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.

My creuset tagine

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
Sea salt
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

Monkfish tagine with potatoes, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and roasted peppers

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).

Monkfish tagine with potatoes, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and roasted peppers

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.

Monkfish tagine with potatoes, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and roasted peppers

Add the fish.

Monkfish tagine with potatoes, kalamata olives, cherry tomatoes, and roasted peppers

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.

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  1. Anthony wrote:

    one thing i’ve noticed is that the “Western” tagines like Creuset and others don’t have a hole in the top like most of the traditional terracotta ones do. i don’t know if this is intentional or accidental or i’m mistaken, but in my experience it tends to lead to tagines with too much liquid. the sauce doesnt reduce, because the steam just keeps condensing on the inside of the tagine lid. as a result, i often cant the lid a bit to let steam get out the sides, but i still have trouble getting the sauce to reduce.

    i’ve seriously considered drilling a hole in my tagine.

    can you solve this mystery? do real tagines have a vent hole or not?

    March 11th, 2009 at 12:43 pm
  2. Anjuli wrote:

    Excellent question. Some do and some don’t. The more porous the ceramic, the more that the steam will leak out the sides, slowly releasing the liquid. The higher end brands try to make their models more versatile, so it can go in the oven, etc. They don’t usually have holes. But the traditional ones do.

    Have you tried using less liquid? Did the liquid come from the vegetables or from water/stock/wine you added?

    If you’re not adding extra liquid and only intend to cook on low on the stove, you can probably drill a hole it in :)

    March 11th, 2009 at 1:34 pm
  3. Zita wrote:

    Oh..I envy you, that Le Creuset tagine is still on my wish list …hiks…
    the monk fish dish sounds delish!

    March 11th, 2009 at 4:30 pm
  4. [eatingclub] vancouver || js wrote:

    I’ve been wanting a tagine for some time: your dish certainly looks like a winning advertisement for it. Looks so succulent and delish!

    March 27th, 2009 at 11:20 pm
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    November 30th, 2009 at 1:41 am
  6. Annie Haz wrote:

    I’m having the same problem as Anthony – my Le Creuset has no hole and therefore too much liquid, to stop it overflowing all over the hob I’m pouring out the excess, finding that the finished dish is dry in the centre and sometimes even after 2 hours its not cooked properly, whereas with my daughters tagine, with the hole in the lid, it comes out cooked, juicy and delicious. I’m definitely considering drilling a hole in the lid because I didnt pay this much money to have it go so wrong. Maybe I’m filling it too full? My daughter came home from Morocco saying they piled theirs high in the cone shape, layering the colours of food, and certainly hers is deliciously successful. Hmmm?

    January 16th, 2010 at 9:27 pm
  7. Bruno wrote:

    We got a Tagine as wedding gift and I am quite interested in how it works. It is a “le creauset” with a cast iron based and a glazed top without the holes. I am lookin to use for a Morrocan chicken dish for the first time. When we got it, the instruction inside we of foreign origin. I am just wondering if there is any sorta seasonin process that should take place before usiin it for cooking.

    Thanks for any light on the matter.


    April 9th, 2010 at 8:46 pm
  8. bob wrote:

    Most of the tagines I saw in Morocco have a large hole in the top. The local cooks stick a lemon in it and the steam, as the pressure builds, squeezes around it. This allows the juice to reduce and intensify and stops the spatter that occasionally comes out between the lid and base.

    June 1st, 2012 at 11:12 pm
  9. IGlen Jamieson wrote:

    If there is no hole in the top, and the liquid level is up to the bottome of the cone, air within the cone will develop sufficient pressure to bubble the liquid out the sides and over the edge. The vent hole in the original design of cone constantly allows air and a little steam to excape without building up pressure. The main, unique function of the tagine is that steam condenses on the inside of the cone, and runs down into the bowl without dripping on the food, which remains moist, but not washed, so it retains its full flavour.

    March 2nd, 2013 at 8:39 am
  10. Glen Jamieson wrote:

    I have a tagine with a hole in the top of its cone. This is essential for correct operation. If there is no hole, and the liquid level is above the bottom of the cone, steam and air pressure will build up within the cone and force liquid to bubble out over the edge of the bowl. A “proper” tagine allows pressure to vent out of the hole. Steam condenses on the inner surface of the cone, then runs down into the bowl without dripping onto the contents, which remain surrounded by pure steam, thus the flavour of the food remains, and is not washed out into the sauce, as happens with a conventional casserole.

    March 4th, 2013 at 7:20 am
  11. Perry Rees wrote:

    I was given a traditional terracotta tagine when in Morocco earlier this year. It has no hole in the top of the cone but has what looks like should be 3 small vent holes on the side of the cone although these are not open. As a consequence the juices produced did bubble over onto the hob. I am planning to drill through one of the “holes” and see if that does the job and maybe the other two if the first vent hole doesn’t stop the bubbling over.

    December 13th, 2013 at 4:02 pm
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  13. micko wrote:

    Excellent info bout the vent hole in traditional tajine . Must admit thought of drilling hole in mine , am off to tunisia in jan so will examine traditional tajines.
    Note : would buy tajine over in tunisia but put off when people go on bout lead in local pottery . What does anyone think

    November 29th, 2014 at 10:31 am

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