Easter and lamb go together like Morecambe and Wise and cheese and onion or, depending on how posh you are, balsamic vinegar and sea salt. For a family meal there isn't very much better than a beautifully roasted leg or slowly cooked shoulder of lamb, tender and juicy or yielding enough to carve with a spoon. You might like a dash of mint sauce or jelly on the side, while some people spike the joint with garlic and rosemary, but wonderful as all that is, now and again you might fancy shaking things up a bit, or more to the point spicing things up a bit. The rich flavour of lamb wears spices and herbs very well indeed, so you could opt to jazz up your joint with fragrant curry spice or consider, say, a Persian extravaganza with cumin, pomegranate molasses and lemon. It might be a question of what you have at the back of the spice cupboard, though.
But for a dish as fragrant as a souk full of spice stalls and as comforting as a Berber's hospitality, why not try a tagine? This Moroccan dish, here of slow-cooked lamb, is perfumed and richly flavoured and gorgeously satisfying to eat alongside fluffy cous cous and flatbreads for mopping up the thick sauce. You could even use the leftovers from a more traditional roast lamb to make this dish (just reduce the cooking time). If you can lay your hands on one those statuesque, colourful conical pots that give their name to the dish it will provide extra theatre as it comes from the stove top (not the oven) to the table, but you really don't need one: a good casserole or slow cooker will do the trick beautifully and give you a mouthwatering, tender and fragrantly moist lamb tagine, sweetly spiced and Moorishly tasty (sic).
There's a plethora of recipes out there you could follow, probably all of them delicious. Felicity Cloake's ultimate version from The Guardian is quite brilliant, while Mary Berry's tagine is easy and enticing. All have several ingredients in common, but I suspect that even in Morocco every cook has their own tweaks and absolutes to argue the toss over. It's a very easy dish to make and is a perfect one-pot wonder for presenting to guests or family straight from the oven. It also reheats beautifully. Here is my own version, a tried and trusted recipe but, as with most recipes, please feel free to have a heavier hand with the spices if you like.
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 900g lamb shoulder or neck, boned and trimmed of excess fat and cut into big chunks
- 2 large onions, roughly chopped
- 3 fat cloves of garlic, minced or finely chopped
- Thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 rounded tsps cumin
- 1 rounded tsp turmeric
- 1 rounded tsp of paprika
- 1 tsp of chilli flakes (optional but a wonderful counterpoint to the fruity richness)
- 2 tsps freshly ground black pepper
- 2 or 3 cinnamon sticks or two teaspoons of cinnamon powder
- 1 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
- 1 lamb, chicken or beef stock cube (I use Knorr stock pots)
- Water (use the tomato tin once emptied as a measure
- 2 large carrots, chunkily chopped
- 1 good pinch of saffron fronds
- 100g dried apricots, chopped
- 50g dates, chopped
- 2 small preserved lemons, cut into chunks or six wedges each (optional)
- Salt to season
- Handful of toasted flaked almonds
- A handful of fresh coriander, chopped
- A handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- Preheat your oven to 150°C/Gas Mark 2.
- Heat the olive oil in a medium or large casserole dish on the hob over a moderately high heat and brown the chunks of meat in batches. Don't crowd the casserole or the meat will steam rather than caramelise. And it's best to cut the lamb into large chunks so that they keep their integrity as they slow cook. Remove each batch to a bowl once browned.
- Turn the heat down to low on the hob and toss the chopped onions into the pan and soften for a few minutes. Add the minced garlic and ginger and cook for a minute or two more.
- Return the lamb pieces to the casserole dish, and sprinkle in the cumin, turmeric, paprika, chilli if using, and black pepper. Stir and let the spices temper in the heat for a few minutes. If using ground cinnamon add this now as well.
- Pour in the chopped tomatoes, fill the empty tin with water and pour that in too. Add the stock cube and stir gently for a minute or two.
- If using cinnamon sticks rather than ground add these to the pot now, along with the chopped carrots.
- Add the saffron.
- Stir again to make sure everything is well mixed. Put a lid on the casserole dish and place it in the preheated oven for one hour (go straight to the next step if using up leftover cooked meat).
- Once the first hour is up, take the casserole from the oven, add half the flaked almonds, apricots and dates, and the preserved lemons. Put back into the oven and cook for another hour and a half.
- Once the tagine is cooked, take it from the oven and let it sit for 5 minutes. Taste and season with the salt if needed.
- Sprinkle over the parsley, coriander and remaining flaked almonds. Serve with cous cous or rice.
Generously fruity and/or full-flavoured reds can stand toe to toe with the tagine. It goes without saying that you should try Syrah du Maroc 'Tandem', Alain Graillot et Thalvin as a first, ripe yet elegant port of call. Zinfandels work well too, like The Society's California Old-Vine Zinfandel, or Gnarly Head Lodi Old-Vine Zinfandel, with their own hints of spice and plush fruit. Grenache-based wines will also do a good job. Salvaje del Moncayo Garnacha shows plentiful charm and satisfying richness, while Undurraga Cauquenes Estate Grenache does the same from Chile. From its Rhône Valley homeland grenache, in partnership with syrah, will work in the form of Signargues Côtes-du-Rhône Villages, Domaine la Montagnette or Rasteau, Chapoutier, both with a seam of freshness amid the ripe fruit and spice.
If you prefer white, you'll need a bit of richness to stand up to the meatiness and spice of the dish. Viognier, Grignan-les-Adhémar, Domaine de Montine has the body and character to hold its own, chiming with the apricots and spice. Château Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling has a touch of zingy sweetness to marry with the tagine while cutting through the richness. The fine Pinot Gris Réserve, Trimbach has abundant class but also the weight to offer here and, finally, the heady fragrant gewürztraminer grape can work too. Try another Alsace cracker like the spicy Wahlenbourg, Domaine Ginglinger.