Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stew for Thousand and One Nights

Ṭājin Qamama
Smothered Lamb Stew
Ṭawājin, the plural of ṭājin or tagine, are a category of Moroccan-style dry stews similar to what the French call etouffée (which actually means “smothered”) or etuvé, a slow braise with very little liquid. A ṭājin is also the name of the shallow handle-less earthenware cooking vessel with its cone-shaped earthenware cover in which the eponymous preparation is made. The Arabic word ṭājin derives from the Greek teganon, meaning a frying pan. Among the tagines are several variations: qidras are tagines made with samna (clarified butter) or fresh butter cooked in an earthenware marmite with lots of chopped onions until they are a purée. The seasoning might include black pepper and saffron. Dishes cooked in olive oil can be known as miqlāya or muqawly.
A tagine can be made with a variety of ingredients. The Berbers make tagines also, such as tqellia, made with tripe; lmorozia, made with meat and eaten with honey; nnhorfez, made with turnips cooked in oil; bestila, chicken cooked with saffron; and gobber dahro, made with carrots cooked in water and prepared with flour.
Rafih Benjelloun, a Moroccan-American chef from Atlanta, tells me that tagines are special preparations shared with neighbors in Morocco, a tradition that still persists. Khaled Lattif, who is from Casablanca, told me that a tagine is best when covered and cooked over very low heat for many hours without ever peeking under the cover.
The tagines called qamama are said to be those made with lamb and onions. Qamama is an old Arabic word used in the Thousand and One Nights to mean a particular kind of lamb preparation. A man brought a lamb to be butchered and had given it to a naqib (an honorific title). He cooked it by making qamama, which seems to be a process of wrapping the lamb, or perhaps it meant to smother the lamb. In any case, the method was also known in medieval Arab Andalusia because the Morocco-based historian al-Maqqarī ( c. 1591-1632) describes this lamb dish in Córdoba. (Although al-Maqqarī was writing in the seventeenth century, scholars generally recognize him as being reliable for details of the earlier period of Islamic Spain).
This recipe is typical of the rich tagines that would be served as part of a banquet and, as in all of the Arab world, would traditionally be eaten with small morsels of bread to convey the food to the mouth. The enormous amount of sugar in the recipe harks back to a medieval time when sugar was thought of as a spice.
3 pounds lamb shoulder on the bone, trimmed of excessive fat
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions (about 2 pounds), grated or finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup sugar
2 pinches of saffron threads, lightly toasted and finely crumbled or powdered in a mortar with a little salt
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup water
1 cup golden raisins
1. Place the lamb in a tagine, enameled cast-iron casserole, Dutch oven, or earthenware casserole with a cover along with the olive oil, onions, garlic, ginger, ¼ teaspoon of the cinnamon, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the saffron, salt, pepper, and water. Toss so all the pieces of meat are coated, then bring to a boil on a burner over medium-high heat, using a heat diffuser if using an earthenware casserole or tagine. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and simmer until the meat is tender, about 2 hours. Remove the meat from the sauce and set aside.
2. Increase the heat to medium-low, add the raisins to the casserole and continue cooking until the sauce is thick and unctuous, about 45 minutes. Tilt the casserole and spoon out any fat that has collected. Remove the sauce from the casserole to a measuring cup or mixing bowl.
3. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
4. Return the meat to the casserole and arrange on the bottom. Cover with the sauce, sprinkle with the remaining 6 tablespoons sugar and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon. Place in the oven until the lamb is falling off the bone and very tender, about 1 hour. Serve hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings

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