Tricky tagines

Whenever I’ve been to Morocco I have eaten an awful lot of tagines.  Tagine for lunch, for dinner and all over again the next day.  Lamb, beef, seafood or chicken, from Tangier to Casablanca to Marrakesh, they were always absolutely, addictively, delicious.  However, combined with the country’s wonderful pancake-like breakfast breads, there was inevitably a lot of lying down required between meals, which rather scuppered any sightseeing.  Not to mention the diet of salad and watery soup needed for at least a month after my return home.  I later read that a tagine (read ONE tagine) should basically be your meal for the day, so no wonder. 

Even so, a traditional tagine is perhaps best saved for a special occasion or when you are really, really hungry.  There are hundreds of different versions (the tagine or tajine earned its name from the pot it is cooked in rather than from a specific recipe), depending on the combination of meat, fruit, nuts and vegetables.  However, most conventional recipes do often call for a lot of spices, such as the famous ras el hanout (worth picking up if you are ever in Morocco).  A traditional tagine also needs a fair amount of time to cook, preferably something like a whole day, emerging all unctuous and gooey, meat slipping off the bone.

This is a good cheat’s version.  It still has those undeniably Moroccan flavours, but it is quicker, lighter and has a relatively short list of ingredients.  So although I may have borrowed my flatmate’s tagine pot for an authentic-looking photo, make no mistake- I bluffed my way through this one.

I am always quite sceptical of a stew that doesn’t rely on at least half of (if not a whole) bottle of wine, but this recipe really doesn’t need it, the sauce is still strong and deep.  I was also pretty delighted to finally find a use for all those preserved lemons.

Chicken Tagine with Olives and Preserved Lemons

You Will Need:

 Olive oil, preferably extra virgin
2 onions, sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Spice- saffron would be preferable (about 1/2 tsp of the powdered stuff) but if that is too expensive (and it is), try some paprika.  Also ground ginger (1.5 tsp), salt and pepper.
Chicken pieces on the bone (thighs, legs, wings as you prefer)- about 750g-1kg
Juice of 1/2 lemon
A bunch of coriander
A bunch of parsley (flat leaved)
1 Preserved lemon
15 green olives


 1.  Get out your very largest cooking pot.  Heat up about 3 tbsp of the oil and then add the onion.  Sauté until softened, before adding the spices and garlic. 

2.  Add the chicken pieces, a large pinch of salt and a good grind of black pepper.  Continue to fry over a medium heat, until the chicken has got some colour.  In traditional tagines the meat is not usually browned, but I feel for this one it both adds flavour and speeds up the cooking process.

3.  Pour about 400ml of water into the pot and leave to simmer, turning the pieces of chicken every so often when you remember.  It should take about half an hour to cook, and for the water to turn into a thick, stocky sauce. 

4.  While it is bubbling away, prepare the preserved lemon.  For this recipe, I only used the peel, sliced thinly, and discarded the pulpy flesh.   Stir this, along with the lemon juice, chopped coriander and parsley into the sauce. Finally add the olives and leave the stew to simmer for a further 5-10 minutes. 

5.  At any stage of the cooking process, you can add more water to the sauce if you feel it is going to be too dry or thick.  Alternatively, if you feel it is too liquidy, remove the chicken pieces at the end of the cooking process and put to one side while you let the sauce reduce over a higher heat.  

6.  Return the chicken to the pot and serve with, couscous, naturally. 

A penny pinching soup.

I found an aubergine at the back of the fridge yesterday and was happy to discover upon further investigation that although a bit bruised, it was still good.  Which meant that I had to use it up and pronto.  So I did what I always do with aubergines and threw it in the oven with some sea salt, olive oil and pepper.  This soup is what happened next.

Now, I recognise that this is perhaps not the most inciting introduction to ever have proceeded a recipe, but this post is not concerned with inspiring you to take up the spatula.  This is about using what you have to hand, waste not want not and frugality.  This is my homage to the toast sandwich.  Except, you know, tasty despite being a bit austere.

Be warned, it’s quite actually quite rich and filling (so far, so appropriately 1950’s).  It makes a good dinner with a bit of crusty bread or a filling lunch on its own.

Aubergine and Lemon Soup

You will need:
1 Aubergine
1 large white onion
3-4 cloves of garlic
chicken stock
cream or creme fraiche
zest and juice of 1 lemon


1.  Start by putting the aubergine and garlic cloves (unpeeled) in an oven at about 180 degrees.  You want to make sure you get some burnt, crispy bits on the aubergine.  It should take about half an hour for this to occur and for the inside to go really soft and squishy.  If you have a gas hob, you can cook it directly on this.

2.  Meanwhile, fry the onions over a medium heat until transparent, adding the seasoning.  Go steady on the salt as you will be adding stock, which is of course quite salty as it is.

3.  Once cooked, add the aubergines to the pan and slip the garlic cloves out of their skins and add them as well..  Then puree the lot till you have a thick paste.

4. Add stock, about 500 ml, and bring to a simmer.

5.  Take the soup off the heat and add the creme fraiche and lemon zest and juice.  You can adjust with more stock if you feel it is too thick.

6.  Serve with a scattering of coriander and lemon peel as a garnish.  You can also make a garlic cream to stir into the soup (for a rebellious, anti-austerity treat) by roasting more garlic and mixing this with creme fraiche.  Feta crumbled into it would also be fit as.

Ladies who brunch

Lazy Saturday brunch with friends.  Papers, coffee, juice, cereals and ricotta and spelt pancakes with blackberry and apple compote.  Pretty good.

Lemon and Ricotta Spelt Pancakes with Apple and Blackberry Compote. 
You will Need

    225g Ricotta

      125ml Semi-skimmed milk

         2 Large eggs, separated

          80g Spelt flour

            1 tsp Baking powder

             2 tsp Lemon zest, finely grated

              1 tbsp syrup, golden will do, but maple is best

                2 tsp Sunflower oil

                  Blackberries, 1 small punnet

                    3 Apples, sliced

                      200g sugar

                        100g butter


                             1. For the compote,  ‘fry’ the sugar in the butter over a high heat, until it begins to caramelise.  Then add the fruits and leave to bubble away until soft and caramelised, stirring occasionally. 

                            2. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, milk and egg yolks. Stir in the flour and baking powder and keep stirring until you have a batter
                            3.  In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy and stiff and fold them into the first bowl. Add the lemon zest and agave or maple syrup and stir gently.  

                              4. In a large frying pan, heat the oil, and drop in small dollops of batter, about the size of a large chocolate coin. Cook the pancakes for about 1–2 minutes on each side; you want them to be a honeyed brown.  Keep them warm in a low temperature oven till ready to serve.  

                                Incredible Okra

                                I often lament the lack of proper places to go food shopping in my area (near Roman Road Market in the East End).  I’d love to have one really decent fruit and veg shop nearby, where the goods haven’t been stacked on the pavement gathering dust for weeks.  Or even a larger supermarket, just for convenience.  We do have a Ginger Pig butcher’s in Victoria Park village, which is great for a special occasion, as is the posh fruiterers, quaint deli and yummy mummy bakery… but what I really need is something more basic (and cheap) for my day-to-day needs.  A place where I can get stuff to make lunch with.  Some leaves, a couple of tomatoes and a bit of soft cheese for when I can’t be arsed to make anything else.  A loaf.  You know? 
                                What we do have in abundance, however, is the exotic and unusual.  Ingredients that are quotidien to many in this area, but quite difficult to find in other parts of the country or even in other parts of London.  For example, it’s a cinch, a mere two minute hop and skip, to find tapioca flour, a bottle of ayran, strands of saffron, bunches of plantain, mustard seeds (very useful for pickles and preserves- see my upcoming preserved lemons post), dragonfruit, custard apples, wholewheat bulgur, ghee and absolutely any spice under the planet.  Which, if you like to cook, means that a culinary adventure can be found, quite literally, just around the corner.    
                                Something I’ve been experimenting with a bit is okra.  I ate it for the first time in the beginning of the year at a curry place on Tower Bridge Road with my friend Kate.  It’s delicious and can be prepared, in my view,  in two basic ways- healthily (stewed, baked or lightly sautéed) or unhealthily (deep fried in a light and crispy batter a la Deep South… amazing).  I’ve been experimenting with the healthy version, by chopping it up and stewing it with a tomato-based, spicy sauce (see below for a recipe), but I’m sure there must be countless other ways too.  The okra lends itself very well to sauces, as it gives off this creamy, sticky goo once you chop it up and goes slightly glutinous, thickening the sauce.  Sorry, that probably didn’t sound very appetising, but I can assure you, it is delicious.  
                                Spicy Tomato Okra
                                Simple Spicy Stewed Okra
                                You will need:
                                okra- two handfuls, or a pack from your supermarket (Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s both stock okra)
                                1 onion, chopped finely
                                2 garlic cloves, mashed
                                1 tin chopped tomatoes (or 300ml veg stock and 3 chopped plum tomatoes)
                                fresh coriander
                                1 tsp chili powder
                                1 tsp coriander seeds
                                salt, pepper
                                olive oil
                                lime juice
                                to serve: rice and lime yoghurt (Greek yoghurt with some lime zest grated in plus a squeeze of juice)
                                1. First, ‘burn’ the spices.  This is how you will get most of the flavour for the dish.  Heat your oil until it is really, really hot (be careful).  Add your onion and garlic, chili powder, coriander seeds, salt and pepper.  Turn down the heat immediately, but keep an eye on it, stirring constantly while letting the spices combine and begin to catch, giving off a strong, smoky smell. 
                                2. Chop up your okra into pieces and add this to the spice mixture, stir until completely coated in the spices.
                                3. Add the chopped tomato and about 100 ml of water, leave to stew for 15-20 minutes until suitably saucy. 
                                4. Serve with chopped coriander, rice and a squeeze of lime or the lime yoghurt.
                                Another quick and simple way to cook okra is to roast it in the oven.  Simply rinse and pat dry your okra before tossing in olive oil and roasting in a hot oven for about 10-15 minutes until tender in the middle and beginning to crisp up on the outside.  Meanwhile, grate the zest of one lemon and some about 3 tablespoons Parmesan and mix with salt and pepper.  When the okra comes out of the oven, coat it with the lemon and cheese mixture.  Makes for a gorgeous starter or a fit accompaniment to fish. 

                                Those pickles and preserves- things for jars.

                                I’ve blogged before about chili jam, which is a bit of a favourite at maison alwayssohungry. It is a brilliant chutney to make as it ticks so many pickle boxes: you can have it with any cheese or meat BUT but but… because of its heat, it also works really rather well in spicier dishes.  It livens up a stir-fry, can act as a marinade for chicken or fish when mixed with soy sauce and rice wine vinegar and I often dilute it with some water and sesame oil to make a light but scrumptious salad dressing.  And it just sings as an accompaniment to sausages.  I use the salad club’s recipe and double it.  But double doesn’t last very long. 

                                The only issue with this gorgeous glop is it totally stinks up the house.  I think it’s partly the fish sauce.  Let’s face it, the stuff smells like feet.  Then there’s the chili, which gets right at the back of your throat, particularly when you are blending the jam together at the start of the cooking process.  I stumbled upon a solution the other day when I was idly watching everyone’s guilty favourite, Come Dine With Me.  One of the contestants was blending soup with a stick blender straight in the pan, as I often do too.  The problem with this is that you get splashes of hot liquid all over your clothes, in your face, eyes (not great when you are dealing with 20 odd chillies), hair and kitchen.  I normally just roll with it and pretend it isn’t happening.  This is obviously a pretty stupid method. However, the CDWM contestant had cleverly covered his pot with cling film and made a hole in it to accommodate the blender, sparing any splash attacks.  So simple, so clever!  The CDWM commentator made a typically sarky remark at this technique, which was characteristically unnecessary and a bit cruel.  That commentator can be the best thing about the programme, but he does irk me sometimes.

                                In any case, this solved part of the problem but I still had to put up with the stink in the kitchen, made worse because I couldn’t escape due to my self-imposed deadline to make 4 preserves in one weekend.  I should obviously have done the chili jam last, rather than first.  We live and learn.
                                So, half-blind and choking, I proceeded to make quince jelly as the chili jam bubbled away.  The jelly is not dissimilar to quince cheese, perhaps just slightly less firm and put into a jar rather than a tray mold.  It of course works absolutely brilliantly with cheese, but I find it can also work very well with pâtés and rich meat dishes, in particular game.  Quinces are in season during the autumn, my local corner shop is currently selling them at the bargain price of 2 for £1.  But the season is short, so if you see them, don’t hesitate.   This was the first time I attempted quince jelly and with mixed success.  I feel it is much too sweet, so I have adjusted the recipe below accordingly.  I would also heartily recommend that you source some muslin (making sure you get the stuff that’s food-friendly, rather than something that has been treated with chemicals for DIY purposes) to use for sieving the quince pulp.  Here’s what I did:

                                Quince Jelly

                                You will need:

                                1.5kg quinces (about 5 large ones)
                                Approx 2l water
                                100g sugar to every 200ml quince juice (approx 400-600g depending on how juicy your quinces are and your patience, more on which later)
                                Remove any stems and cut off any bruised bits before coring and quartering the quinces, leaving the skins on.
                                Put the quince in a large pan and fill with enough water to cover all the fruit, bring to boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and leave for about 45min, until quinces are really soft and almost as if they are about to dissolve.

                                Take the pan off the heat and mash the quince and water mixture with a masher.  You want something that’s the consistency of runny jam or applesauce, so you will most likely have to add quite a lot of additional water.

                                Strain the mashed up pulp into a separate bowl, either through muslin or by using a fine mesh sieve.  Either way, this will take the patience of a saint, especially if you have to stir the pulp through the sieve, rather than just leave it to slowly drip through the muslin.  You will find out pretty quickly if you’ve not added enough water, i.e. if nothing happens.

                                You then need to measure the amount of juice you have, before pouring it all back into your pan and adding the sugar, 100g sugar per 200ml juice.  Bring the sugary juice to a boil, stirring constantly to make sure the sugar has dissolved and doesn’t burn at the bottom of your pan.

                                Bring the heat down to a simmer, skimming off any foam that bubbles to the top with a slotted spoon.  The mixture should now slowly begin to change from the colour of cloudy apple juice to a deeper amber.   The consistency will also start to change, gradually thickening.  The best way to check if the jelly (or any jam for that matter) is done is to put a small dollop onto a saucer.  Leave this to cool, then ‘push’ it with your fingertip across the plate.  If it wrinkles and shoves up, your jam is done, but if it is still runny, it needs more time.  Decant into sterilised jars and leave to cool.
                                Next up, a red onion marmalade.  This is one of my favourite pickles, again because of its versatility but also because it reminds me of so many things that I love about Scandinavian food at this time of year.  It has the evocative sweet and sour flavour from the vinegar and sugar combo used in lots of Swedish preserves and the thyme and mustard seeds lend a really deep earthy flavour.  This is wonderful with a crumbly goats cheese on rye bread or with a pâté. 
                                Red Onion Marmalade
                                You will need
                                1kg red onions
                                4 large garlic cloves
                                olive oil
                                2 tsp black mustard seeds
                                3 sprigs of thyme
                                1/2 tsp salt and pepper
                                75 g muscovado sugar
                                1.5 tsp black treacle
                                5 tbsp red wine vinegar
                                1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
                                75mul white wine
                                Butter (optional)
                                First, slice your onions, using the old wives’ tale of your choice to avoid tears.  My favourite is to suck on a spoon or light a candle near your chopping board.  Or both at the same time?  Cut the onions in half and then slice each half into thin half-circles.  Heat about 4 glugs of olive oil in a large pan, add the onions and crushed garlic along with the mustard seeds and thyme.  Season with salt and pepper.  
                                Cook the onions uncovered over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until they have reduced and are beginning to caramelise (about 20-30 min).  Make sure they don’t catch on the bottom of the pan (lower the heat if this starts to happen).
                                Stir in the muscovado, treacle, vinegars and white wine.  Leave to bubble away for another 20 min or so, until the liquids are just absorbed and the mixture is caramelised- but not dry.  Remove the thyme sprigs and add a knob of butter, if desired.  Decant into sterilised jars while the mixture is still hot.  Leave to cool and sore for up to 2 months.

                                Lemons are another brilliant fruit to preserve.  You can easily do this at home so don’t buy an expensive jar that will just sit at the back of your cupboard for months.  If you preserve your own lemons and watch them slowly mature and soften in their acidic juice over the course of a month, you will be counting down the days until they are ready for tasting and using, as I am now.   By the time they are done you will have come up with all sorts of delicious uses for them.  They are, of course, traditionally associated with Moroccan food, and do work beautifully in tagines, couscous and the like.  However, you can also blend the skins with creme fraiche or greek yoghurt before adding chopped mint or parsley to make a dip or sauce for fish.  They are wonderful when added as wedges for the last 20 min or so roast spuds.  Or stuffed into the cavity or under the skin of a chicken that’s been rubbed with paprika before heading into the oven.  They are also wonderful chopped up with vegetables and pulses such as chickpeas, okra, aubergine, courgettes… the list goes on.  Once mine are ready I’d also like to experiment with adding them to lamb, perhaps in a marinade of some kind.

                                Preserved Lemons
                                You will need
                                Lemons (UNWAXED), plus more for juicing. 
                                Coarse sea or kosher salt
                                Bay leafs
                                This is super easy.  Wash and scrub your lemons good and proper.  Cut off any stems or tips, so that they can sit upright.  Quarter each lemon lengthways almost all the way through, so they are still whole and joined at their bottoms. 
                                Stuff each lemon generously with plenty of sea salt (make sure you don’t have any cuts or grazes on your fingers or this will be really painful!).  Put each salt-stuffed lemon in a large sterilised jar, really squishing them in as much as possible.  Even when you think you can’t fit another lemon in the jar, try to anyway.  You’ll need to give them a little push or a shove every so often for the first few days, to release more juices.   You will most likely need to add some additional lemon juice to get things going.   Also add some peppercorns and bay leaves for additional flavour.  Star anise also works well. 
                                After a few days the jar should be full of juice, but if not, add some more and do a bit more squashing.  Turn the jar every few days to distribute the flavour.  Leave them to preserve for a month before using.

                                 A note on sterilising glass jars.

                                There are several ways to do this.
                                The simplest way by far is if you have a dishwasher, in which case you simply run them through it on a short cycle.   I don’t have one of those fancy machines.  So, I alternate between one of the following methods- either putting the jars in a large pan of water on top of a steaming rack (so they don’t touch the bottom of the pan), and bring the water to a boil for 10 minutes. Or sometimes I put clean, dry jars sans lids, in a 120 degree C oven for about 15 minutes.  With all of these methods, however, you do run the risk of cracking the jars if they get too hot.  It is worth bearing in mind how thick your glass jars are and when in doubt, let things cool down a little. 

                                Keep all your preserves in a cool, dry place and once opened store in the fridge.  All of the recipes above will last for a few months.