There are a couple of spice mixes that I am really into right now; Za’atar, a middle Eastern sumac based spice mix and the Moroccan essential ras el hanout. Well, I say right now. The love in has been going on for at least a year, and shows no sign of abating yet. I use za’atar in just about anything you can think of, from salad dressings to hummus, to cheese on toast, in a marinade for meat or a coating for roasting veggies. Try it, you’ll notice the possibilities are endless. But it is at this time of year that, for me at least, the warming, fragrant ras el hanout comes into its own.
Ras el hanout or “top of shop” blends vary according to the recipe being used, but are essentially a mix of between 20 to 100 of the traditionally more expensive spices including fennel, turmeric, rose, lavender, cardamom, cinnamon, peppers and allspice. Think of it as the garam masala of North African cuisine; it has a very similar role, underpining a vast array of dishes. One of my favourite uses for it is as a quick cheat in the gorgeous soup harira. This flavourful soup is one of the traditional ways to break the fast of Ramadan in Morocco or as part of the light meal eaten before sunrise. It’s ingredients, although varied usually include tomatoes, lentils, chick peas, ginger, onion, pepper and cinnamon. If you’ve never tried it a fabulous recipe can be found here and I’d urge you to give it a go as soon as possible. Preferably for a lunch on a cold day although the freshness of the flavours will see you through any season easily. It’s great, but for tonight’s dinner I didn’t fancy soup. And to be honest, there are only so many times a month you can serve up soup to a family with 5 males in it; for some inexplicable reason, no matter whatever goes into it, you can’t make them agree that it constitutes a ‘real’ meal. Sigh. So today I thought I’d make a more filling tagine based on the flavours of harira. Turns out it was a fantastic idea and one I’ll definitely be repeating. A delicious meat free Monday (and vegan too, bonus!) feast.
But a quick word before I start the recipe; if you’re unlucky enough not to be able to source either of these two flavoursome mixes, you can make them yourself using these recipes: za’atar and ras el hanout. I would also add that, although I’ve used a traditional Tagine cooking pot, there is nothing to stop you doing the whole thing in a good quality cast iron saucepan or Dutch oven, just keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t dry out during cooking.
Lentil and Chick Pea Tagine
4 onions, cut in half and each half cut into wedges (approx 3 per half)
1 red chilli
4 sticks of celery
3 fat cloves of garlic
1 tsp of turmeric
3 tsps Ras el Hanout spice mix
2 tbsps tomato puree
1 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
200g green lentils (rinsed and picked over)
1 400g tin of chick peas
A handful of cherry tomatoes (if you have them)
Water/ vegetable stock
Juice of one to two lemons (to taste)
Salt and pepper
Start off by crushing your garlic and leaving to one side, then start to soften the onions, celery, carrot and chilli over a low heat. If you are using your tagine for this stage, refer to your manufacturer’s instructions, depending on which type of hob you have. You will undoubtedly need a heat diffuser. I prefer to soften my vegetables in a cast iron frying pan, and then transfer them to my tagine. If you are not softening the vegetables in your tagine, then you will need to place it in a cold oven, then preheat the oven to around 160 deg. C with the tagine still in it. This should prevent major cracking. It is usual for smaller, hairline cracks to appear, but these are normal, and shouldn’t compromise the integrity of the base.
When the onion is almost translucent, after around 15 minutes, throw in the garlic, tomato puree and the spices and allow to cook for a couple of minutes.
If you have been using a pan, now is the time to transfer the veg to the preheated tagine, only do not remove it from the oven and place it onto a cold surface; this will also result in cracking. Find somewhere slightly warmer and you’ll be fine.
Stir in the chick peas, lentils, cherry tomatoes and tin of tomatoes, then refill the tomato tin with hot water or better still vegetable stock and add that to the mix as well. Remember, the special conical shape of the tagine will result in very little water being lost during the cooking process, so don’t go overboard. Do not season at this stage, as salt can toughen up the skin of the lentils and add an age to your cooking time. Gently stir to incorporate everything, then put the lid back on and close the oven. Let it work its magic for around 2 hours, then carefully remove your tagine (again, not onto a cold surface). Stir in the freshly squeezed lemon juice, check the seasoning then sprinkle the top generously with fresh chopped coriander or parsley, and place on the table for all to admire.
I like to serve my tagines simply with couscous, or if I’ve got the time, some perfectly fresh homemade flatbreads but I’m sure there wouldn’t be much wrong with a lovely, crusty bread side either. Enjoy!