Updated: Apr 4, 2022
¡Hola! I’m Dr. Bonnie Gasior. The Professor with a Passport series is inspired by my love of teaching, learning, travel, and food! Pennsylvania born and raised, I’m a California transplant (since 2001) who self-describes as an educator, gardener, foodie, environmentalist, oenophile, cinephile, linguaphile, cyclist, and writer, as well as a believer in empathy, reframing, and doing the right thing. “Come relive my travel experiences with me and recreate the food that made them memorable!”
As a scholar of early modern (16th-17th c.) Hispanic literature—think Don Quixote, the one with the windmills—I have an undeniable fascination with and deep respect for North Africa’s cultural and historical intersections with neighboring Spain, which often manifest in the texts I teach. Geographically, only 8 or so miles of water (the Strait of Gibraltar) separate Tangiers (Morocco) and Tarifa (Spain), the northern and southernmost ports, respectively. Did you know that Spain was under Moorish rule for a period of almost 800 years (711-1492)? Indeed, Columbus’ maiden voyage and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain was not a historical coincidence, as they were both consequences of Spanish unification and imperialist activity. Sorry, folks: apparently, you can take the professor out of the classroom but not the classroom out of the professor! Bear with me; I’ll get to the food!
The Moorish influence in Spain is most palpable in the southernmost autonomous region in the country, “Al-Andalus” or Andalusia. Moorish remnants and influences abound in its architecture, the Spanish language (from the Arabic), and of course, the cuisine. Andalusian food leans “moorishly,” relying heavily on ingredients like almonds, dates, apricots, and eggplant, as well as spices like saffron and cinnamon. One of my personal favorite Muslim-world-inspired dishes from Andalucía, as we call it in Spanish, is salmorejo, a variation of the cold tomato soup, gazpacho. At once vibrant, comforting and refreshing, salmorejo is Spain in summer in a bowl. Perhaps Carol of Moon will invite me back in August to tell you more about it!
In the summer of 2003, my student-turned-friend, Zainab, casually invited me to Rabat, Morocco, (about 3 hours flight time from Madrid, plus a two-hour train ride from Casablanca) to stay at her house for a few days. While I assumed I would surely have other chances to visit Morocco, I also knew this was a golden opportunity. When else would I be able to stay with a Moroccan family; enjoy authentic, home-cooked Moroccan food; engage more fully with Moroccan people; and enjoy such multi-lingual richness (Spanish/Frech/Arabic/Berber), all under one roof? I confirmed with a question: “Can you pick me up at the train station?”
Morocco is a sensual banquet for the senses: the smell of jasmine and rosewater wafting through the air, sweet mint tea that tickles the tastebuds, the morning call to prayer that, for a Westerner, is somewhere between comforting and haunting. So, of course, I knew the food would be memorable. In Morocco, certain meals can take all day to cook, and that patience and effort shines through when it hits your plate/palate. The tagine is one of them.
A quick Google search succinctly defines the iconic tagine: “a North African stew of spiced meat and vegetables prepared by slow cooking in a shallow earthenware cooking dish with a tall, conical lid.” Nevertheless, that description doesn’t convey the magic and poetry that the dish—a tagine is both the cooking/serving vessel and what you cook in it—embodies. At once savory and sweet, each bite has just a slightly different yet familiar taste profile than the previous mouthful. While you’ll probably use a fork, if you are in Morocco, you will enjoy it with khobz, a fluffy, round bread, using your right hand.
A tagine’s delectability is directly proportional to its versatility. Your protein can be anything hearty, like lamb, chicken, or salmon. And vegans, fear not! You can certainly omit the animal protein (tofu, extra firm, is not a traditional ingredient, but you could try it!). I promise you won’t be left hungry, thanks to the mélange of fiber- and carbohydrate-rich, satiating vegetables, dried fruits and nuts it calls for. The secret ingredient, however, is unassuming: a blend of spices, including coriander, ginger, fenugreek, cloves, and turmeric, called “ras el hanout.” Ras el hanout is the lifeblood of the tagine. It is to tagine what cayenne pepper is to Southwestern cuisine. Speaking of pepper, you’ll also need some harissa (paste), which
will give the tagine a little (or a lot) of kick, depending on your preference.
Two quick tagine sidenotes:
1. If you buy a terracotta tagine, keep in mind that you will need to season it by soaking it in water overnight and then baking it for a few hours. This will prevent cracking. If you use your cooktop (your oven also works, but I think stove is best), you will also need a diffuser.
2. Cast iron tagines are good alternatives (I speak from experience). After lamentably cracking two clay bases and knowing I couldn’t bear to see another perish on my watch. I bought this, though I do still use my clay lid (see picture):
Whatever you decide on, buy one that serves, at minimum, four people. Even if you live alone, you’ll celebrate the leftovers!
My recipe for tagine is one I’ve culled from a dozen different recipes over the years. I describe myself as a “plant-forward pescatarian”, so I typically go vegetarian or choose salmon, though any meaty fish performs well. The tagine contains everything you want in a meal—protein, fats, carbs—so it needs little to no accompaniment. However, I typically prepare a ghee and cinnamon-infused couscous or quinoa, and cucumbers with lime, salt, and dill for gustatory balance.
*I highly recommend prepping all vegetables beforehand. Cutting all the vegetables into long “sticks” 3-4” long so you can make a teepee around your protein.
** I also recommend serving the tagine from the vessel. You can’t beat the reveal at the table. Just make sure to use a trivet to prevent scorching.
1 large onion
1 small lemon
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp. olive oil or ghee (1 for onions, 2 for paste)
2 cans diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
¼ cup dried plums (8-10)
¼ cup dried apricots (10-12)
1/8 cup blanched almonds (you can also use whole, raw almonds)
1 tbsp. orange blossom water (optional)
Protein of choice
Root vegetables of choice (carrots, pepper, fresh green beans, eggplant, squash)
Baby potatoes (8, halved) or 1 yam, cubed
½ can fresh or frozen peas
½ can garbanzo beans
1 cinnamon stick (you can also add ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon)
¼ cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
3 tbsp. ras el hanout
1 tsp harissa (minimum)
Pinch of saffron (optional)
Start by cooking the onion and garlic in 1 tbsp of olive oil in a pan. Sautee until they start to turn brown. Line the base of the tagine with these cooked onions. Top them with two cans of diced tomatoes and the bay leaf.
Next, sauté a handful of dried plums and/or dried apricots in orange blossom water (I use the same pan I sautéed the onions in). In a separate small pan, also roast the almonds. Set aside for a moment.
Place your protein in the middle of your tagine and create that teepee around the protein. Next, add baby potatoes/yams, peas, garbanzo beans, cinnamon stick and both the prunes and apricots. Add broth to the tagine.
In a small bowl, mix the ras el hanout (3T), harissa, and a pinch of saffron to the olive oil and some water to make a watery paste. Then drizzle it over everything. Set the tagine on low heat for about two hours. You will want to check on it periodically (every 25-30 minutes) and spoon the liquid over the vegetables not submerged.
Garnish with lemons, toasted almonds and fresh parsley sprigs just before serving.
A Moroccan tagine is delightful on a cold fall or winter day. Ideal for dinner parties, the presentation will stun the eyes and enchant the nose. People will gasp and stare and as if you were revealing to them a secret, coveted treasure. They’ll use phrases like “that smells amazing!” and “it looks too beautiful to eat.” Yemeni poet Abdullah Settef Al-Humaydi was spot on when he said, “Our brains are in awe of it.” And then before you know it, your guests will go back for seconds. Trust me. I’ve even had a few threepeats, who are always profusely apologetic, which I find charming and flattering.
Each time I prepare a tagine, I hark back to nearly twenty years ago and symbolically pay homage to the family and country that welcomed me so warmly. Similarly, every time someone asks about buying a tagine cooker or asks for my recipe, I feel like an ambassador. And if you’re wondering about Zainab, yes, we are still in touch. In fact, she will be visiting California from Maryland where she now lives, in April.
If you decide to make one, leave me a note or drop me a line on Facebook and tell me about your experience making, eating, and serving it!