Sunday, June 06, 2010

Argan oil lover's Moroccan tagine of lamb and prunes

I've been to Morocco, and I can tell you that along the southern coast near Agadir there are packs of goats who spend their days climbing into argan trees and nibbling the fruit they find amongst the branches.
These goats know a good thing. Argan oil, pressed from the fruit of the argan tree, is a staple of traditional Moroccan cooking. I've experienced argan oil in Morocco and will always remember the nutty smell because bare-breasted Berber women slathered it all over my naked body in the hammam baths when I stayed near Agadir while on a yoga retreat.
I'm glad I enjoyed the oil's richness then, because here in New York City a tiny 8-ounce bottle of the stuff costs about $35, and the only place I know where you are certain to find argan oil here is at Kalustyan's.

I love Kalustyan's. For a dinner party I gave this weekend, I was almost happy to pay that crazy-expensive price for a tiny bottle of the precious oil because it gave me an excuse to go to this specialty foods shop at 123 Lexington Ave., where I splurged on not just argan oil but orange blossom water, preserved lemons, cumin seed, cinnamon sticks, saffron and the spice mix called ras el hanout.
Dinner was lush, with little thanks to me. The thanks go to Kalustyan's, the herbs I found at my local produce market and the Cafe Morocco cookbook by Anissa Helou, who has become my new friend in the kitchen. With her comprehensive recipes and the flavor profiles she sets forth, I have begun to understand the complexity and aromatic tastes of Moroccan cuisine.

Here, then, is the tagine I cooked this weekend, taken from Cafe Morocco. Although the recipe calls for the cheaper and more available olive oil, I used argan oil, which has properties similar to olive oil.

Tagine of Lamb with Prunes (Tajen Lham bel Barquq)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or argan oil)
2 and 1/4 pounds boneless neck or leg of lamb, cut into big chunks
1 medium-sized onion
2 bunches cilantro, tied together
1 cinnamon stick
pinch of saffron filaments, crushed
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
sea salt and finely ground black pepper
2 cups prunes, pitted
3-5 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted

1) Put the oil, lamb chunks, peeled onion, cilantro and cinnamon stick into a wide Dutch oven. Add the saffron, ginger, a little salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cover with 3 and 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil, then cover and let boil for 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the meat is tender and the cooking broth has become very concentrated.

2) Remove the cinnamon stick and the cilantro. Turn the meat in the sauce, and add the prunes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for a further 15 minutes. Stir occasionally, and add a little water if you think the tagine is becoing too dry. If the sauce is too runny, increase the heat to high and boil uncovered until reduced.

3) Stir in the honey and simmer, still covred, for 10 more minutes. Add the orange blossom water and let the tagine bubble for a minute or two. The sauce should be thick and unctuous, the meat very tender, and the prunes plumped up.

4) Taste and adjust the seasoning, if necessary. Transfer the meat to a serving dish, making sure the prunes are evenly distributed, and pour the sauce over. Sprinkle with the toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.