Friday, April 02, 2010
Potato Tagine with Preserved Lemon and Olives
Potatoes can be many things on the plate. They're undeniably comforting, especially when mashed up with frightening amounts of butter (and a wee bit of buttermilk or cream cheese for just a slight tangy note). They're a nice neutral element to round out a dinner, and, when fried up, make for a great hangover breakfast or latke. Basic, sure. And undeniably thrifty. But I wouldn't generally describe them as exciting. Or at least I wouldn't have, until I tried this tagine.
If you've never made a tagine before, you may be unfamiliar with the delicious mix of flavors in store. Tagine, or tajine, refers to a Morroccan conical-topped clay pot, as well as the traditional braised dishes made therein. But even if you don't have the baking dish (like me), you can easily prepare a tagine in any old heavy pot. Tagines are usually made with meat, although there are vegetarians versions featuring hard-boiled eggs, or these potatoes. The main elements are combined with the warm spices common to North African cooking, and sometimes a bit of dried fruit to boot. This sweet slow braise is then enlivined with bright fresh herbs, or tangy lemons and olives. The resulting dish has a complex layered flavor unlike any other cuisine.
Preserved lemons are the sole ingredient here that might give you a bit of pause. They're sold for ridiculously amounts of money at specialty stores, but can be easily made at home. Regular old lemons are allowed to sit with salt for several weeks, until the texture softens and the taste changes in a way that's difficult to describe. They maintain their citric bite, but the flavor rounds out, becoming almost piney in a way. Beyond that (and the optional North African harissa chili paste for serving), this is essentially a pantry meal. But a pantry meal like none other. Potatoes are cooked up with the usual olive oil, tomato, and onion, but then taken in a surprising direction with saffron, fresh herbs, olives and the preserved lemons. You'll never look at potatoes the same way again.
Potato Tagine with Preserved Lemons and Olives
This recipe also works wonderfully as an elegant make-ahead company dish. Simply transfer to an oven-proof casserole or serving dish at the end, set aside and get your kitchen and self company-ready, and then reheat in a 350 degree oven until hot (~20 minutes, depending on how long it's cooled). I recently made 3x this recipe for a Passover Seder for 18, and it turned out beautifully.
Adapted from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: Recipes for the Passionate Cook. Why haven't you bought this book yet?
2 lbs red potatoes
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, grated coarsely on a box grater and squeezed dry
1/3 cup tomato, grated coarsely on a box grater (I've also subbed slightly smaller amounts of canned tomatoes, or tomato sauce when I'm in a pinch)
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp paprika
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 medium onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 bay leaf
1/4 fresh lemon
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
1 pinch saffron threads, crumbled
2 dozen purple or tan olives (pitted makes eating easier, but unpitted is fine too as long as you warn your dining companions)
1/2 preserved lemon, flesh scraped off and cut in thin slices
harissa (or other chili pastes) for serving (optional but recommended)
Peel the potatoes, and cut into thick slices (~1/2"). Place in a bowl of cold water, and set aside.
In a heavy pot, heat the olives oil over a medium heat. Add the grated onion, and cook until it starts to melt, ~3-5 minutes. Add the tomato, ginger, paprika, cumin and garlic, and cook, stirring, for an additional couple of minutes.
Drain the potatoes, and add to the pot. Add the sliced onion, bay leave, fresh lemon quarter, cilantro and parsley, and saffron. Stir, gently, to mix the ingredients. Add 1 1/2 cups hot water, a hefty pinch of salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat until it's just high enough to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the potatoes are tender, ~40 minutes. Turn very gently once or twice during cooking, being careful not to crush the potatoes.
When potatoes are tender, use a slotted spoon to transfer to a serving dish. Discard the lemon and bay leaf. Add the olives to the remaining cooking liquid, and simmer, uncovered, until the liquid is reduced to a thick sauce. Taste to correct seasonings, pour the sauce over the potatoes, and top with the preserved lemons. Serve with harissa.