Lately Moroccan style tagines—cooking pots with conical lids—are everywhere. Emile Henry has cherry red and saffron yellow glazed clay tagines that can be put directly on a low gas flame (like Moroccans, Burgundians know a thing or two about clay). Le Creuset has cobalt blue and kiwi green tagines with ceramic tops and heavy cast iron bases, and All Clad has one with a white ceramic top and a stainless steel base. All of these are sleek and chic, but lack a certain je ne sais quoi—that is, the warmth of a real handmade cooking pot.
My own tagine has imperfections—a rough spot here, a tiny round dent there–but it is the pot that consistently gives me the most pleasure. It has a deep richly burnished terracotta hue and a creamy band around the middle embellished with black Arabesque swirls. I smile whenever I see it: The conical lid has a fat, bulbous knob and a jaunty tilt near the edge, and it fits snugly into a round low-slung bottom. In a Disney movie, this pot would swoop through the air like a magic carpet, or maybe just dance a few steps on the kitchen counter.
The tagine is also a practical workhorse, a perfect example of efficient one-pot cooking. All your ingredients—meat, chicken or fish, vegetables or fruit, and a wealth of spices–are layered in the bottom, then covered with the lid and cooked very slowly over a low flame. The shape of the lid draws the aromatic steam upwards and traps it so that it continuously bastes the food as it cooks. In the bottom, all the ingredients simmer gently, absorbing each other’s flavors, becoming richer and more delicious with each passing moment. When you lift the lid after a couple of hours, the fragrance is intoxicating.
But alas. All is not well in the world of tagines. In November 2005, Health Canada, a government agency that oversees health concerns, warned of lead oxides in the glaze of some Moroccan tagines it tested. (Ultimately it rounded up and disposed of 1,500 in the Montreal area.) Improperly fired lead glazes can cause lead to leach into food and drink, especially if acidic ingredients such as lemons and tomatoes are used.
Although the USFDA requires lead-glazed ceramics to be labled “not for food use,” lead-leaching cookware and tableware does turn up in this country. If you are concerned about any item in your home, you can perform a simple test with LeadCheck Swabs (the tips turn bright pink if lead is present) available at www.leadcheck.com.
One source for “cookable” tagines with lead- and cadmium-free glazes is Le Souk Ceramique in Edmonton, Washington. Made in Tunisia of heat resistant clay, they can be used over low heat on both gas and electric stoves and in the oven up to 350 degrees. These earthenware tagines, which come in natural terracotta with a clear glaze and also in cobalt blue, can be found at www.amazon.com along with those made by Emile Henry, Le Creuset and All-Clad.
If you buy a clay tagine, be sure to follow recommendations for curing before using it the first time: Submerge it in water for at least one hour, then rub the inside of the base and the lid with olive oil. Place them in a cold oven, turn the temperature to 350 degrees and leave for one and a half hours. Always wash by hand, never in the dishwasher.