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Recipe: Root Vegetable Tagine with Cinnamon, Saffron and Preserved Lemon

This October, soothe your battered spirits with a luscious Moroccan tagine composed of butternut squash, new potatoes, carrots, turnips and mushrooms, simmered with preserved lemon peel and sweet spices.

This October, soothe your battered spirits with a luscious Moroccan tagine
composed of butternut squash, new potatoes, carrots, turnips and mushrooms,
simmered with preserved lemon peel and sweet spices.

I ate lots of delicious food in Santa Fe last summer.

But after some thought, I’ve decided that it wasn’t the braised organic lamb from Aqua Santa, or the succulent pork spareribs with homemade harissa from La Boca that won my heart—or palate.

No, it was the lush Moroccan Vegetable Stew from Harry’s Roadhouse, a laid back eatery on the Old Las Vegas Highway. I’m in good company. Practically everyone else in Santa Fe loves it too.

Basically the dish is a tagine, or slow-simmered North African-inspired stew, of butternut squash, new potatoes and carrots, sprinkled with chickpeas and raisins, cooked in broth scented with cinnamon, saffron and other spices. Like many tagines, it can be adapted for whatever is in season. This night I was there, the cook tossed in a few string beans and a little grated zucchini, bounty of the summer garden.

But, alas, when I tried the recipe in Harry’s cookbook, this heavenly dish fell back to earth with a thud. I consigned the delectable vegetable stew I’d eaten that cool summer evening to memory, golden but tantalizingly out of reach.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m finding October to be a bit gloomy. And I’ve been thinking about that root vegetable tagine. What a soothing way to navigate the fog of the impending election, or the treacherous shoals of our imploding financial system. All those earthy vegetables, all those spices, simmering together in an earthenware pot, perfuming the kitchen with warmth and the sweet fragrance of cinnamon. Better—and a lot cheaper–than a hot stone massage.

In Cooking at the Kasbah, Kitty Morse observes that there are “literally hundreds of variations of this exotic Moroccan stew.” Morse, who was born in Casablanca, has recipes for unusual tagines composed of lamb, zucchini, potatoes and sun dried tomatoes; chicken and lentils with fenugreek; egg with olives, onions and cilantro; and fish with paprika, saffron and tomatoes. She also includes a popular sweet tagine of lamb with prunes, honey and cinnamon. And there’s a recipe for baked pumpkin, caramelized onions and cinnamon, all flavors that vaguely remind me of Harry’s stew.

Basically, tagines can be whatever you make of them, a luscious medley of ingredients and spices simmered in a glazed earthenware pot with a conical lid (also known as a tagine). The shape of the lid draws the vapors upwards, bathing whatever you’re cooking in savory steam. It’s a traditional kind of slow cooking that demands little or no attention once the ingredients are layered in the pot.

Like Harry, I began my tagine with butternut squash, new potatoes and carrots. But I added a tender turnip, a field-ripened tomato and a handful of plump, very un-Moroccan shitake mushrooms that I found growing on a log at the Wednesday Carrboro Farmer’s Market. To these I added strips of preserved lemon peel, possibly the most delicious condiment on earth. For spices, I turned to the aromatic blend of ginger, saffron, cumin and cinnamon sticks that Christine and Redouane Khaldi’s used in their recipe for Chicken Tagine with Green Olives, Carrots and Preserved Lemon. I whisked the ground spices into chicken broth, along with half a teaspoon of pungent ras-el-hanout, the secret ingredient in so many Moroccan kitchens.

The tagine was incredibly delicious, reminiscent of Harry’s stew, but with a greater interplay of flavors: the sweetness of the squash, slight bitterness of the turnips, and earthiness of the potatoes and mushrooms were brightened by the tart lemon peel, while the spice-scented broth added richness and complexity.

By the way, the bottom of my tagine was cracked, so I used my favorite Le Creuset enameled cast iron pot instead. The stew cooked quickly, in 30 to 40 minutes. If you use a traditional earthenware tagine, you may need to reduce the quantity of broth, as the bottom is relatively shallow and the vegetables will exude some liquid as they simmer. It will also take longer to cook, at least an hour and a half, perhaps two, over a low flame. But your reward will be an even more succulent stew and a kitchen perfumed with sweet and savory spices.

Root Vegetable Tagine with Cinnamon, Saffron and Preserved Lemon

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients:

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 or 2 medium carrots, peeled and thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced
1 -1/2 cups new potatoes, skin left on, cut into ¾ inch chunks
1-1/2 cups butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into ½ inch cubes
1 turnip, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes
6 large shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps cleaned and thickly sliced
1 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed and skins removed
¼ cup golden raisins
6 to 8 strips of preserved lemon peel
4-inch stick cinnamon, broken in half
2 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
½ teaspoon ground ras-el-hanout
Harissa, if desired

Method:

1. Rub the bottom and sides of an enameled cast iron pot with 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Starting at the bottom, layer the onions, carrots, tomato slices, new potatoes, butternut squash, turnip and shiitake mushrooms in the pot. Sprinkle the chickpeas, golden raisins and preserved lemon peel over the vegetables. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the vegetables.
2. In a bowl, whisk together the chicken broth, 1 tablespoon olive oil, and the rest of the spices. Pour the mixture evenly over the vegetables.
3. Put the pot over a high flame and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until the vegetables are very tender. (If using an earthenware tagine, soak the bottom in water for several hours. Place a flame tamer on a cold burner and put the pot on top. Keep the flame low to medium low as you cook. The dish will take at least 1-1/2 hours.)
4. Serve in bowls with crusty bread and a dollop of harissa, if desired.

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