One of the more exciting gifts that I received for Christmas this year was a vegetarian North African cookbook and a gorgeous Le Creuset tagine. My mom, what can I say, she knows me well.
I've never delved into this ethnicity before in the kitchen, mainly from sheer lack of knowledge. After sitting down and poring over every page in the cookbook, I felt a little more educated on the delicious cuisine of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, collectively known as the Maghreb. Influenced by the Mediterranean, the Middle East, France, Spain, and centuries of invaders from various regions, these countries' cuisine is chock full of fresh fruits, vegetables, olive oil, spices, nuts, eggs, beans, hand-baked bread, and honey. Exotic ingredients like orange blossom water, preserved lemons, and harissa (a fiery-hot garlic chili paste) are paired with more familiar ingredients like couscous, tomatoes, cilantro, cumin, ginger, and saffron.
Tagine is both a way of cooking as well as the vessel used for it. To cook something tagine-style is too cook it low and slow while covered, using the steam of the dish to gently simmer and combine flavors until tender and aromatic. A tagine itself consists of two pieces - a heavy bottom pan and a conical top. The tagine my parents gave me is a lovely deep crimson red with a cast iron base and ceramic top - it's hefty, probably weighing-in at about 10 pounds.
I took my time studying the cookbook (not just light reading, mind you) and have started planning a beginners menu in my head. I can't wait to delve in and start learning a whole new way to cook.
One of the first steps that I've taken is to make my own preserved lemons. Preserved lemons have a distinctive texture and flavor and are widely used in North African cooking, especially Morocco. To make them, I took four Meyer lemons, made cuts in each one, stuffed the pockets full of kosher salt, and then packed them firmly into a sterilized wide mouth pint jar. When packed into the jar the juices and salt mixed to create a sort of brine, which serves to "pickle" or preserve the lemon rind, which is the part that is typically used in dishes. It takes approximately 5-6 weeks before the lemons are ready to use, so I'm going to have to reign myself in while they are curing. Patience will be the key.
My next step is to make my own harissa, that fiery spiced hot sauce. In a month or two I should be ready to cook North African style!