Thursday, August 27, 2009

3 Good Reasons to Invite People to Dinner

Why on earth would anyone decide to have a dinner party when it's bloody hot and humid? I don't have air conditioning, after all, so the party had to be outdoors. But that meant cooking. Yes, that thing I love to do but which involves heat. I had the distinct feeling that I was suffering from heat stroke when I invited a few new friends. The woman is a borderline vegan. She cannot deal with dairy and doesn't eat meat or drink alcohol. The two men on the guest list had no such restrictions, so my challenge was to come up with something which would satisfy everyone and leave me awake and alert when they arrived. I didn't want to be seen disappearing into a puddle on the floor, wailing "I'm melting........I'm melllllting!!!"

So why put myself through this? 3 good reasons: First of all, I had a good reason to call someone to clean my house. When you live in 900 square feet, you don't often call someone in to clean. It's embarrassing to admit that you can't manage to keep a small space clean. I usually DO manage to keep it at least somewhat presentable, but I wanted it CLEAN, and oh, do I love love love the results! Even my refrigerator shelves are sparkling!

Secondly, I had a great reason to clean off my table outside, as well as sweep up the path and the little deck. I think I added about 4 inches to the compost. Watering and clipping made the garden look especially fresh and inviting.

And last, but certainly not least, I got to make food that I hadn't made before. When you live by yourself, having company over is cause for experimentation. So I made 3 dishes which I hadn't made before, plus an alternate version of one I have made. I plan on dribbling these recipes out to you, dear readers, rather than lay them all at your feet at once. The one thing that I made which I have no photograph of is the focaccia. Too bad, as it was quite stunning. (Yes, I'm mad enough to have even baked for this occasion!) Half of it had feta cheese and half had none. I got the recipe from Peter Reinhard's "Bread Baker's Apprentice", p.164. This was one thing I hadn't made before, but I will let you search out that recipe for yourself. I love this book and so far haven't had a single failure when I've followed the recipes.

The first thing that came to my mind when I pondered what to make for this gathering was Moroccan food. There would be meat for the meat eaters, and grains and veggies for the vegan. Perfect. I turned to several sources, but settled on the Moroccan Lamb Tagine from Epicurious. It had what I wanted - nuts and fruit. I, however, didn't follow the recipe. Surprised? I thought not. I'll give it to you here the way it's printed, but please go to the kitchen notes. It not only tells you how I tweaked it, but what else I would do when making this dish in the future.

Mrouzia (Moroccan Lamb Tagine with Almonds and Raisins)


  • 2 teaspoons ras-el-hanout*
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon crumbled saffron threads
  • 3 cups water
  • 3 lb boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 large onion, coarsely grated (1 cup)
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
  • 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 1 1/4 cups raisins
  • 1 1/4 cups whole blanched almonds
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Whisk together ras-el-hanout, salt, pepper, ginger, saffron, and 1 cup water in a 5-quart heavy pot. Stir in lamb, remaining 2 cups water, onion, garlic, cinnamon sticks, and butter and simmer, covered, until lamb is just tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Stir in raisins, almonds, honey, and ground cinnamon and simmer, covered, until meat is very tender, about 30 minutes more.

Uncover pot and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until stew is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes more.

Cooks' note:Tagine can be made 1 day ahead and cooled, uncovered, then chilled, covered.

Kitchen Notes:

1. Paula Wolfert, author of Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco, says she bought some ras el hanout in Fez years ago and had it analyzed in New York. That sample contained 26 ingredients, including ash berries, belladonna leaves, cantharides, galingale, and monk's pepper (cantharides, another name for the beetle known as Spanish fly, and monk's pepper being only two of the supposed aphrodisiacs that occasionally find their way into ras el hanout. It can also contain hashish). Ras el Hanout can be purchased through specialty stores, though it can also be made (legally) at home from the following ingredients:

1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp aniseed, or fennel
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp ground cayenne or red chili
1/2 tsp lavender
1 Tbsp white peppercorns
1 Tbsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp allspice berries
1 tsp ground cardamom

2. I had a large bag of slivered almonds in my freezer. Need I say more?
3. The recipe calls for 1/2 C honey and 1 1/4C whole blanched almonds. Too much of both. The next time I make this, I'll add 1/4C honey as I found it a bit too sweet for my taste. While I love almonds, I thought there were too many of them in this dish. Having said that, I must say that I seemed to be the only one that felt that way, so I would recommend that you start with less of both and see how you feel about increasing either one or both of those ingredients.


Penny said...

What a challenge. The lamb tangine looks awesome. Can hardly wait for the rest of the recipes.

Unknown said...

It was quite good, actually. More to follow...

Thistlemoon said...

This sounds delicious! Moroccan food is one of my favorites! I also agree that having company meas experimentation. So many people are against this, only using old favorites for guests, but I love to experiment on them!!

dick said...

I got myself a clay tagine pot and have made all sorts of tagines. What I found with the clay pot is that you only need about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water. Any more and you will have liquid all over the stove top. Never made it in a pot before so don't know about that.

I started out making the chicken with lemon and olives tagine. I use that as my base and just mess around with the meat and the extra veggies I add after about an hour of very slow cooking. I have added green beans, broccoli, potatoes, cauliflower - all added for about 20-25 minutes. I have also tossed a few grape tomatoes or cherry tomatoes on top about 5 minutes before it is finished. Not a failure in the bunch. This has become one of my go-to dishes and one I find that I can cook, serve and keep for the next day in the fridge. I also live alone so I tend to make all the things I like and either freeze most of it to be reheated or refrigerate it if there is just enough for one more meal.

The good thing about tagines is like Chinese cooking. Once you have it cut up, which takes maybe 5-10 minutes tops, the rest of it is just either checking it occasionally or very quick cooking. Why deprive yourself.