A truly I Can’t Believe I Did This tale
I decide Recipe Wednesday! is going to be a big heap of lamb tagine. People have been cooking it for hundreds of years old because it’s one of mankind’s most satisfying meals, a melting blend of lamb, apricots, and warm spices, served over couscous. It’s a recipe that allows for some individual touches but I’m going to stick to tradition. Besides, all the critical ingredients are crammed into my cupboard.
And, I happen to have a tagine pot. I bought it in a store down the street from me. If you keep on walking you’ll be able to accurately chart a chronology of at least seventy-five years of upheaval in the Middle East . The stores’ names and window displays proudly announce the nationalities of their owners. Intricate gold necklaces; elaborate bejeweled bridal gowns and headdresses; long embroidered robes (men and women); hookah cafes; brass, stained-glass hanging lamps; vivid colored rugs; the smell of honey, nuts, almond paste slipping through bakery shops. I am a blessed American to benefit from such a fine example of the power and importance of immigration to our country’s greatness!
Off I go to Balady, the neighborhood’s big Middle Eastern supermarket, for everything else I need. I stop in front of the spice jars and then I make my way through aisles filled with all olive oils from all over the world, fresh cheeses, yogurts, perfumed soaps, and canned octopus to the meat aisle for lamb. (It’s next to the butcher stand with chickens with their heads and feet still on and whole lambs and goats hang in the glass refrigerator case.) The recipe calls for a lamb roast but I can’t afford one so I pick up a little less than a pound–two packs–of lamb chops. They’re always cheap here.
Back home, I start gathering everything I’ll need and realize, once again, I am one lousy food shopper. Where’s my dried apricots? What’s bulgar wheat doing in the couscous jar? I could find some other recipe but I really want to cook in my tagine. I come up with a few dried figs and a half box of quinoa. Whole almonds are all I have. I’ll figure it out.
The recipe I have serves eight so the next challenge is to cut it down to serve two. I’m math illiterate–I’m not joking. I replace the half teaspoon measurements with pinches. (Tip: Pinches are not as inaccurate as you may think. Pinch an amount into the cupped palm of your hand. Now measure. Use the size of that pinch as a marker for smaller or larger amounts. For instance, my average pinch turns out to be a little more that 3/4 teaspoon. I eye ball from there.)
You cook in a tagine the same way as you would a dutch oven. Like clad iron, clay holds an even temperature that slowly melds flavors into one another. Mine is fairly seasoned by now (just like my dutch oven pots, I don’t scour my tagine because it will remove it’s seasoned coating).
First, I cut the meat from the chops into serving sizes. My figs are on the very dried side so I soak them in hot water to plumb up a bit. Then simmer them in one cup chicken broth while I brown the meat. Take the meat out, saute about a cup of chopped onions and two minced garlic cloves in the juices until soft and add spices.
Return meat to the pot, stir to coat it with the onion/spice mix, Add the broth and figs, a cinnamon stick, and about a tablespoon of tomato paste. Bring to a slight boil then turn down to simmer and cover with the tagine’s funnel shaped lid. Leave to cook for about an hour, adding a little more broth if it gets dry. Right before the lamb looks ready, I put the quiones on to cook and, fifteen minutes later, with a sprinkling of not very elegant chopped almonds on top–TADA! dinner.
The husband’s been complaining of an upset stomach for days now. He says he doesn’t know what it is. I say it’s stress. His job is crazy. His wife isn’t making any money. Tara has Alzheimer! I’m right.
Thankfully, there are several old recipes to deal with an upset stomach. Roam around the country looking for used copies of my second book, A Soothing Broth. My favorite recipe is for port wine jelly. Pure gelatin is a miracle food, nutritious, high in protein, gentle on the stomach. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they extracted it from animal bones. By the 19th century, it could be found in commercial packets. Recipes using gelatin for the sick–invalid cooking as it was known–were used to treat many illness, body complaints, and injuries. Remedies for stomach complaints were particularly plentiful.
Port wine jelly is a multipurpose cure. Served cold, it helps relieve sore throats. It goes a long way to helping stomach cramps subside when eaten at room temperature. Serve a little warm, late at night, and it’ll send you right to sleep.
The husband doesn’t drink and, maintaining the theme for this Wednesday, we didn’t have any port in the house. We did, however, have a huge quarter of flavorless out-of-season watermelon, which happens to be another recommendation for upset stomachs, as well as fevers (cut into cubes, chill, let the patient slowly sip it). So I mashed up the watermelon, added unflavored gelatin, and let it set in the refrigerator while the tagine was cooking.
An important part of invalid cooking is to present the dish on a tray, using the best plates and bowls, perhaps accompanied by a little vase of flowers. The thinking was–and I believe this to be true–coaxing the sick to eat again requires a little seduction. Seeing something pretty, with a dish prepared with care and consideration, goes a long way to helping someone recover. Your patient will reward you with a smile, even the kind of kiss the husband gave me when he finished his watermelon cure. We both felt much better.
1 packet unflavored gelatine
1 cup boiling water
1 cup pureed watermelon
Dissolve the gelatin in the cut of water and stir until the gelatin is dissolve. Add watermelon. Refrigerate until it jells.