Slow-cooked lamb is probably the ultimate winter feast. And while this dish originally comes from one of the warmest places on the planet, Melbourne Pub Group’s head chef Paul Wilson believes that a tagine is perfectly suited to a typical Victorian winter.
Originally from North Africa – Morocco in particular – a tagine is ordinarily a rich, slow-cooked stew with gentle spices and fruit. The tagine is universally popular, mainly because it’s relatively easy to make and full of complex flavours.
The dish gets its name from the kind of vessel it’s cooked in: an earthenware casserole dish with a tall spire of a lid. It works something like a natural pressure-cooker, pushing all the condensation back into the base to keep its contents deliciously tender. “People think tagines are just a sort of cosmetic design, but really, it’s a very clever little dish,” says Wilson. “You can put it over a fire and the lid captures this cauldron of steam that comes up from the braising, and that way you get a lovely, slow cook at a low temperature.”
What makes a great tagine, explains Wilson, is just the right cut of meat. In North Africa, chefs tend to use secondary cuts of meat for slow cooking, like the neck, legs or shoulders of the beast. For this recipe, he suggests a shank taken from the lamb’s hindquarters. “It’s a hard-working muscle, the shank from the back leg,” he says. “It’s sort of like an osso bucco. You get all that gelatinous meat, as well as that lovely shoulder meat as well.”
Before it gets anywhere near the tagine, the shank is doused in olive oil and rubbed down in a house spice known locally as ras el hanout. In Morocco, each souk would make its own version of this spice mix, and it shouldn’t be any different here in Melbourne. Wilson’s got his own very own version, inspired by the great Australian chef Greg Malouf, whose blend is full of sweet spices like cumin, saffron, cardamom, smoked paprika, allspice and cinnamon.
Once the lamb’s been spiced, the shank should be browned in a pan (or as Wilson suggests, do as tradition demands and brown it over the fire).
While the meat’s browning, the base of the tagine is layered with root vegetables like celeriac, swede, purple carrots and pumpkin. “This time of year, we have really great root veg,” enthuses Wilson. “Root vegetables are really fantastic slow-cooked, you can’t eat it undercooked because you don’t get the charm of the vegetable.”
Along with the veggies come winter fruits, like prunes, dates, dried apricots or poached quince. “They’re used a lot in Morocco and the Middle East,” says Wilson. “Quinces here in Victoria are the best in the world, I think.”
On top of all the fruit and veg goes the lamb shank, along with a splash of stock, a tomato-based sauce, honey and some pomegranate puree. Traditionally, you’d put the tagine straight into the fire, but popping it in the oven works just as well.
After a few hours cooking, you simply take the tagine to the table, lift off the lid, and serve it with some cous cous. “You can’t have a tagine without cous cous,” says Wilson. “My thinking with tagine is to keep it simple, because everything else is so complicated, and you need that yin and yang, don’t you.”
Not that you’d need any help enjoying your tagine, but the dish goes beautifully with a German Riesling, Gewürztraminer or, suggests Wilson, a glass of mint tea. Sometimes you can’t improve on tradition.