Looking out of my office window this week it’s obvious that spring is very much with us, there’s new growth all around and an air of optimism as the natural world throws off the cloak of winter and stretches. I love this time of year as we see all sorts of things making their annual appearance in our kitchens, for those of you that haven’t had any new season asparagus yet I urge you to grab some and marvel at the delicate flavour.
Seasons form the natural backdrop for eating. All of the World’s Healthiest Foods are seasonal. Imagine a vegetable garden in the dead of winter. Now imagine this same garden on a sunny, summer day. How different things are during these two seasons of the year! For ecologists, seasons are considered a source of natural diversity. Changes in growing conditions from spring to summer or autumn to winter are considered essential for balancing the earth’s resources and its life forms. But today it’s so easy for us to forget about seasons when we eat! Modern food processing and worldwide distribution of food make foods available year-round, and grocery stores shelves look much the same in December as they do in July.
Which brings me to this weeks recipe, the fields abound with young lamb and the shops will soon be pushing new season lamb for all they’re worth. This is a situation that I’ve always found a bit odd, after all new season lamb or milk lamb has almost no flavour. The poor little devils haven’t had the time to eat the multitude of grass varieties that will in the coming months give the distinctive flavour that makes lamb so wonderful. So does this mean that lamb is off the menu, well actually no but you need to think about where the flavour comes from, last years lambs have just become year olds or Hogget (why they couldn’t come up with a more appetitising name I don’t know) that wonderful transition between the soft and succulent lamb and the full flavoured but tough mutton.
So ask your butcher for some hogget and give this Moroccan classic a bash and remember sometimes it’s worth waiting for.
Tagine of Lamb with Apricots
The name “tagine” derives from the clay pot with conical lid in which stews are cooked slowly over a fire. In Morocco, a very sweet fruit tagine (Tagine barragog) is made, with lamb, prunes and honey. With this recipe, we prefer to use sharp, naturally dried or semi-dried apricots – if you can find them!
2 large onions, chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp saffron
1 tsp ground cumin
A good pinch of chilli powder, to taste
1kg leg or shoulder of lamb, trimmed of some of the fat
2½cm fresh root ginger, cut into slices
3 garlic cloves, crushed
Salt & plenty of black pepper
500g dried apricots
Using a tagine (or casserole dish if you don’t have a tagine), fry the onion gently in the oil until soft.
Stir in the spices – the cinnamon, saffron, cumin and chilli powder – and put in the meat Turn the pieces so that they are covered in the spice mixture. Add the ginger, garlic, salt and pepper and cover with about ½ litre water. Simmer, covered with lid, for 1½ hours, turning the meat over occasionally and adding water if necessary. (You can also put the tagine in your barbeque to simmer.)
Add the apricots and cook for 30 minutes more, adding water if necessary.
Generally, the couscous you find in supermarkets is a quick-cook variety and you need to be careful not to over cook it and create a glutinous mess that will put the kids off it for life.
Here’s an easy, failsafe way to cook couscous.
• Place 2 cups of couscous in a heavy bowl.
• Boil 2 ½ cups of water and add to the couscous.
• Add ½ a teaspoon of salt.
• Stir with a fork.
• Cover and allow to sit for 5 minutes
• Uncover and fluff up with a fork – the grains of couscous will have absorbed the liquid without becoming mushy.
• Dot with butter and fluff again. Season and serve
Cooking Couscous – an Olive Oil Variation
To impart a richer, nuttier flavour to your couscous try the recipe below.
• In a saucepan, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil.
• When the oil is hot add 2 cups of couscous and a good shake of salt.
• Cook for 2-3 mins until the couscous is golden, stirring constantly to prevent burning.
• Add 2 ½ cups of boiling water.
• Remove from the heat and cover.
• Let the couscous sit until all the water is absorbed and the grains are soft – about 5 mins.
• Loosen the couscous with a fork and serve.
• Dot with butter and fluff again. Season and serve
Alone, couscous can taste somewhat bland. While the main taste centre of your meal will be the meat or fish you serve with it, you can add more flavour to the couscous itself by substituting beef, chicken or vegetable stock for the boiling water in the recipes above.
The flavour of couscous can also be punched up by adding pine nuts, currents, oregano, thyme, basil or cinnamon before you add your boiling liquid.
We are blessed in this glorious country to have some of the most wonderful Boutique wineries. For the wine connoisseur they are worth tracking down. This week I’ve just found Bijou Estate and their Pinot Noir is a cracker. So go on be adventurous and track them down.