One of my new year resolutions was to enter more competitions and to generally get involved in more online communities. I've been keen to enter the "In the Bag" competition on A Slice of Cherry Pie for some time now and have finally got around to following it through to completion.
The brief was straightforward. Create a meal involving:
Being more of a meat and savoury man rather than a Greg Wallace sweet tooth merchant I decided to go off piste with a meal inspired by our trip to Marrakech. The thing I like most about Moroccan food is the way they cleverly blend layers of flavour and taste together as well as their ability to create dishes using meat and fruit. There's something really special about pears, quince, apricots, prunes etc. when cooked long and slow in a tagine with lamb or chicken.
I decided that the thing I really wanted to cook was a comforting, deep and exotic lamb and pear tagine with apricots and chopped almonds. To go with this I created some zingy couscous tossed with pinenuts and coriander. Preserved lemons are a traditional staple found in cuisines all around the Med, but principally in Morocco. Having formed a plan in my head I then could hardly wait to find a moment to cook it.
I bought a shoulder of lamb and two shanks from a man called Kevin on the meat counter at Sainsbury's. My plan was to bone the shoulder and cube it whilst leaving the shank in tact to do what shanks do best - namely thickening the sauce and giving it that lovely unctuous gloss. I used the shoulder bone to make the stock for the sauce.
To create the authentic ethnic spiciness of the tagine I ground up a large quantity of cumin, ginger, coriander seeds, nutmeg, pepper, salt, turmeric and some special Moroccan spice mix Mum had bought by chance in Borough Market the day before. The aroma of the spices made me feel like I was back in the Souks. Nostrils flaring. Alive with the smell of adventure.
Having disected the shoulder and stripped a bit of meat from the shanks I then marinaded the lamb in the spice mixture with a good slurp of olive oil, crushed almonds and a few cloves of finely chopped garlic. Technically I should probably have used argan oil. But I couldn't lay my hands on any! I let this fester for an hour or so whilst the shoulder bone turned the water in the boiling pan into lamby stock.
At this stage my sister walked into the kitchen and couldn't believe the smell. A head mix of dusty adventure in North Africa translocated into Bedfordshire!
I sliced up a lot of onions and sweated them off in a large Le Crueset pan using the excess oil that the meat had been marinading in as the base. The onions quickly transformed from their boring former lives into a syrupy mass of translucent tastiness.
Once they were soft and ready I lobbed in the meat and let it brown on the hob for a while.
Once this was up to heat I then addded the lamb stock that had been patiently bubbling away on the other hob.
I popped in a handful of dried apricots and some sultanas to add the first layer of fruit. I hoped this would give the tagine a base note of stewed fruit and that it would help to thicken the sauce... which it did. I also squirted in a carton of chopped tomatoes to add a bit of colour and flavour.
On went the lid and into the bottom oven it went for a couple of hours whilst I had a drink or two.
After the tagine had been cooking for two hours I inspected it. Removing the lid almost knocked me out. A plume of spiced steam and jumping juices spat out at me as some soft lamb meat dropped off the lamb shank bone. Success!
The sprint to the finish line saw me cook it on the slow hob with the lid off for the final half an hour to reduce the sauce down. I added the beautiful pears which looked so tasty they got their own still life shot! It's important to add the fresh fruit towards the end so it doesn't all fall apart.
Cowie set about making the preserved lemon, pinenut and coriander couscous. Sainsbury's stock Belazu's excellent range of Moroccan and Mediterranean products which were perfectly suited to our task.
Simply slice up a couple of preserved lemons until they are really fine. They smell amazingly of lemon squash. Really intense. Perfect to give the combination of flavours a much needed high note. The barley cous cous fluffed up nicely and was mixed up with sultanas, chopped coriander and toasted pinenuts.
Mum got quite excited at this point... she ran into the kitchen clutching a bunch of violets she had just picked from the garden. She wanted us to use them to add some colour to the food. Mum's written books on flowers and cooking before now... so she's not the kind of person to argue with in these situations. Plus the photo might prove useful for future publications. Here it is!
It looks delicious and indeed did find its way into our couscous!
Having reduced the sauce down to a beautiful glossy liqur we added some freshly chopped pear segments, a sprinkling of toasted pinenuts and a handful of coriander.
Once plated up with the couscous, some roasted peppers and some brocoli it looked gorgeous. More importantly it tasted delicious. A wonderful memory of Morocco brought to life in one mouthful. It was so authentic it tasted, smelled and felt like something you might be served at Tobsil.
If you want to see more photos from this labour of love have a look at the slide show below.
I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone else cooks up for this month's "In the Bag" competition. It was great fun from start to finish. Roll on February's challenge!