March, true to its nature, came in like a lion with cold temperatures and winter storms. This calls for “warming foods” which are the easiest and healthiest ways to stay warm as winter finds its way to the much anticipated spring. Ancient Chinese medicine referred to these foods as “yang” foods, which are foods that contain one or more active compounds that help raise our core temperature — often by boosting blood circulation or removing excess water from our tissues. Seeds, nuts, oats, garlic and onions are classic examples of traditional warming foods, but some of the greatest warmers, can be found in the spice kingdom. In fact, a disproportionate number of popular and widely available spices are unusually effective at inducing thermogenesis. Five spices in particular, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and cayenne pepper, seem to be especially effective in this regard. Thinking of this inspired me to go on a culinary journey to Morocco, an area of the world know for marrying these flavors with meats, most often lamb or chicken, and producing extremely flavorful soups and stews. The Moroccan national dish is the tajine which is essentially a stew made with the above mentioned meats. It gets its name from the conical clay vessel in which it is cooked. This vessel has also been referred to as the “Moroccan crock-pot” because it is used for slow cooking.
I do not happen to own such a vessel, although they are readily available at kitchen stores or online, but I did not allow that to stop me. Using my favorite kitchen companion, the enamel cast iron Dutch oven, and slow braise cooking technique, served well to made this bright and flavorful dish. I used both fresh turmeric and ginger for this preparation but dried can also be used. Fresh turmeric rhizomes (often called roots) look similar to ginger, a close relative. Like ginger, fresh rhizomes have a livelier flavor than dried. Turmeric’s bright orange flesh is earthy, peppery, and slightly bitter. Depending on how tender or mature it is, you may want to peel it before using. Turmeric may be cut into coins, matchsticks, or cubes; grated with a Microplane or cheese grater; and juiced or thrown into smoothies much like its cousin, ginger. The ratio for fresh vs dried is —
1 inch fresh = 1T grated = 1t dried, ground
Here is how it went down in my kitchen.
Moroccan Lamb Stew w/ Lentils and Cauliflower
Recipe by Jeanne Raffetto Tentis Serves 6-8
2T extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs. lamb stew meat, trimmed of excess fat and cubed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large cloves fresh garlic, peeled and smashed
1t each half-sharp paprika & ground cumin
1T each fresh turmeric and ginger, peeled and grated (or 1 t each powdered)
¼ t ground cinnamon
2T tomato puree
1 14 oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes with juice
2c chicken stock (add more as it cooks, if too thick)
½ c red lentils
½ large cauliflower, cored and cut into florets (about 3c)
Juice of 1/2 fresh Meyer lemon (or regular lemon)
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
- Season the lamb generously with salt and pepper. Heat a large heavy-bottomed oven-proof Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the olive oil and allow it to heat up. Add half of the lamb and brown on both sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Repeat with remaining half of the lamb.
- In the same pan, add the onions and garlic cloves. Cook until onions begin to soften. Add the seasonings and cook briefly until fragrant.
- Add the meat back into the pot, stir to coat with seasonings. Add the tomato puree, diced tomatoes, stock and honey, bring to a boil. Cover with a tight lid and place in the oven. Cook for 1 hour.
- Add the lentils and stir to incorporate. Cover and continue to cook for another 30 minutes. Check and add additional liquid if needed.
- Stir in the cauliflower, cover and cook another 15 minutes or until it is fork tender. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Right before serving, stir in the lemon juice.
- Serve hot with rice or couscous, garnished with the cilantro leaves.
NOTES: I find fresh ginger and turmeric at my natural foods coop or in ethnic markets. Meyer lemons are in season right now and are sweeter than traditional lemons, but either will work for this. I used red lentils because I wanted them to serve as a thickener and they break down faster than some of the other varieties. Potatoes could be used in place of cauliflower and beef could be substituted for the protein, if desired. This style of dish is usually served with flat bread to soak up the juices.
I must say, the results did not disappoint. The stew was rich and the meat was melt in your mouth tender. The warmth of the spices added a depth of flavor that immediately transported me out of the cold to a much friendlier climate. Dare I even mention the aromas wafting through my house as it cooked? Warning: Keep your windows closed or you might attract some unexpected dinner guests.
One of the great cuisines of the world, Moroccan cooking abounds with subtle spices and intriguing flavor combinations. If you are unfamiliar, do not be intimidated to try this or the many other dishes of this Northern African country. The vibrant spices, if not already in your cabinet, are readily available in most markets. I promise you will be so happy to eat this. A perfect way to spread the love, one amazing dish at a time. Think about the hearty meat stews you loved as a kid, only better. It’s like a hug from grandma. I will be spreading the love big time this week with my 2016 class schedule commencing, but that won’t stop me from sending kitchen love to you and yours. Until next time, warm thoughts. Jeanne