There are as many formulations of ras el hanout as there are families in Morocco,” advised my local spice vendor, “you just have to settle on a version you like.” The blend I found contained galangal, rosebuds, black pepper, ginger, cardamom, nigella, cayenne, allspice, lavender, cinnamon, cassia, coriander, mace, nutmeg, and cloves – quite the aromatic mix. I had lamb leg steaks in the freezer and a new spice to play with: time to make Moroccan tagine.
The recipe I used is a variation on Lamb Tagine with Prunes, found in Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World. I started with the three lamb steaks, half a cup of red wine, a tablespoon of honey, a teaspoon of minced ginger, a tablespoon of minced garlic, two tablespoons of olive oil, a large chopped onion, a cup of dried apricots, a cup of chopped carrots, and four teaspoons of ras el hanout.
I cut and trimmed the leg steaks onto inch and a half chunks which I browned in the oil over high heat, adding salt and pepper as I turned the meat. While it browned I soaked the apricots in the wine.
I removed the lamb from the pan, lowered the heat to medium, then added the ginger, garlic, honey, and ras el hanout, cooking for about ten minutes until the onion softened.
I returned the lamb to the pan, along with the wine, half of the apricots, and a cup of water. I brought the mixture to a boil, covered the pan, reduced the heat, and let it simmer for forty five minutes, stirring every fifteen minutes. I added the remaining apricots and let it simmer for a final fifteen minutes.
While the lamb simmered I made couscous, substituting chicken stock for water and adding a quarter cup of diced apricots and a teaspoon of ras el hanout. I finished the tagine with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, then served it over the couscous with a chopped cilantro garnish.
I’ve never been to Morocco, but I have been to its facsimile at the World Showcase in Epcot Center at Walt Disney World. I had failed to make dinner reservations at any of the more popular locations (France, Japan, Mexico) – a rookie mistake – but discovered that Restaurant Marrakesh had plenty of walk-in tables available. It was there that I had my first tagine, prepared and served in the traditional clay pot with conical lid that gives the dish its name.
My tagine brought that first one to mind, and now I know that the elusive spice I couldn’t identify back then was the ras el hanout. It was fragrant and warm, with a heat that crept up after a few bites. The lamb was perfectly tender, the apricots and carrots providing two different types of sweetness. On a cold, rainy, night it was more than a simple lamb stew, it was a warm reminder of a warmer locale. Taste and memory: my favorite dining experience.