Since tagine is both a dish that you eat and the vessel it is cooked in, the term itself can be confusing right from the start.
The traditional vessel is a Moroccan clay pot that looks like a conical pointy hat, allowing accumulated steam to help cook the contents. Fortunately for Western cooks, a large Dutch oven serves approximately the same purpose, albeit not nearly as authentically.
It is also confusing because any stew that is historically cooked in this specialized clay oven is also called a tagine. Even more confounding, there seem to be as many recipes and combinations of flavors as there are cooks. Nevertheless, certain signature ingredients characterize tagine-style cooking, namely olives, dried fruit, and preserved lemons, combined with a heady mix of warm, Mediterranean spices—although they don’t all usually swim in the same pool at the same time.
Because the siren call of salty, sour, and sweet is completely irresistible to me, I have pondered tagine for many years, but it always remained aspirational because I never had all the ingredients of my imagination in my pantry at one time. All that changed however, at the beginning of the pandemic when, inspired by my daughter’s success, I embarked on a preserved lemon adventure for something culinary to do (of course, you can buy them readymade, but I doubt if they will be quite as satisfying.)
Even though the process is an easy science fair project, it does require some patience and persistence since it takes about two months to produce a finished product. Since then, I’ve had two jars incubating in the back of my refrigerator—like Pirandello’s six characters in search of an author—and although they’ve softened considerably over the months, the lemons are perfectly embalmed in syrupy salt like relics from the Dead Sea. When they’re new you can use every part of the lemon, but at this late stage only the rind is usable; toss the macerated pulp, which peels away very easily leaving the bright yellow peel behind. Some recipes call for rinsing, but since you are only using mere tablespoons of condiment in quarts of stew, the pungent pop of sour, salty umami should be left undiluted unless sodium is an actual medical issue.
Finally, most vegetable tagines resort to chickpeas for a little heft, and they certainly work well with the Middle Eastern theme. But I was inspired to go further after reading all the variations that rely on cute farmyard animals like lambs and chicks, so I also added my latest crush, soy curls, for that chewy, tender, craveable protein hit. And it was—a hit, that is. Once you try them, I predict they will become an indispensable staple in your plant-based pantry.
Although the long ingredient list could be daunting, the trick for taming this dish is to break it down and picture all the steps—soaking, braising, stewing—before you start. Then organize your ingredients in the classic mise en place so you are ready to roll once the heat hits the pan: Measure out all the spices into a little dish so they can be added all at once, chop all the vegetables, soak the soy curls in advance. Before you turn on the stove, put all the little bottles and bags back in the cupboard and wash all the dishes, so you can start with a clean canvas. Finally, sit back with a cup of hot tea, because most of the cooking time is just babysitting the casserole as it bakes in the oven.
1 ½ C. soy curls, reconstituted in 2 C. hot vegetable stock or hot water seasoned with 1 T. tamari sauce (can be done in advance)
3 T. safflower or olive oil, divided
1 large leek or onion, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ large red pepper, chopped in ¾-inch pieces
2 T. tomato paste
Spice mix (all or some—increase amounts if you only have a few):
1 T. ground cumin
1 T. ground turmeric
1 T. ground coriander
1 T. sweet paprika
1 T. ground cardamom
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. whole fennel seeds
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1 ½ 28-oz. cans (about 6 C.) whole peeled tomatoes
1 medium carrot (about 1 C.), chopped into ¾-inch chunks
1 small sweet potato, peeled (about 1 C.) and chopped into ¾-inch chunks
1 large turnip (1-2 C.), trimmed and chopped into ¾-inch chunks
½ lb. green beans (about 2-3 C.), broken into 1-inch pieces
1 C. canned chickpeas, drained (reserve aquafaba liquid for other uses)
1 C. dried apricots, some whole and some split
½ C. olives (any mix of green, kalamata, etc.), some whole and some split
2 T. preserved lemon, rind only, sliced thinly or roughly chopped (store bought or homemade)
1 large handful cilantro, stems and leaves, roughly chopped (about 1 C.)
Optional (but recommended) garnish:
¼ C. slivered almonds, pan toasted
Harissa for serving
Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Soak soy curls in hot liquid for about 10 minutes. Squeeze out by handfuls, discard excess liquid and set aside.
- Heat 2 T. oil in large Dutch oven over medium heat and saute leeks for about 3 minutes. Add garlic and peppers and cook for another minute or so.
- Push vegetables to side and add remaining T. oil. Cook spices in hot oil for a minute, then stir in tomato paste and warm for another minute.
- Add tomatoes, tearing each one with your hands before stirring into pot.
- Add soy curls, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, and apricots. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes. Add water, about a half cup at a time, as necessary.
- Stir in green beans, chickpeas, and cilantro stems, transfer to hot oven, and bake, covered, for about 30 minutes. Add more water, about a half cup at a time, as necessary.
- Remove from oven and check vegetables for tenderness. Stir in olives, cilantro leaves, and preserved lemon, and return to oven for at least 15 minutes, or until all vegetables are very tender but not mushy. Add water one last time, about a half cup at a time, as necessary.
- Garnish each serving with toasted almonds and serve with harissa if desired.