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Winter Recipe: Tagine

There are many myths to do with cooking. One is that you should fuss about the ingredients. If you are the sort of person who worries about that sort of thing you shouldn’t really be in a kitchen, you should be in a science lab. Preparation should involve a trip to the fridge, not the shops: if you spend more time in the supermarket than cooking then there’s something seriously wrong. Come to think of it, if you spend more time cooking than eating then something is wrong. A particular weakness I’ve noticed amongst other celebrity chefs is that they fuss too much. Measurements, I recommend, should be in handfuls or dollops—there is no place for a teaspoon in the Berkeley Squares kitchen and there’s nothing a spoon does that you can’t manage with the palm of your hand or a Biro (apart from repair a bike tyre). Guessing is much more authentic. It’s real cooking.

clay tagines at a marketOne great myth is that meat should be ‘sealed’ but this dries it out—the opposite of what its proponents suggest—so the practice is as useless as that other great silliness of the bon viveur: opening a bottle of wine to let it ‘breathe’, which is a complete and utter waste of time. You breathe, I breathe, fish breathe. Wine doesn’t. You might as well hang up your potatoes in oxygen masks.

Cooking is about using imagination. As it happens this is a quality that your correspondent has in abundance, especially when it comes to the three great staples of cookery: washing up, barbecues and tagines. Leaving aside the mysteries of the former, today we concentrate on how to make a great (in fact the greatest) tagine. Ever.

You may wonder what the difference between a tagine, a casserole and a simple English stew is. These are complex culinary terms best left unanswered, but in modern Britain nobody outside the Salvation Army eats stew any more, so Berkeley Squares bows to the fickle whims of the modern public and voilà—a tagine!

Pretentious petty bourgeoisie suburban folk (the sort who let their wine ‘breathe’) have become so gripped by the latest editions of Good Housekeeping that their excitement at adopting cuisine with a foreign name can extend even beyond that of sponsoring an endangered Himalayan goat. If however you are cooking in Filton Keynes, or even better somewhere that enthusiastically played host to a Brexit Bus, then please, for goodness sake, put aside the funnily shaped clay pot imported from John Lewis’s and just cook. A spade is but a spade.

Here’s how to cook it.

First, get your pot. In a perfect world it will be big enough for all your ingredients. Now decide how many you are cooking for. The following recipe is for four people, although that really isn’t enough to make the effort worthwhile or to have a really good time. Dinner needs at least eight people, preferably eight people who are fun to be with and who look elegant.

Put ingredients into said pot. If you can’t find the exact ingredients then substitute something that smells similar.

  1. Diced lamb.
  2. Garlic (2, 3, 4, 5 or perhaps even more cloves will be enough).
  3. Two or three onions. Chop several times taking care not to cut your fingers.
  4. Four handfuls of ras-el-hanout (or more if it’s past its use by date).
  5. One or two tins of tomatoes.

Add water to half cover the ingredients, put the lid on and cook for about 90 minutes at about 180 degrees. Add a packet of stoned dates and two dollops of honey and cook for another 30 minutes.

During this interval you could listen to Radio 4 (Just a Minute goes well with this recipe) or if you are feeling very intellectual read a book about Morocco.

Finally—and this is the posh bit—just before serving, fry a packet of blanched almonds and some shelled pistachios. Sprinkle these on top to impress your guests or if that isn’t possible just mix them in: it tastes the same either way.

Stew?

Tagine is best served with Jersey Royal new potatoes and fresh coriander. You could substitute baked potatoes which are similar but easier to cook. Personally I always enjoy petit pois as an additional accompaniment and I find that Bird’s Eye are worth the extra money. More importantly serve on the very best bone china with salty English butter, good quality silverware and sparklingly clean crystal glasses.

Eat with family or friends around a large table dressed with a starched table-cloth, beeswax candles and crisp white unblemished napkins: linen is always best. Turn off the music, eat, laugh at each other’s jokes and pause only to reflect on how incredibly, deliciously, lucky you are to be you.