We eat lots of cauliflower throughout the winter and into early spring. I’ll rub one with a few spices, coat it with olive oil and roast it whole, uncovered, until it has a nice, crunchy coating. This one is roasted in the tagine, so it turns out softer, because of the steam, and is less crunchy than an open roast, but it’s beautiful— fragrant and spicy like a Moroccan steam bath and it cuts like butter with a dull spoon. It barely takes fifteen minutes to prepare and about an hour to cook in the oven.
For the uninitiated, a tagine is a North African conical-shaped portable outdoor earthenware oven. Traditionally, they were placed upon charcoal braziers and slowly cooked by skilled nomadic Berbers.
My base ingredients for a tagine are onion, garlic, turmeric, ginger, cumin, a few cardamom pods, Aleppo pepper, a cinnamon stick, a generous spoon of coconut oil, a handful of prunes, half a preserved lemon, a dash of olive oil, a sprinkle of sea salt and a lashing of harissa paste. Sounds like a lot? On Sundays and holy days, I’ll add a pinch of saffron.
If you’ve been following along, you already have harissa paste and preserved lemons in your fridge. But if you haven’t, you can always purchase harissa; it comes in a tube, but sadly, it’s not very good. What comes in a jar is usually better, but that could cost you a half bottle of decent juice — better stick with homemade. Same with the lemons, you can buy them, but those I’ve seen are silly spendy. If you have the cash to burn, by all means, go for it, but if you don’t, just make your own, or forget about them.
Perhaps you don’t own a tagine: no worries — buy one and you’ll never look back. Earthenware is best and they’re reasonably priced. But, if I was marooned on a desert island and all I had was one heavy pot with a lid, and no lemons and no harissa in sight, I’d still make my tagine and it’d be fine — maybe not stellar, but fine, and when you’re hungry, especially on an Island, everything tastes fine.
It works with almost any vegetable you can think of. In the summer I’ll use zucchini squash, new potatoes, young turnips, tomatoes, fava beans and fresh herbs. In the winter, along with the cauliflower, I’ll add carrot, mushroom, white yam, turnip, and I’ll always, no matter the season, throw in a couple of fresh jalapeños or other chile peppers.
Experiment with dried apricots instead of prunes. Black oil cured olives, pits included, go well with apricots. Try different vegetables like chunks of butternut squash or brussels sprouts — and whole green olives, with stones intact, will look sharp alongside your prunes.
I begin by dicing the onion and garlic and placing it on the bottom of the tagine. Then, I crush fresh turmeric, ginger and a teaspoon of lightly toasted cumin seed in a mortar and add that. If you don’t have fresh turmeric, use dried. If you don’t have a mortar, chop the ginger to a paste. Of course, you’ll need your knife well serviced and running smoothly. There’s no thrills to be had in a dull blade.
You could save time, if that’s an issue, and do this in a machine, but then you’d have to clean it, which takes the time away again and you might find yourself back where you started and anyway, I prefer to work with my hands.
Grind up a few cardamom pods and add them to the tagine with a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper and a cinnamon stick. Add a generous tablespoon of coconut oil, a handful of prunes, half a preserved lemon — tear it with your fingers — and a decent coating of olive oil. Sprinkle sea salt on top.
Chop the vegetables, except the cauliflower, into decent sized chunks and set aside.
Position the tagine on your stove top at very low heat, just enough to melt the coconut oil — stir it around and let it mingle a minute. This becomes your base sauce. Use it for any tagine you make: lamb shoulder cut into chunks, chicken thighs on the bone and halibut, fresh from Alaska, cut into big cubes turns out a reliably flaky one. I’ll add it in about fifteen minutes from the end. Substitute olive oil if you like, but with a vegetable tagine, I find that coconut oil adds extra richness.
Add the vegetables and combine everything together. Plop the cauliflower, with stalk removed, in the middle, and with a small rubber spatula spread a slather of harissa on top, put a lid on it, pop it in the oven at 350F/180C, clean up and come back in an hour or so and then — Bob’s your uncle, isn’t he?
If you don’t have an oven, you can use an earthenware tagine on the top of the stove, using a heat diffuser, at very low heat. I have never tried this, as I am filled with confusion by the idea. I once cracked a large earthenware cazuela on an open fire while camping and catering a wedding for four out on the Pawnee Grasslands east of town. The cazuela was a gift to the newly weds. I have never forgiven myself: a large part of the sauce— it was a pimentón infused paella with rabbit, spare ribs and snails— was forever lost to the earth. Upon reflection, I may not have heat seasoned it in the proper way, and I probably had it too close to the fire. With the traditional brazier the tagine sits above the coals which allows the heat to spread slowly and evenly, and avoids cracking. Perfect for small wedding parties.
The great thing about a tagine — because of its conical-shaped top — is the steam created by the liquid on the bottom magically travels up the sides and drops effortlessly back down on top of everything. So all is doused with multiple drops of seasoned moisture— like you’re lying in a beautiful, fragrant, spicy, Moroccan steam bath and then, well — Robert’s your father’s brother, isn’t he?