So we've made three tagines now, all within a week or so. I know I promised a recipe, but in working with this I've come to realize that tagine is not so much a recipe as a technique. I file it under the same kind of dish as paella or risotto: Dishes that have an equation of ingredients and a more or less set process. If you stick to the equation, and follow the process, you are free to play around with the ingredients. There's no reason why you couldn't make a tagine that has overtly Italian, Indian or Thai notes just by swapping in the appropriate spices and ingredients. The net result will be as satisfying.
Basically, tagine is simply a hybrid between a braise and a stew, comprised of meats (which are in fact optional), aromatic and/or sturdy vegetables (also optional, if you want to make an all-meat version), fruits (optional, but very nice), spices/herbs (decidedly not optional) and liquid (fundamentally necessary). And heat.
The real challenge is liquid management. You'll need less than you think. As the dish cooks, the ingredients will give off some of their own liquids; as the steam builds under the cone, pressure will force the liquid down, which in turn pushes it out around the periphery of the lid. Less is more.
All tagines -- the cooking vessels themselves -- are different. I can only speak for the Le Creuset version. Traditional ceramic ones may be more shallow; the All-Clad version appears deeper. But in our experience so far, the tagine equation is as follows:
The Tagine Equation
1 lb. meat, cubed
Lamb is an excellent choice, as is beef. If you want to do chicken, use thighs; the long cooking method dries out breast meat. I would have the same concerns about lean pork. I know there are seafood tagines, but I doubt they'll work with this particular equation.
1-2 c. vegetables, coarsely chopped
Carrots work fabulously for sweetness and body. Cut them in discs or half moons as you would for a beef stew. Onions and garlic are always welcome additions. Green beans, broccoli and cauliflower are wonderfully sturdy and both maintain their shape and absorb the flavors of the broth; summer squash and zucchini should behave similarly. Potatoes work well too, but if you're serving with cous cous it may work out to be too much starch. Pick two vegetables (onion and garlic don't count to that end) to avoid overcomplicating.
20 or so pieces dried fruit, whole
Dried apricots and prunes make this dish exciting and interesting. They impart a gentle sweetness, yet take on a very rich and savory flavor in the braising liquid.
Edit: Did I forget to mention olives? Olives are very nice. Add some olives.
Rind of 1 preserved lemon, chopped
This is of course optional (and a good thing, since I forgot to add it yesterday), and the dish will still taste wonderful without it. But it does brighten the flavors considerably. It's far more subtle than you'd expect.
Herbs and spices
Which and how much are highly discretionary. 1 Tbsp turmeric enhances the color and gives a nice earthy flavor. 1 tsp cinnamon makes it Moroccan-y. Cumin makes it smoky. Paprika and saffron push it closer to Spain. A touch of chili pepper never hurt, and a dollop of harissa is even better. But as I said before, you could easily throw in some lemongrass and galangal, and voila - Thaigine.
It's OK to add some fresh herbage here, but save a good fistful to throw in when it's done, for freshness. Parsley is nice for this.
About a cup is all you need. Last night I used a combination of chicken stock and white wine. In a pinch, plain water will do, but season well. An additional couple of ounces of strained or chopped tomatoes will also give good body to the broth.
Heat the tagine base over medium heat with about a teaspoon of oil. When the oil shimmers and wisps of smoke begin to appear, sear the meat, browning on all sides. You may have to do this in two batches (I did). Set the meat aside. Add the vegetables, all at once, and saute just for a few minutes, until they start to smell good and the onions, if you're using them, begin to go translucent. Add spices, mix well to cover and cook an additional minute to bloom the spices. Add the liquid, stir well and taste. This is your last opportunity to adjust seasoning, so go for it. Definitely make it stronger than you think it needs to be. Add the meat and try to arrange everything in a single layer in the base. Add the lid, bring to a bubble and reduce heat to low. Let simmer for a good hour to an hour and a half, until the vegetables are knife-tender and the meat is cooked through.
About 20 minutes before you're ready to serve, make up some cous cous, and fluff with a fork just before serving. Put a nice spoonful of cous cous in a bowl, add an even distribution of meat, veg and fruit, and pour a lovely ladelful of your delicious broth over it all. Confetti some herbage over the top and serve while hot.
Wine pairing: Interestingly, despite using lamb or beef and because of the fruity and spicy nature of the dish, white wines work extremely well with it. Last night our friend brought a lovely Grgich Hills fume blanc, which had wonderfully complementary apricot and spice notes; it was never overpowered by the meat, which was rendered mild and sweet by the braise. I should think that a good New Zealand Marlborough sauvignon blanc would also work very well. Of course, a good peppery pinot noir would also be delightful, no doubt. But I'll have to test it out firsthand to be certain.