A visit to my dear friend Tanya’s on the weekend was a welcome reprieve from unexpected and fairly dramatic flooding in Melbourne last Friday, in which my own neighbourhood was one of those affected. Next to my apartment block we had acquired a new lake and river overnight, a single red car submerged in the river that had sprung up between the us and the racetrack across the road, the one I now have an enhanced dislike of.
Seeing Tanya not only includes some of the squeeziest hugs imaginable and intensive girl talk, amazing for the soul and much-needed after my recent time away in Italy, but also a surprise bag of vegetables from her abundant garden, cared for beautifully by her father. Their vegetables have been the source of inspiration for a couple of recipes here, and with the glorious cauliflower, broad beans and chillis I had been gifted, among other delights, I decided to make a tagine, for a wonderful mid-week, two-night dinner.
Many are put off from making tagines or Moroccan dishes in general, given the amount of ingredients involved. I heard this very quip from the boyfriend last night – yes, there is a boyfriend. I shall hereby call him, P. A version of this dish was the very first meal I made for him, except with eggplant, which we both adore. He didn’t seem to mind the number of ingredients I’d used that night. In fact, he was rather silent and said something to the effect of ‘People think I’m a chef, but you’re the real chef here’. Given P works in fine dining, this was a high compliment.
Although beautiful words for the ego (also helping to inform my decision to keep him around a little longer … kidding), I can honestly say that this is not at all a difficult dish to create, but one you must feel and absolutely taste your way through. Most of what I have listed here are items I usually stock in my kitchen and the beauty of this dish is that you can swap the herbs or vegetables and use what you have on hand, omit certain ingredients like olives or nuts, add more chilli or even harissa chilli paste, like I do, and make it your own. It is soul-nourishing and rich, and will entice even the pickiest of eaters with its sweet and aromatic perfume and impressive colours, especially if served in a tagine or colourful dish.
Extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small knob of ginger, finely chopped
1 heaped teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 heaped teaspoon sweet paprika
1 heaped teaspoon ras-el-hanout*
Approx. 10 medjool dates, pitted and roughly chopped**
1 small cauliflower head, washed and cut into medium florets
pumpkin quarter (any kind), cut into medium chunks
1 tablespoon honey
2 cups (500 ml) water
1 cup broad beans (with shell on given they were from the garden)
1 can chickpeas
Handful green olives (any type)
½ cup flaked or slivered almonds
Handful fresh mint or coriander, chopped
Fresh sliced chilli, optional
sea salt and ground black pepper
Couscous, to serve (about ½ cup raw per person)
Serves 3–4 (depending on portion size)
1. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium heat and add about 2 tablespoons oil. Add the onions and sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the chopped dates. Stir for about 5 minutes or until soft and sticky. Lower the heat if necessary.
2. Add the spices, garlic and ginger, and stir well to combine. I like to add a little hot water, about 1/4 cup, at this point, just so that when the vegetables go in, it isn’t a sticky mess that could potentially burn. Give the pot a little shake to even the mixture out and then add the cauliflower and pumpkin. Increase the heat back to medium and stir well to ensure all the vegetables are evenly covered. Allow to cook for a few minutes.
3. Add about 2 cups of water or vegetable stock to the vegetables, enough to submerge them halfway. I don’t usually use stock given the flavour of the spices, but you can do for extra body. Season well, add the honey, stir and bring this to the boil, then reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are almost tender.
4. At this stage I add the broad beans and chickpeas, stirring gently to combine. You can also add nuts, but in the end I decided to add flaked almonds to the couscous, for a bit of crunch. If using slivered almonds, you can saute them first in a bit of butter before adding to the couscous. I also used mint because that was what I had on hand, so added half of the mint and half of the sliced chillies, as well as the olives. Continue cooking for a further 5 minutes, or until vegetables are tender. In the meantime, prepare your couscous according to the instructions.
5. If you have a tagine and a special someone or someones for dinner, placed your couscous in the tagine first, either as a base or to one on side, fluffed up. Spoon the vegetables stew in, either on top or next to the couscous. Sprinkle with a few extra almonds, chilli and mint or coriander.
* Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice mix that can comprise of 30 ingredients! Mine, from Oasis in Melbourne, is comprised of nutmeg, black pepper, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, all spice, saffron, aniseed, caraway and hibiscus. If you don’t have something like this on hand, you can add a bit of all spice and a tiny bit of nutmeg and cardamom, or increase the quantities of other spices in the dish. Taste as you go!
** Medjool dates are a large, sweet variety of date that come away easily from the pit. They are delicious, but if you don’t have these on hand, regular dates will do.