When’s the last time you whipped up a tagine? If the answer is “never,” don’t panic. “For the novice tagine-maker, I would say, first of all, don’t be afraid. If you can make a soup or stew, then you can certainly make this,” Perry Hendrix, chef of Avec in Chicago, assures us. The very name “tagine,” as he points out, roughly translated from Arabic, is “stew.”
Typically cooked in an earthenware pot, a North African-style tagine can also be made on your stovetop—but the results are far from ordinary. “What differentiates it over [other stews] is probably the spices,” Hendrix reflects.
During the numbing Chicago winters, Hendrix serves a version at Avec that combines cauliflower, chickpeas, olives and golden raisins, flavored with tomato paste and a complex spice blend from New York’s La Boîte spice shop. “He’s pretty secretive about it,” Hendrix says of La Boîte owner and spice blender Lior Lev Sercarz. “He gives a few descriptors.” Tasting it and trying to figure it out, Hendrix gives us five spices—cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cinnamon, cardamom and saffron—in the recipe that follows.
After you’ve softened some onions in hot oil, you’ll rain a small mountain of spices down into your pot—about five teaspoons’ worth, including salt and pepper. “Don’t be afraid of the amount of spice,” Hendrix counsels. “That’s one thing that Avec has taught me.”
While the preparation is straightforward and relies on ingredients you can find at any well-stocked supermarket, bringing the meal from start to finish can take a few hours.
Don’t rush it. “That low, long heat really brings out the flavor of the spices, so it’s not that you’re just throwing these spices on at the end and getting the top, more acrid notes; it’s really developed flavor,” he says.
The spices and onions may stick to the pan initially—and that’s OK, Hendrix advises, as long as you don’t smell full-on burning (in which case, it’s burned, and you should start over). “There’s a line between being burnt and being charred,” he notes, “but I always ask the cooks [at Avec] to make it more rustic.” The flavors and aromas of the spices will darken with the initial pan contact, and you can trust your nose and eyes on how far to take it. “When you add the wine, it’ll deglaze and all come up from the bottom,” he says.
What else makes for a great home-cooked tagine? “Make sure that your spices are fresh,” Hendrix says. “And just go for it.”
For more tips on how to approach pairing this dish with wine, recommended bottlings and notes on chef Perry Hendrix’s inspiration, read the companion article, "A Perfect Match: Cauliflower Tagine With a Sicilian Red," in the Nov. 15, 2018, issue, via our online archives or by ordering a digital edition (Zinio or Google Play) or a back issue of the print magazine. For even more wine pairing options, WineSpectator.com members can find recently rated Sicilian reds in our Wine Ratings Search.
For the tagine:
1. Preheat the oven to 400° F. Coat the bottom of a large Dutch oven with olive oil and heat over medium. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until slices start to soften, about 4 minutes. Add cumin, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, salt and pepper. Cook until onions begin to brown, about 10 minutes more. Add tomato paste and cook until it darkens, about 5 minutes. Spices may begin to stick to pan.
2. Add white wine and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer over medium-low heat. Reduce sauce by half, about 35 minutes. Add chickpeas, raisins and olives. Return to a simmer and cook until raisins are soft, about 5 minutes. Place cauliflower cut-side down on a cutting board and sprinkle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Transfer to pot, cut-side down.
3. Cover pot with a tight-fitting lid and transfer to oven. Cook until cauliflower is just tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Baste the cauliflower with the cooking liquid and cook, uncovered, until cauliflower is glazed and taking on a nice golden-brown color, another 15 to 30 minutes, roasting to your desired degree of doneness.
4. While the cauliflower finishes cooking, bring 1 1/2 cups water and 1 tablespoon oil to a boil in a medium pot. Remove from heat, stir in couscous and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and cover. Let sit 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork, cover and set aside in a warm place.
5. Remove pot from oven. Cut off tough bottom of cauliflower and discard. Break up remaining cauliflower into florets and add back to tagine. Divide couscous among four plates, top with tagine and finish with a dollop of yogurt, a scattering of cilantro and a squeeze of lemon. Serves 4.