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Moroccan Beef Meatball Tajine

Moroccan Beef Meatball Tajine
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         My cousin Bubbles and I have a running dialog about what we’re making for dinner.  The other day she mentioned meatballs and then told me that she seldom makes them anymore because she has a friend who, while claiming not to be a cook, makes the most superb rendition of this true comfort food.  I, on the other hand, am a huge fan of these lovely little pillows of meat, almost inevitably encased in a delicious sauce.  I love to try various versions of the meatball using pork or lamb, beef or a combination of ingredients.  However on the night I made this wonderfully aromatic Moroccan dish, I had singled out a package of Organic Beef for use in that night’s dinner.  And you’d be amazed how few recipes call for beef alone.  This one did and it allowed me another indulgence, one I’d been keen to explore.

         A couple of months ago, I joined a Facebook page devoted to Moroccan cooking.   Its leader is the incomparable Paula Wolfert, the cookbook author and pride of San Francisco.  The latest of her 6 cookbooks is “The Food of Morocco” (Harper Collins 2011) which has been on many Christmas lists of the Best Cookbooks of the year.  As a Facebook friend, Ms. Wolfert is an amazingly prolific poster.  I have to wonder if the woman sleeps at all.  But she certainly sleeps, eats, and cooks and promotes Moroccan cooking.  She’s had a 40-year career in Mediterranean cooking so she knows her way around a tajine. 
         A tajine or tagine is a dish named after the special earthenware pot in which it is cooked. Tajines are slow-cooked stews braised at low temperatures to bring tenderness to less expensive cuts of meat and surround them with aromatic vegetables and sauces.  The traditional tajine pot is formed entirely of heavy clay, which is sometimes painted or glazed. There are two parts: a base unit that is flat and circular with low sides, and a conical cover with a knob-like handle for easy removal. While the stew simmers, the cover can be lifted off without even having to use an oven mitt, letting you inspect the ingredients, add vegetables, mix the contents, or add additional liquid. Working somewhat like a Dufour, the cover helps the condensation return to the bottom of the pot.  Once the cover is removed, you can take the base to the table for use as its own serving dish.
         All that being said, you can make this dish in any Dutch oven. And while I would genuinely love to own a true tajine, my New York kitchen is already groaning under the weight of all the other pots it needs.  I’ll save the tagine for a trip to Morocco.  They’re certainly the right color for our house at the beach. 
         Now to this recipe.  It is not from Ms Wolfert, I am sorry to say. Instead, it was found in Bon Appetit, the work of another California-based food writer, Jean Thiel Kelley.  Ms. Kelley’s most recent book is entitled “Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes” (Running Press 2008).  But here she’s conjured up a dish with true Moroccan flavors.  The meatballs require a lengthy poke around the spice rack but chances are, you’ll have everything you need.  The stew too is all made with familiar pantry ingredients.  All you really need to make sure you buy is fresh cilantro, 5 ounces of baby spinach, and a package of couscous.  Couscous is likely the simplest grain on earth to cook.  It’s just a matter of pouring boiling hot water over the stuff and waiting five minutes.  It’s wonderful with the sauce in this recipe.  The whole dish is just a great change of pace on a weeknight.  While traditional tajines cook over long periods of time to tenderize their contents, this recipe takes very little time. The whole thing was on the table in just over an hour. And since 35 of those minutes are spent with the dish in the oven, it really is not at all labor-intensive, despite its lengthy list of ingredients.  Here is the recipe:

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