Autumn. The transition from the big salads we enjoyed in hot weather to a longing for something more substantial, foods that grow underground. A delicious autumn dinner is the vegetable tajine.
When I first discovered tajines, I thought they all had to include meat; gala dishes of lamb, beef, chicken, sausages. It was great to find the vegetarian side to tajine cookery. True, the base vegetables have to be fairly sturdy to take slow cooking in a clay vessel. Carrots, eggplants, artichoke hearts. Hearty grains like chickpeas or beans. Added layers of flavors come from dried fruit and vegetables that won’t fall apart in the cooking, like bell peppers. As with Western dishes that include root vegetables, ginger and cinnamon add piquancy, but the sweetness is always subtle, balanced with fresh herbs and restraint in the use of bee’s honey or silan, date honey.
I especially appreciate these slow-cooking stews when it’s cooler in the kitchen. Then I don’t mind leaving a tajine on the heat to take care of itself while I do other things, just keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally. This one is simple to put together and uses common ingredients. And it’s delicious, melting in the mouth with that ineffable Middle Eastern taste.
You can make it dairy, using butter in the initial sauté, or keep it pareve with only olive oil and vegetable stock, or use chicken soup in the slow cooking phase, for a meat meal. I’ve done it all those ways and it was good each time. Mostly, I prefer to keep the tajine vegetarian, serving it with couscous and mayhap some thick yogurt in a bowl on the side.
I’m sure you’ll like it. Remember the fresh herbs, they make a difference. If there’s no cilantro around, use parsley. The flavor won’t be the same, but the dish demands that note of green freshness.
Tajine of Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, and Prunes
Recipe adapted from Tajines and Couscous by Ghillie Basan
3 tablespoons olive oil plus 1 of butter
1″ slice of fresh ginger root, chopped fine or grated – or 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 small cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
16 shallots (or 3 small red onions, peeled and quartered)
2-3 medium sweet potatoes, around 700 grams – 1- 1/2 lb. total
2 medium carrots
175 grams – slightly less than 1 cup pitted prunes
1 tablespoon dark honey
2 cups hot vegetable or chicken stock, or water
1 small bunch cilantro (coriander leaves), stems removed and leaves chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
Peel the shallots and leave whole. Peel the sweet potatoes and carrots and chop into bite-sized pieces.
Heat the oil and butter, if using, in a tajine or heavy-bottomed pot. When the fat is hot, add the ginger and cinnamon. If using ground spices, stir to prevent burning and lower the heat.
Add the shallots. Allow them to color slightly, then add the sweet potatoes and carrots. Cook for a few minutes, stirring, till the vegetables start to soften.
Add the prunes and honey, stirring them in.
Add 1-1/2 cups of the hot stock, and bring all to a boil. Lower the heat so that the tajine barely simmers. Cover and cook for 1/2 hour, stirring once in a while. Moisten the vegetables from the reserved 1/2 cup of stock if necessary.
When all the vegetables are tender, add half the cilantro and mint. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep the pot uncovered and let the juices reduce to a syrup - another 3-5 minutes’ cooking.
Before serving, scatter the remaining cilantro and mint over the top. Serve right away.