The Winter Abundance Stew

by kimberlypaul

I spent an intimate evening with a group of friends this New Year’s Eve.  A welcome departure from the ubiquitous ball drop celebration in New York City’s Times Square.  The mood set by elegant dress, music, a cozy fire in the fireplace, laughter, food and many bottles of wine.  I think one of the most communal experiences for a gathering is having everyone ladling from a single main pot.  No matter the size of the group, event, or time of year you can be sure that on my table will sit a big pot.

I choose to make a Moroccan Tagine.  This dish is from North Africa and is named after the type of earthenware pot in which it is cooked.  I love to cook Moroccan meals for their welcoming warmth, intoxicating aromas and because they’re supremely satisfying.  Slow cooking in the short days and dark nights of winter definitely call for cozy warm foods.  It is crazy good -what makes it unique is the sweet, yet a little spicy flavors.  Harrisa, a Tunisian hot chili sauce, is complemented with sweet from dried fruit while lemon zest and cilantro offer those nuances that brighten and boost the flavor profile.

Spices are the defining point to any authentic Moroccan meal and are also known to be used for their medicinal value.  If you have ever wondered what makes Moroccan food taste so delightful, rest assured that it is a set group of specific spices. I will never forget my travels through Morocco where I visited the ancient city of Tangier.  Undeniably imprinted in my mind is the stall after stall of the most brilliantly colored bins of spices.

The most important spices are cayenne, turmeric, cumin,allspice, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves,  ginger, nutmeg and star anise and their medicinal properties can not be overlooked.  Turmeric is an antioxidant that provides liver support, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and is touted to have anti-cancer properties.  Cinnamon helps to eliminate cholesterol and lowers blood sugar.  Ginger is an anti-inflammatory that aids in the digestion of protein, increases circulation, and is said to increase the effectiveness of all other herbs, foods, and medicines.  Clove is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic.  Cayenne has amazing effects on the respiratory system as well as to the intestinal tract.

Don’t let the lack of fresh produce in winter dampen your love of flavorful food. What the winter pantry lacks in ripe produce, it makes up for in rich spices.  Now is the perfect time to allow the sweet scents and warming flavors  to elevate standby foods.  If you don’t own a tagine, don’t fret.  You can use a Dutch oven, as I do, or any other heavy cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid.

You can use almost any kind of vegetables in this stew, it’s perfect for emptying the fridge.  I adapted this vegetarian version with chickpeas for protein, as it works nicely with chicken or lamb.

Moroccan Vegetable Tagine                                                                                             Serves 4

3 tbsp olive oil  
1 large onion, roughly chopped 3 cloves garlic, minced
 1 inch fresh ginger, minced (or 1 tsp grounded)
 1-2 tbsp grounded cinnamon  
1 tsp cumin
 salt 
2-3 tsp harissa paste (or dried harissa) 2 cups canned chopped tomatoes 
1 lemon, juice and zest
 a handful fresh cilantro 
1 small winter squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces 
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces 
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
 1 eggplant, cut into 2-inch pieces 
 5 dried apricots,  5 prunes 
1/2 cup chickpeas/garbanzo beans, pre- boiled 
a handful raisins

Heat olive oil in a large clay pot and sauté the onion for a few minutes until it softens.  Add garlic, ginger and the spices and stir around before adding harissa, tomatoes, lemon juice and fresh cilantro.  Bring the tomato sauce to a boil and then lower the heat.  Add squash, carrots, sweet potato, eggplant and apricots. Stir around, make sure that all vegetables are somewhat covered in tomato sauce. Put the lid on and simmer for about an hour. Stir carefully once or twice, otherwise leave the lid on.When the vegetables feel tender, add chickpeas and raisins and let everything simmer for 5 minutes before removing it from the oven.

Serve with: white quinoa, roasted almonds, fresh cilantro and fresh mint