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Kabocha Beef Tagine with Chickpeas and Preserved Lemon

The preparation for this dish must begin a month in advance, unless you already have a jar of preserved lemons lying around. The lemons are preserved in water and salt with a layer of oil on top, and for the first week you must shake the jar daily to redistribute the salt. After that, the lemons sit and cure. They must cure for at least a month before you can use them.

Under the cut, I have included instructions for preserving lemons and steaming couscous.

This is slow food. The long wait for the lemons to cure, and all the anticipation as you check in on them and tilt the jar to watch the increasingly viscous fluid flow. The soaking of the chickpeas overnight. The time taken to cut the meat and kabocha squash into chunks of equal size, and to grate the onions. The long, low simmering of the tagine. The rinsing of the couscous and the time for it to soak, followed by two or three steamings with additions of cold water and oil as you rub the lumps between your fingers to break them up. This is not the thing to make if you are in a rush, or not in a position to plan in advance.


All right, I confess: The kabocha squash was a last-minute thought, because we happened to have one lying around. You can use canned chickpeas instead of soaking dried ones overnight, and it will be fine. You should set up a jar of preserved lemons right now in any case, because you will think of something to do with them once they’re ready to be used. (For example, they’re brilliant when finely chopped and slipped under the skin of a chicken along with some garlic and parsley before you put it in to roast.) The tagine does take a few hours to simmer, but if you’re willing to eat late, you can get it started when you get home from work without a problem. A good vegetable cleaver makes the chopping go quickly, and costs less than $10 in Chinatown. Steaming couscous is a meditative, enjoyable task, and only requires a few minutes of attention in between steamings, with plenty of down-time where you needn’t worry about it at all.

It’s nice to think that we take the time to do things right, the slow way, the old way. It is also nice to think that we have time for activities other than work and cooking.

It can be frustrating to think about slow cooking when we lead such busy lives. My friends here and I are all typical overscheduled New Yorkers. Getting together requires taking out our calendars and planning weeks, if not months (and often, yes, it has to be months) in advance. Many of us work long hours, and when I get home from work, I’ve started to take on pro bono cases that fill my evenings. We take classes, go to events, spend time with our families and friends, and there is very little left for us.

It is strange to realize that my time is so much more valuable than it used to be. (This thought occurred to me as I was taking my time to sort cocoa nibs out from among bits of husk the other day, and realizing that I would rather spend a little more for pre-sorted, pre-roasted nibs in the future.) In school, I grew used to thinking of myself as having a lot of time, and very little money. Now, I have very little time, and a little more money, if not much. I have learned that sometimes I am willing to spend money in order to save time. A few years ago, I would never have considered that a reasonable exchange.

Still, we make it work. While tagines simmer, we work on other projects. When we go out, we make quick meals, and I can admit to having a penchant for frozen pelmeni. Dave and I try to set aside a weekend to ourselves once a month or so, where we slowly simmer stock for hours to freeze for later use, and cherish the time we have together without any other obligations as the stock cooks. We have to be fairly vigilant, or those weekends slip away too easily; there is always a last-minute invitation to an event we’d love to attend that weekend, and it is hard to turn those things down. But it is important to us to have that time together, so we do.

We want to make it work without having to sacrifice anything. We want to work hard at our jobs, spend time with our friends, work on many and varied projects, learn all there is to learn about the things that interest us, have time alone and time alone together, read constantly, and cook the sort of food that can’t come together in half an hour.

How do you make it work?

Kabocha Beef Tagine with Chickpeas and Preserved Lemon
(Adapted from Paula Wolfert’s basic beef tagine recipe.)
2 lbs. beef stew meat, cut into 1 1/4″ chunks
1 small Kabocha squash (the smallest you can find), peeled and cut into 1 1/4″ chunks
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 C vegetable oil
1 1/2 tsp csípős (hot) paprika
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 pinch cayenne
2 onions, grated
1/8 C chopped cilantro
1/8 C chopped parsley
2 1/2 C soaked and peeled chickpeas (a/k/a garbanzo beans)
1 preserved lemon
salt and black pepper to taste

One month in advance.

Set up a jar of preserved lemons.

Get a jar, a carton of kosher salt, and a lot of lemons. Organic, thin-skinned lemons are better than regular lemons, and Meyer lemons are better still.

Pour about a tablespoon of salt in the bottom of the jar. Quarter each lemon the long way, making sure the cuts stop about 1/2″ from the stem end of the lemon, leaving the quarters still attached. Pack the cuts with plenty kosher salt, at least a tablespoon per lemon. Press the lemons firmly into the jar, pushing them down as much as you can. You only use the skin when cooking anyway, and you want to squeeze the juice out so that it will cover the lemons. If you like, you can still more salt in between layers of lemons. Fill the jar as tightly as you can. Add another tablespoon salt on top. Pour some olive oil on top to keep out the air.

If some lemons are still sticking out at this point, it is okay. Over the next few days the lemons will release more of their juice and settle down further. Shake the jar once a day for the first week to help distribute the salt. If after a few days all the lemons are not actually covered with juice, add more freshly squeezed lemon juice and/or weigh down the lemons with a non-reactive object such as a clay or glass weight or a ziplock bag full of water.

It is important that you not stick your fingers into the jar after you’ve finished filling it up. That may introduce bacteria to make it go bad. Paula Wolfert says that if the lemons go bad, they will smell like furniture polish, and otherwise they are fine.

Let the lemons cure for at least a month. You’ll notice that the liquid gets thicker and the lemons more translucent as the lactic acid fermentation takes place and the pith begins to dissolve in the brine.

Once you open it up again, keep the jar in the fridge from then on. They probably don’t do that in Morocco, but I do, just in case.

When you use the lemons, you peel out the pith and flesh and throw them away. It is astonishing how easily they part from the skin. Then you rinse the skin well to remove the oil and brine, and you can use it in many dishes.

One day in advance.

Soak dried chickpeas overnight. If you are using canned chickpeas, skip this step.

Starting the tagine.

Remember, a tagine must be heated slowly and cooled slowly. Never add anything cold to a hot tagine or hot to a cold tagine.

Put the oil, spices, grated onion, and herbs into the tagine and stir them into a homogenous paste. Add the chunks of kabocha and coat them in the paste, then remove them. Add the chunks of beef and coat them, then pile the beef in the center and bottom, and pile the kabocha chunks on top.Add very little water; when you check in on it, you want to always make sure it has just enough water to keep from burning, and no more.

Turn the heat on low under the tagine. Bring it up to a slow simmer. Simmer it for several hours, or until the beef is tender. Check in on it from to time, adding water if need be (which is very unlikely).

Prepare the chickpeas (if you are using dried ones)

If you are using dried chickpeas, boil them in lightly salted water until they are tender.

If you are using canned chickpeas, just drain and rinse them.

Rub the chickpeas to remove their skins, and set them aside until later on.

An hour (for two steamings) or hour and a half (for three steamings) before the tagine is done.

Rinse the couscous in a lot of water. Drain the water, and leave the damp couscous to absorb what remains for about ten minutes. Spend the next ten minutes raking through the couscous as it continues to dry, breaking up any lumps with your fingers.

Steam the couscous over broth or water for twenty minutes. I covered the steaming rack of my rice cooker with a paper towel and poured the couscous onto it. Leave the couscous uncovered as it steams.

Pour the couscous out into a deep baking pan or large bowl. I like to wear nitrile or latex gloves for this step to protect my hands from the heat. Cover your hands in olive oil and add cold water slowly, raking the couscous and breaking up any lumps with your fingers as you do so. The couscous expands more from the cold water it absorbs during the raking than it does from the steaming. The oil you are rubbing into the couscous helps keep the grains separated. Add enough cold water for the couscous to stay damp and absorb, but not so much that you soak it. For two cups of couscous, I probably added about a cup, cup and half cold water.

After about ten minutes of raking, return the couscous to the steamer. Steam twenty minutes, uncovered. Remove from the steamer and repeat the process above with the cold water and oil and raking. At this point, you can either serve the couscous or return it to the steamer for yet another twenty minutes of steaming followed by another addition of cold water. For store-bought couscous, two steamings is certainly adequate.

This process makes couscous that is fluffy, silky, and tender. It is entirely unlike couscous cooked in water according to the instructions on the package. Yes, this method takes some time, but most of it is spent ignoring the couscous as it steams, and it is worth the effort, at least for me, and at least once in a while.

Half an hour before the tagine is done.

Pull the pith and flesh from one preserved lemon and discard. Rinse the peel well. Chop the peel finely, leaving some long slices for garnish.

Note: The preserved lemon flavor becomes very strong after the leftovers spend a night in the fridge. If this worries you, use the peel from only half a preserved lemon instead, or invite enough people over to avoid having leftovers.

Stir the chickpeas and preserved lemon into the tagine, and let it continue to simmer until done.

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9 Responses to “Kabocha Beef Tagine with Chickpeas and Preserved Lemon”

  1. Tanna says:

    Wow! The only way to make it work is just what you’re doing. Time is really the most valuable thing in our lives and it behoves us to spend it wisely.
    As always this is beautiful food. I do have a wonderful jar of preserved lemons in my fridge made before we went to Paris (now months ago)! When I get back from Philly next week, they must start making it onto my table.

  2. Debi says:

    What a lovely post–both the food and the content. I’m going to go start preserving some lemons as soon as I can.

    I didn’t know you could peel the chickpeas before you cooked them. That’s really good to know.

    I believe that we are always pretty much doing what we want to be doing, rather than what we say we would like to be doing. That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily happy about it–it just reflects the choices we’ve made. That you and Dave have chosen to make time together a priority shows how important it is to you both, and it is reflected in pretty much every post you write.

  3. Danielle says:

    Tanna – You’re right, of course, but it was years before I could really believe how important my time is.

    Debi – Ack, I forgot to add the step about pre-cooking the chickpeas if you are using dried ones! Edited the post to add that in. My apologies. I don’t think you can peel uncooked chickpeas.

    I look forward to seeing what you do with the preserved lemons; I’m sure you’ll come up with some new and interesting use for them!

    I believe that we are always pretty much doing what we want to be doing, rather than what we say we would like to be doing.

    I’ve made that argument before, but I’m no longer entirely convinced by it. Desire to do X is only one factor in our decisions – there is also desire not to do Y, or fear of Z, or feeling trapped, or whatnot.

  4. Yvo says:

    What a great post. I have to say, I came to your page as usual and the picture up top stopped me. You’ve outdone yourself (or of the pictures I’ve seen) because I literally had to close my favorites box on the left hoping to get a clearer view and just stared. So many textures, colors- I love it.

    Preserved lemons… I’d read somewhere they were fantastically easy and wonderful to use/eat/cook with. I’ll need to hunt out some glass jars… and then figure out how to fit them in my tiny fridge. Lovely dish, though.

    As for finding time… I don’t know, honestly. Sleep less? I took on a project this month that required me sleeping far, far less than I was used to, and though I neared the breaking point a few days ago, I finished the project last night and the sense of accomplishment… overwhelmed. In the end, it’s all about priorities and learning our limits, I suppose. Cooking, however, is something I feel is my time alone (since bf doesn’t cook and many times isn’t home when I begin cooking, or stays in the living room while I do)… it relaxes me and is almost meditative for me.

  5. Julie says:

    That’s gorgeous, Danielle. Everything you said in this post resonated strongly for me. I’m going to try this one soon — tonight it’s going to be a lamb and vegetable tagine for us, however.

  6. Danielle says:

    Yvo – Thank you so much.

    Preserved lemons really are very easy to make – I actually plan to put up another batch today, now that Meyer lemons have reappeared at the co-op.

    Learning our limits is the hardest part, I think, at least for me.

    Julie – Thank you. Let me know how it goes when you try it. (Incidentally, have you been to la Maison du Couscous? Fabulous Moroccan restaurant down in Bay Ridge.)

  7. [...] and creamy, stir in some sweet cherries, which you have previously halved and pitted. Mince some preserved lemon peel and stir that in, [...]

  8. Hey extremely great blog!!

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November 2006
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