My life feels more locked down now than it did during Lockdown. I’ve been trying to unpick why…a combination of a work boom (I’ve currently got 10 projects on the go with more in the pipeline, and some of them are deeply complicated), tempered with the age of Zoom (no-one goes anywhere any more, we’re at home chained to desks and video calls) and of course it’s February so even if we do venture out, there’s the gale force wind to contend with. Matt’s business is also running at its limits and he often works 7 days a week, so when my work ends, childcare and housecare begins. Somewhere, somehow, a social life or a creative life seem to have edged away.
Now obviously we are extremely blessed and I am aware that moaning is not really on – but running two businesses is hard and the juggle is real. There’s only so much that can be taken out before something has to go back in…sometimes I need to press pause. I was on a video call with colleagues in Bangladesh the other week (Bangladesh! Because it’s 2022 and that’s how we work now!) when this chap wandered onto the flat roof next to my office window. Did I stop the meeting to swivel the laptop around and show him to the group? Of course I did.
I mention all this because whilst I do have time to look at visiting foxes, I don’t seem to find time to really cook anymore. Obviously I make food….but I don’t really cook. Dinners need to be ready pretty much instantly, to refuel in the 30 minute gap between bath time and bedtime stories. And if Matt’s working at the weekend then there’s no real point in making extravagant dishes, for who will eat them? It’s such an easy slide into the world of convenience and fast cooking, but I am realising that my soul needs slow. The devoted attention to a puttering stew. The gentle tap of a wooden spoon when creaming butter and sugar by hand. The satisfaction of turning a mess of flour and water into dough as soft as a baby’s bottom.
So I’m trying, even if only once a week, to make something more involved. Last week it was sausage rolls with rough-puff pastry, plus a tray of parmesan pinwheels with the leftover pastry scraps. This week, it’s tagine.
This tagine comes from Rick Stein’s French Odyssey, and used to be a family favourite until we both got so busy that we forgot to make it. Matt actually made this back in the very very early days, to give me the impression that he could cook. (Note – he’s an excellent cook, he just doesn’t do it very often). There’s room for your own take on the veg: he adds green peppers, I add sweet potato.
A word on the meat. If you can, don’t use lamb at all – go for mutton. You’ll get a better flavour and a better texture for long, slow cooking. For this I used a half leg of Herdwick mutton that I picked up in the Lakes last year; it’s been in the freezer obviously. I boned the leg and cut the meat into generous portions, and then meat AND bone went into the pot (it’s all flavour). Lamb shanks or shoulder would do just as well.
The ras el hanout is essential and can be found in any supermarket or halal shop. Mine actually comes from a Moroccan souk, brought back by my friend Claire as a holiday souvenir (this was pre-Covid, which says a lot about the antiquity of my spice box). You will require a very big pot to hold this vast dish.
Moroccan lamb tagine
From Rick Stein’s French Odyssey. Makes 6 very generous portions.
2kg lamb or mutton – ideally on the bone – leg, shoulder or shanks
4 teaspoons ras al hanout
450g carrots, chopped into generous lengths
200g onions, sliced
8 new potatoes, such as Charlottes
1 can tomatoes
75g dried apricots
2 tablespoons honey
1.2 litres or thereabouts, chicken stock
3 bay leaves
salt and pepper
400g sweet potato, peeled and chopped into generous dice (optional)
1 green pepper, chopped into generous lengths (optional)
For the spice paste:
4 garlic cloves
2 small red onions or shallots
1 red chilli
Stalks from a small bunch of coriander
salt and pepper
For the spice paste, put the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until smooth – let it down with a drop of water if needed.
Trim the meat of any excess fat. If using shoulder or leg, you will want to remove the bone and dice the meat into generous chunks. Shanks can be left whole. Season with salt and pepper.
In a very large pot big enough to take the whole stew, warm some olive oil and brown the meat (plus any saved bones) on all sides. This will need to happen in stages. Once browned, set the meat aside.
In the same pan, heat a little more oil and add the spice paste. Soften for a few minutes on a low heat. Add the ras al hanout and cook for one minute, then tip in the onions, carrots and potatoes and turn over in the spice. Add the tomatoes and stock, and bring to a simmer.
Return the meat plus any saved bones to the pan. Add the apricots, honey, bay leaves, salt and pepper, then cover. Either cook on the hob or put into a slow oven, 160c.
After one hour, check the stew, give it a stir, then add the peppers and sweet potatoes if using.
Return the stew to the hob/oven, and cook until the meat is tender. Lamb will need a total of about 2 hours, mutton a little longer. Check the seasoning and add more salt, pepper or honey as required. If the stew is watery, cook with the lid off for the last thirty minutes or so.
This is perfectly good the next day. You may want to fish the bones out before serving – cooks perk. Serve with couscous.
Also this week/month:
Cooking and eating: Very little, I live off tea, pasta and toast. Matt made some cumin-spiked potato cakes to go with the tagine. Black banana cake. Some seasonal rhubarb and blood oranges have made it to the house, as have the first hot cross buns of the season.
Allotment: It’s still there despite the gales. Sowed snapdragons. At home, the iris reticulata is flowering, as are the amaryllis and paperwhites.
Also: Indoor child entertainment is the order of the day: Legoland Discovery Centre, Sealife Centre, YouTube, Lego and Star Wars.