Lamb Tagine with Green Olives and Preserved Lemon

Tagine is a dish that you either love or hate, though I honestly don’t understand how you can hate something so deeply satisfying. I have to admit that a lot of middle eastern food leaves me entirely cold, quite probably because it is so desperately badly cooked here in Malaysian restaurants. So if, like me, you can’t possibly bear the thought of another dry as shoe leather skewer of sinewy lamb, here’s a recipe that will change your mind forever!

Tagine is traditionally served with bread, not rice or couscous, though I have served it with both (not at the same time, obviously) and no one complained. If you think you have enough energy to make your own bread, check out this recipe Moroccan Flat Bread – Khobz

Possibly the Best Lamb Tagine Ever

For the lamb marinade:
  • 1.4kg – 1.6kg lamb shoulder roast
  • 1½ preserved lemons (pulp only)
  • 1 big handful cilantro
  • ½ handful of English parsley (that’s the curly variety)
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 Tbsp smoked paprika
  • 2 Tbsp ginger powder
  • 2 tbsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp finely ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tsp ras el hanout (if you have it)
  • 75ml saffron water (from 0.1g saffron)
  • 3 Tbsp good olive oil

I usually buy a shoulder roast and then just take the netting off, flatten it out and cut it into nice big dice, about 4cm. When I say dice, it’s only in the loosest sense. Lamb shoulder will give you all sorts of shapes and sizes, so just try to even it out. I trim off some of the solid fat, but just some. You really do want some nice lamb fat for flavour.

Grab a nice big bowl that will comfortably fit all you lamb pieces and still fit into the chiller. Cut the flesh out of the preserved lemons and chop it fine. Keep the peel for later, we will be adding some of it to the tagine. Put the saffron threads into a small jug and pour 75ml warm (not boiling!) water on the threads. Leave this to infuse and release its colour and flavour for some 15 minutes.

Wash and dry the cilantro and parsley and chop it all together reasonably fine. You can use some of the cilantro stalks, but try to keep to just the leaves of the parsley. Peel, chop and finely mash the garlic. You could do this in a mortar and add the salt to it to make a paste. It’s faster, but you will have to wash up one additional item.

Mix all the dry spices together in the bowl, add the chopped pulp, the herbs and salt, oil and saffron water, so basically everything. Add the lamb dice and mix well to coat all the pieces evenly. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. You can do this the day before and leave the lamb overnight. If you are in a hurry, you could leave the lamb at room temperature for an hour and get a decent enough marination, but honestly it is best to do this in the morning and then make the tagine that same evening.

For the tagine:
  • 2 big onions, finely chopped, about 300g-400g
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp fine salt
  • 1 tsp turmeric powder
  • our marinated lamb
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • 150ml second saffron water (from the same saffron threads)
  • about 2 dozen green olives (which is a normal sized can or jar)
  • thinly sliced peel from 1 preserved lemon
  • roughly chopped cilantro to garnish

I have to confess that I do not have a tagine dish, so I use a very big paella pan and cover it with aluminium foil. It’s 30cm in diameter, so I have to link two pieces of foil together to make on that is wide enough. You do that by placing one piece on top of the other and then folding the edge over two or three times before opening the two sheets up. This makes sure no steam can escape from the pan. You can make this with pretty much any fire and oven-proof dish, as long as it can be well sealed with a lid, or with aluminium.

Pre-heat your oven to 160ºC. Spread all the chopped onion evenly in your dish, sprinkle with salt and turmeric. To get the turmeric to be even, mix it with the salt and then sprinkle this mix over (I obviously didn’t think of this early enough). Place the marinated lamb in one layer over the onions. Don’t worry if this is a bit of a squeeze. The meat will shrink when cooking and it will all come out just nice. Make sure to add whatever marinade is left in the bottom of the bowl and don’t wash the bowl just yet. Make a second batch of saffron water with the previous strands and 150ml water, wash the bowl out with that and reserve the liquid plus whatever solids there may be.  

Put your pan on a medium fire and once it starts to bubble, cover it loosely with your aluminium foil. Leave to simmer for 15 minutes, until the juices have come out of the lamb and onions. Add the saffron water you used to wash you your marinating bowl. Turn off the heat, cover the pan tightly with the aluminium foil, making sure there are no cracks or tears and put it into your oven. Leave to slow cook for 1½ hours. I want my lamb to be really soft and fall apart delicious, so I do not check it at all, I just trust my oven.

Remove from the oven and gently lift the foil. Check that the lamb is tender and check the seasoning. There is normally no need for any additional salt, as the preserved lemon is quite salty, but if you feel you need more salt, just sprinkle a little all over. Do not stir the pan! Now pour the lemon juice all over, distribute the olives evenly and cover with the preserved lemon rind julienne. Put the pan back on the fire and just bring it to a simmer for 5 minutes to make sure the olives are warm and you’re ready to serve.

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