Saturday, October 21, 2017


In the desert, late afternoon sun turns the dunes to gold.

The late rays of sun turn the dunes golden orange. We are trekking by dromedary through the Erg Chebbi desert (southeastern Morocco), heading towards a camp of jaimas, for dinner, a night under stars and dawn on the Great Dune. As the sun descends, shadows grow long. The day’s radiant heat abates.

Shadows grow long. Selfie with camel.

Camp for the night--tents in a watering hole set amongst the dunes. Camels wait outside the enclosure.

The caravansary is a group of tents enclosing an open area with low tables and carpets spread on the sand. A few trees ring the enclosure that is tucked in the folds of a sea of dunes. The camels are parked outside for the night.

What's for dinner? Tagine bubbling on a rustic cooker inside a tent.
In a rustic kitchen, our dinner is bubbling away. Dinner is tagine. Tagine is the word for both the finished dish, a stew of meat and vegetables, as well as the cooking vessel, which is an earthenware or metal pot with a shallow base and conical lid.

Morning. First rays of sun break over the dunes.

Salutation to the sun. We've climbed a short way up the Grand Dune.

In a week travelling in Morocco, I ate tagine every single day. There was beef with prunes (twice); kefta meatballs with eggs (twice); chicken with carrots, eggplant and potatoes, and chicken with preserved lemon and olives.

Tagine has long been one of my favorite dishes to cook for family and for guests. I love the simplicity of its preparation—ingredients are layered in the tagine with spices and a little liquid is added. Grated onions in the bottom provide flavor and substance. On top, pieces of meat or chicken and vegetables simmer slowly beneath that conical lid. The lid traps steam and keeps it circulating, resulting in tender food, full of flavor. There’s no browning, no stirring.

However, since I converted last year to an induction cooktop (requiring only steel pans), I haven’t prepared tagine at all. I decided that, instead of getting rid of the clay tagine, I would try it in the oven!

Tagine with kefta meatballs, eggplant, spices and eggs. This version has been cooked in the oven.

Kefta Meatball Tagine with Eggs
Tagín con Albóndigas con Huevo

Kefta are very small (1 inch) meatballs, well-seasoned with spices and simmered in a spicy tomato sauce. Ground lamb is best, but beef or chicken can be used instead. Neither bread nor egg is added to the meat, so the kefta are quite dense. (The seasoned meat can also be pressed onto skewers and grilled as kebabs.)

A clay tagine is heavy. Take care in lifting it in and out of the oven. Remove lid first, taking care not to release steam towards your face. Then lift out the bottom. Place each on an insulated board, never on a cold surface.

If you don’t have an earthenware or ceramic tagine, use an oven-safe lidded pan or shallow lidded casserole.

Use a food processor to finely chop together the onion (2 or 3, depending on size) and garlic. Use it for both the meatballs and the sauce. Spices, too, are divided between meatballs and sauce.

Bread for dipping into spicy sauce.

How to serve tagine. In a  Moroccan home, the tagine is served on a low table. Family members sit around the table and eat right out of the tagine, using fingers and bread to help themselves to the delicious nuggets of meat and vegetables. As part of a meal, the tagine might be served with soup or a selection of salads or an additional meat or chicken dish. It is not customary to serve rice or cous cous as a side with tagine. However, if tagine is the main dish, you may want to accompany it with more than just bread. 

Serves 4 to 6 as part of a meal.

1 pound ground lamb
1 ½ cups finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Pimentón (sweet paprika)
Hot pimentón or cayenne
Grated fresh nutmeg
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups eggplant cut in 1-inch cubes
1 ¼ cups grated fresh tomatoes
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
¼ cup hot water
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of turmeric
Sprig of fresh parsley
Sprig of cilantro
Chile pepper (optional)
3 eggs
Bread, to serve

Place the meat in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of the chopped onion and garlic. Add 1 teaspoon each of salt, cumin and sweet pimentón. Add ¼ teaspoon each of black pepper and hot pimentón. Add a grating of fresh nutmeg. Add the chopped parsley and cilantro. Using hands, mix the meat and spices until they are combined very well.

Shape the meat mixture into small (1-inch) balls. Place them on a sheet pan and refrigerate until ready to cook the tagine.

Place kefta on a base of finely chopped onions.
Place 2 tablespoons oil in the bottom of tagine or alternative lidded casserole. Spread the remaining chopped onion and garlic in the bottom of the pan. Place the meatballs in a single layer on top of the onions. Tuck the cubes of eggplant in among the meatballs. Spread the grated tomato pulp on top.

Add the crushed saffron to the hot water in a small bowl and let soak 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon each of salt, cumin and sweet pimentón to the bowl. Add ¼ teaspoon each of black pepper, hot pimentón and cinnamon to the bowl. Stir in a pinch of turmeric. Stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of oil.

Drizzle the spice-oil mixture over the tomatoes. Place sprigs of parsley and cilantro in the center and chile, if using, on top. Cover the tagine or casserole.

Ready to cook--tomatoes and spices on top of the meatballs and eggplant cubes.

Place the tagine in a cold oven and set temperature to 350ºF (180ºC). Let the tagine cook 1 hour.

Very carefully, lift off the tagine lid. Remove the tagine from the oven to check if it needs additional liquid. Do not stir it. Return the tagine to the oven. Replace the lid.

Cook 45 minutes more. Remove carefully, as before. Tomatoes should be thickened and eggplant very soft. Use a spoon to make indentations in the surface. Break an egg into each. Return the tagine to the oven and replace the lid. Cook until whites are set, but yolks still liquid, 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove the tagine from the oven. Eggs will continue to cook from residual heat. Serve the kefta from the tagine, removing the lid when the tagine is placed on the table. Accompany with bread.

Place the tagine right on the table. Not one egg per person--expect to break up the eggs when serving.

Bread is the essential accompaniment to tagine.

Another recipe for tagine: Chicken Tagine with Olives and Lemon.

More about clay-pot cooking in the oven: Baked Rice and Seafood Cazuela.

Erg Chebbi, desert near Merzouga, Morocco.


  1. OM goodness! My mouth is watering!! Love tagines - both the utensil and the food made in it. Had to leave my beloved one back in the States as we made this ex pat leap to Greece, but I do believe it is time to find one on my travels and order myself a cookbook! (I am saving your recipe!)

    1. JackieandJoel: Amazon España has a good selection of tagines, so presumably you can get in Greece as well. Good luck!

  2. Janet, your pictures are WONDERFUL!!! I have an earthenware tagine that I hand-carried home on the plane from Morocco many years ago.(back in the day when one could do that). It has only been used as an ornament in the kitchen, but no more! Your recipe sounds too good to not try. And, you even rode a camel!?!?!!

    1. Patty: Yep, camel ride at sunset. Good luck with the tagine.

  3. Super photo essay, Janet. Recipes seem almost as good as the stunning shadow plays. Terrific set of posts. Thank you.

    1. JohnD: Thank you for the good words! Not sure if I'm done with Morocco yet---