Lamb Tagine with Olives & Dates

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Last night, a marvelous thing happened - it was light until 7:30 PM.  I'll sacrifice an hour of sleep if it means the days seem longer, the afternoons stretch into evening without notice, and there are more daylight hours when I'm out of the office and awake.  I like winter, but I love spring.

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While there is still a chill in the air (it was a windy winter wonderful here on Saturday), you should make this lamb tagine.  Rob and I went to Morocco a few years ago and after a week straight of tagines and mint tea, we swore them off forever -- until now.   A tagine refers not only to the North African cooking vessel, but also to the dish that is slow-cooked in the vessel (and no special vessel is used in this recipe).  With this dish, the lamb stews in a broth of red wine, dates, olives, capers, and brown sugar, which melds into the most flavorful broth and results in tender lamb that falls off the bone.  The spices used in this dish reminded me of the spice pyramids pictured above that are ubiquitous in Moroccan markets - certainly meant to draw in tourists (it worked), but impressive all the same.

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This dish is a perfect main course for a dinner party because you prep the lamb, put it in the oven, and 2 hours later your home will smell incredible and dinner will be ready.  J provided me with the recipe via a cooking class she attended, and I took her suggestion and served it with Israeli couscous, as well as a green salad and sourdough bread (necessary for sopping up the broth).

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Tagine of Lamb with Olives and Dates

Adapted from a recipe from Julie Lackner via Sunday Roasts by Betty Rosbottom

Serves 4

Note - I doubled this recipe and had to use a leg of lamb instead of lamb shanks.  Doubling the recipe worked, but the second baking of the lamb in step 4 took about 70 minutes instead of 50-60.  For a dinner party of 6, the doubled recipe easily served everyone and we had leftovers as well.  Just be conscious of the lamb not being too crowded in the pot.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 1/2 to 4 pounds lamb shanks (or leg of lamb - I used leg of lamb because the store was out of shanks)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon coarsely ground black pepper

2 teaspoons dried thyme 

3 bay leaves, broken in half

1/2 cup green Mediterranean olives (pitted is best for your guests, but unpitted will work)

1/3 cup capers with a little bit of their juice 

1 cup dry red wine

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/3 cup light brown sugar

12 large Medjool dates, unpitted (J used figs, so try figs if you have then already or can't find dates)

2 pinches red pepper flakes*

Preparation

1.  Arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Heat oil in a large, non reactive, deep-sided pot with a lid (e.g., a Dutch oven) set over high heat.  When hot, add the lamb and brown on all sides (4-5 minutes).  Remove the pot from the heat.

3.  In a small bowl, combine the cumin, salt, pepper, and thyme and sprinkle the mixture over the lamb.  Add the bay leaves, olives, and capers to the pot.  Pour the wine and vinegar over the lamb, then sprinkle the sugar over the mixture.  Cover the pan tightly with a double layer of aluminum foil, then with the lid.

4.  Bake the lamb for 45 minutes, then remove the pot from the oven and turn the meat.  Add the dates, cover again with the foil and lid, and continue to cook until the meat is fork-tender, about 50-60 minutes more.

5.  Remove the pot from the oven and uncover it.  Stir in the red pepper flakes and 1/2 cup water.  If serving the lamb immediately, arrange the lamb shanks in a serving bowl or on a platter and ladle the sauce with the dates and olives over the lamb.  Slice the lamb prior to serving and remind your guests if there are pits in the olives and/or dates!  Be sure to ladle the sauce over the lamb when serving.  

6.  This dish can be prepared up to 2 days in advance.  After step 4, allow the lamb to cool.  Cover the pot with the foil and lid and refrigerate.  Reheat, covered with foil and lid, in a 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven until hot, about 25 minutes.  We had leftovers from this dish and the lamb may have been even better a day or two later after soaking in the broth.

* The original recipe calls for 1/4 teaspoon of harissa, a Tunisian hot chile sauce.  I couldn't find harissa at my grocery store, but if you have it, great!  You can order it from Amazon and I think next time I make this I'll give it a try.

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