It's the time of year when I have an urge to travel. Call it cabin fever or simply the craving to be somewhere warm and exotic, where the sights, sounds and smells of a new culture are revitalizing. It just so happens that this is also the time of year when my urge to travel collides with real life. It's the middle of the school year, I have work deadlines and the contents of my piggy bank were spent at Christmas. So, instead, I improvise, and my travel occurs in the kitchen, where I replace my passport with the jars in my spice cabinet and concoct recipes inspired by the flavors and aromas of far-flung destinations.
This lamb stew is inspired by the cuisine of North Africa; I've combined elements of a traditional Moroccan tagine with Mrouzia, a rich celebratory stew flavored with fruit and honey. This Moroccan stew's sweetness is scaled back by reducing the honey (or brown sugar, in this case) and relying on dried apricots, which melt into the stock while simmering.
A key ingredient in this recipe is ras el hanout, which is an important spice blend in North African cuisine. The name, translated, means "head of the shop" -- or the best on offer -- and includes a laundry list of aromatic and piquant spices. Like many spice blends, there is no singular way to make it, and variations exist from home to home and merchant to merchant. You can find ras el hanout in the spice section of your supermarket or in specialty stores. (Or you can just make your own blend.)
Moroccan Lamb Stew With Chickpeas and Apricots
(Note: The meat can be rubbed with the spices and cooked straightaway, but if you have the time, rub the meat the night before preparing and refrigerate. The longer the meat can marinate in the spices, the deeper the flavor.)
Active time: 1 hour
Total time: 4 hours
Yield: 6 servings
1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
2 1/2 to 3 pounds lamb shoulder or leg, excess fat trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon grated fresh peeled ginger
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
1 (15-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes
2 to 3 cups chicken stock
12 dried unsulphured apricots (or dried figs), halved
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons ras el hanout
1 large carrot, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons brown sugar or honey
Harissa or red chili paste, optional
Fresh cilantro sprigs
Combine the 1/4 cup olive oil, the coriander, cumin, paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper in a small bowl and mix to form a paste. Place the lamb in a large bowl and rub the paste all over the meat. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour (or refrigerate for up to 24 hours).
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven or ovenproof pot with lid over medium-high. Add the lamb in batches and brown on all sides, taking care to not overcrowd the pan. Transfer the lamb to a plate or bowl and repeat with remaining lamb.
Pour off the fat and add 1 tablespoon oil and the onion to the same pot. Saute the onion over medium until softened, 2 to 3 minutes, stirring up the brown bits. Add the garlic, ginger and red chili flakes and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, 2 cups chicken stock, the apricots, cinnamon stick, ras el hanout, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Return the lamb and any collected juices to the pot and submerge in the stock. (Add more chicken stock to cover, if necessary.) Bring to a boil, then cover the pot and transfer to the oven and cook until the lamb is tender, about 2 hours, stirring once or twice.
Transfer the pot to the stovetop and stir in the carrots and chickpeas. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat until the carrots are tender and the sauce reduces and thickens to a stew consistency, about 20 minutes, skimming the fat as much as possible. Stir in the brown sugar and taste for seasoning. If more heat is desired, stir in a few teaspoons of harissa.
Serve warm, ladled over couscous, and garnish with cilantro.
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