September 26, 2010

Project Food Blog - Challenge # 2- Cooking out of the Comfort Zone

Thanks so much for those of you that voted for me and helped me make the cut.
Today's challenge is to create a dish out of our personal comfort zone and cannot be Italian or French.

In choosing a recipe for this week's challenge, I had to face one of the problems of being an expat. As an ex-Californian, I was raised eating a myriad of international foods which were available daily. Even now, I often crave Chinese food or Mexican . I have a fabulous pantry of small bags of herb and spices, a huge collection of various dried chilies from my trips to Mexico. I carried back a tortilla press, but without the Masa Harina, it is useless. I cannot always find ingredients I need.

When I knew I was moving to live in Europe, I wanted to be able to create foods I loved wherever I lived. I hung out at Nikko, my favorite Sushi bar in SF, and learned how to make dashi, sushi rice and how to form my own rolls and rice pieces. I bought a mat and a Japanese knife to travel with. Canned wasabi powder came with me when I moved. Even making American food here is a challenge, but over the years I have been able to recreate some of my favorites both savory and sweet from all over the world.

How I chose what to cook: 
Florence finally has shops opened by immigrants from Sri Lanka, China and Africa which provide  quite a selection of international products. I am now seeing okra, corn, bok choy, lots of different fresh chili and other fresh ingredients in the shops in the Central Market downtown Florence.

But it is an hour from home.

I try to shop local and seasonal, so recreating a dish where I would have to make a special trip was out of the question. Where I live in the countryside has a rather large Moroccan population. I have never been to Morocco but adore eating couscous and had bought a tajine from my door-to-door salesman, Abramo. I have asked him to also bring me spices instead of socks, t-shirts and tablecloths which he sells from the back of his car, but so far no results!

Recently I received a copy of Paula Wolfert's Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking: Traditional and Modern Recipes to Savor and Share. What better place to start to reach out to another culture of cooking, but also staying in the Mediterranean.

my tajine and griddle for flat-bread

I had Abramo's daughter come once and teach me how to make a simple tajine so I could use the pot I had bought. She showed me a simple chicken with vegetable recipe which was lovely, but for my taste buds, a little too simple. For the challenge I wanted something that was clearly a Moroccan recipe with some of the mystery of the spice blends. My local COOP grocery store has some couscous spices and I also have some special blends I brought back from my last trip to the states, Ras el Hanout and Soumac.

I saw Lamb Tajine with Melting Tomatoes and Onions and loved the title; the long slow cooking with a tajine evokes melting meats, but never thought about the tomatoes.

Part of the project was also to stay as true as possible to a recipe. As a Tuscan cooking teacher I teach my students to learn how to cook and not to follow recipes. I have trouble following recipes now myself, but I stuck to the recipe as close was possible.

When cooking from a book, a series of questions arose:
  • how large are her onions?
  • How old is the lamb? 
  • Is it milk-fed or did she mean mutton?

I channeled my inner Paula and took to the task.

Assembling the spices was not so hard as I have Ras el Hanout and the Couscous spice in my pantry. As a pastry chef, I always have cinnamon, which is in the stew and added at the end to form a crust with sugar on top. The grocery store supplied me with red onions, which my town is famous for (but did she want white or yellow?) and young milk-fed lamb. The region I live in in famous for saffron, I bought a tiny package of threads for 4 euro.

When I was heating the lamb and the spices in the tajine, I was instantly transported out of Tuscany.
I added the water, covered the tajine and came upstairs to my computer to work for the 2 hour cooking time. I knew I was not supposed to touch it while cooking.

 The layered lamb tajine, lamb shoulder, saffron, cinnamon, raisins, onions and tomatoes 
ready for the two-hour slow covered cooking time

In wanting to stay traditional, I tried the suggested flat bread which Paola suggested, using another friend's recipe. I made Rafih Benjoullen's Moroccan Speckled Flat Bread.

Traditionally the stew is eaten by grabbing the meat in small torn pieces of the bread instead using a fork.  The recipe sounded a lot like the flour tortillas I made for Mexican food, but with a blend of whole wheat and white flour, oil instead of lard and a folding and layering technique, similar to making puff pastry. I was intrigued.

the dough was rolled out into rectangles and then slow cooked to get "black spots"

When the tajine was cooked, it is then drained of the liquid and the fat removed. The sauce gets reduced and then poured back onto the stew and lightly salted.

The only part of the recipe which I could not do was to finish the dish with a cinnamon sugar crust under the broiler. My oven blew out in a recent storm, so I could not brown in oven.

I remember the flavors from a pigeon bastilla I ate once in France, so I knew how special it would be to finish with this combination, I just added some brown sugar and cinnamon and cooked the tajine a little more to caramelize the sugar.


Paola recommended serving the tajine, layering the flat bread in pieces with the stew. I knew that the two of us were not going to be able to eat all of this at one seating, so I bordered the plate with the bread pieces and we save the extra tajine for another meal.

I adore slow cooking in clay for the flavor and ease in preparation and I have more than one meal!

Reaching out to prepare a classic recipe from another cuisine is very hard to do in a place like Italy, where even in Tuscany, trying to make a recipe from Sicily can be impossible due to the lack of regional ingredients. Italy was only united in the 1800's and still today, recipes don't travel.

It is a bitter-sweet thing that now we can get international ingredients readily, but I find that I am seeing small trattorias and other small food shops disappear and reopen as a Gyro's or Chinese take-away in downtown Florence. The air is filled with foreign smells and my Italy is disappearing.

This makes me sad.

Voting starts on Monday- here is my profile link down below and when voting starts you can click through the profile! Mille Grazie- Shukran


  1. I love the name of the recipe too. This is certainly a winner. Good luck in the competition, I would vote for you:D

  2. I have been staring and staring at tangine recipes for over a year. You have inspired me to finlly cook one. It's just gorgeous. Best of luck.

  3. Thanks Claudia-- I do so many things with mine stove top and also using the bottom for oven cooking too! food tastes fabulous-
    here in Tuscany we do a lot of clay pot cooking.

  4. That food looks amazing. I could totally eat that right this second!

    (Small suggestion, given with love: you might want to get someone to proofread your posts; there are enough errors that it got a little distracting for me.)

  5. Serene- thanks for the tip-- my friend did proofread but after i posted... what other errors do you see now. thought I got them
    I have been living in Italy way too long!!!
    and speak Italian almost exclusively and can't spell- and have problems with 's and grammer now!



  6. Gorgeous job channeling your inner Moroccan! I love it! Good luck with round 2!!!

  7. I have been transported to the fragrant street of Casablanca. Marvelous. GREG

  8. Oh this is sooooo lovely Judy!!! You have truly brought out your inner Paula! Good luck on round 2!

  9. Oh GOLLY, this looks amazing!!! I love food like this!! Best of luck- you'll certainly have my vote!

  10. I close my eyes and yes I can smell it wafting all the way to me in Alamo - yes you know this area :-) We adore Tagines and I have been cooking in them since I bought my firsty one as a student in Paris many years ago.

    Paula inspired us even more to use the many French, Italian, and Moroccan clay pots a while back when she discussed her new book (at Steve Sando's Rancho Gordo). We have always loved clay pot cooking especially in the fall and winter. There is nothing like a Cassoulet Toulousain, Pasulj Prebranac or a Tuscan Rabbit Ragù slowly developing flavours of love in a clay pot.

    I know your Tagine will win!

  11. When do you want to go? Shall I call Rent-A-Camel and we will trek across the dessert eating couscous and tagine? Shall I call Rent-A-Eunuch so our husbands won't worry? This really was a fun little challenge. Marvelous post!!
    Now I'm hungry culpa tua!

  12. I can smell it and taste it!

    Paula is the best. See my execution of her Moroccan bisteeya:
    See my entry here:

  13. Melting tomatoes?! Yes, please:)

  14. That looks delicious! Great post and you have one of my votes. Good luck!

  15. I love this post!! :) I, too, chose a Moroccan entree and I am also a transplanted Bay Area-n.

    I voted for you to move on! Good luck, though I doubt you'll need my help :)

  16. Great entry, Judy. You got one of my votes.

  17. Looks wonderful. I think I can smell it all the way over here in New Zealand - gets my vote :-)

  18. platter looks yum,..:-)

  19. I too have been staring at tajine recipes for the last several years. Excellent execution and explanation. Good Luck!

  20. Well now, check out your tagine! That's quite the thing to have in your possession. Wish we had one to cook different dishes like this. You did a great job interpreting this challenge, so you get a vote. Good luck!

  21. Great post! Looks delicious. I bet it WAS amazing. I voted for you!

    Good luck! =)

    You can check out my PFB post at :

  22. Your dish looks amazing-I love this kind of food and Paula Wolfert really is the pro, so I know the recipe is authentic and will be delicious. Now I want to go out and buy a tagine!

  23. I can almost smell it from my computer screen, lol.
    You got my vote once again.

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  25. Great post! I keep thinking about getting a tagine and this is really influencing me!! Count my vote!

  26. Thanks everyone for your vote and love of tajines!
    I adore clay pot cooking stovetop and in the oven- the flavors melt together and it is a no problem leave on the stove go do something else way to cook!
    Paola's book has a mixture of mediterranean recipes- not all Moroccan and is a great place to start. She also lists where you can get clay pots of all kinds in America!

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  29. thank you