As this first-time buyer pulled his shiny new Crock-Pot out of the box and set it on the counter, I was momentarily overcome with a sense of dread.
Was I, in some culinary sense, giving up? Had I succumbed to the cooking equivalent of saying the heck with it and doing my grocery shopping while wearing a winter coat over my pajamas?
I turned to Facebook for reassurance. “Yours is the last household in America to own one,” was the collective response. Then came their favorite recipes.
“It’s the best way to cook a ham,” said one (sprinkle with brown sugar and eight hours later, voilà).
“I have two words for you: overnight oatmeal,” added another (set the timer, and it’s ready when you wake up).
A third clued me in to über-chef Thomas Keller’s recipe for slow-cooker cassoulet, which sounded brilliant but required — surprise, surprise — a $299 slow cooker, one with a stovetop-ready aluminum liner. My midmarket department store version, with its crock-like ceramic pot (not too far afield from the original 1971 model), came in about a fifth of that price.
For decades, what has kept me away from this wildly handy gizmo is the fear of re-creating the mushy, monochromatic stews that emerged from the Harvest Gold you-know-what in my parents’ kitchen.
Which means I have been willfully ignoring decades of recipe development progress.
(And yes, I realize that the generic term for Crock-Pot is slow cooker — I mean, the appliance I purchased was manufactured by Cuisinart, not the good folks at Jarden Consumer Solutions, makers of the actual Crock-Pot — but I’m the kind of person who says “Kleenex” when they mean “tissue,” and Cool Whip when asking for “frozen nondairy whipped topping.”)
To kick off my kitchen’s Brave New Crock-Pot Era, I began flipping through cookbooks, and the word tagine caught my eye. It looked easy — I’m always on the hunt for a new ways to deal with chicken thighs — but my first thought was, “Why bother with cooking when I could go to Saffron?”
That’s chef Sameh Wadi’s downtown Minneapolis restaurant, and home to the city’s most beautiful tagines, those aromatic, slow-simmered Moroccan stews.
It didn’t help that the recipe looked a little, I don’t know, drab. Then it occurred to me: What would Sameh do?
Revamp, that’s what. I got him on the phone, and within 30 seconds, he had replaced the original recipe’s flat, two-note cumin/cayenne spice combination (2 teaspoons of the former, 1 ½ teaspoons of the latter) with ras el hanout.
The complex and lively Moroccan spice staple can contain dozens of ingredients. It’s fairly easy to find. Wadi prepares his own version, selling it under his own Spice Trail label. His deeply fragrant and flavorful formula is constantly changing.
“Right now there’s about 42 different spices in it,” he said, rattling off saffron, rosebuds, ginger, lavender, cardamom, cumin and coriander and then mentioning five different peppers. And that’s just for starters. “It hits every part of the palate,” he said.
Wadi prepares new batches every few weeks, so the results are always remarkably fresh.
“If it doesn’t sell, it goes into rotation at the restaurant, and we package new ones,” he said. Open a jar ($12), and its transformative powers are instantly clear. “It’s supersubtle, so a little goes a long way,” he says. “Those 2-ounce jars can last up to a year.”
(To clarify: Wadi also markets a tagine blend, but its dark, earthy nature is designed to complement lamb or beef and even some vegetables, but not chicken. Spice Trail blends are available at Saffron Restaurant & Lounge and World Street Kitchen, and online at www.saffronmpls.com.)
Back to the recipe. The original called for fresh lemon slices. “But I would use preserved lemon,” said Wadi. “That’s one of the flavor profiles that you would find in a chicken tagine.”
Like ras el hanout, commercially prepared preserved lemon is available at Mediterranean specialty food stores, such as Holy Land and Bill’s Imported Foods. Wadi’s favorite is the Les Moulins Mahjoub brand (“It’s really good because they use Moroccan lemons, and Moroccan salt,” he said). A 7-oz. jar of the thick-skinned citrus is $7.95 at Sur la Table. At Cooks of Crocus Hill, a 16-oz. house-made jar is $12.50.
Wadi also switched up two finishing touches. He replaced parsley with cilantro, and rather than garnishing with wedges of fresh lemon, he suggested flavor-concentrated peel of the preserved lemon. The results were impressive.
Is there a slow cooker in the Saffron kitchen? As a matter of fact, yes.
“It’s great for holding caramel sauce at the perfect temperature,” said Wadi with a laugh. “That’s what we use it for.”
And no, Wadi doesn’t shrink in horror at the thought of a slow-cooker tagine.
“Actually, it makes sense,” he said. “You know, tagines are all about ‘low and slow,’ and the dome over the pot circulates the flavors. It doesn’t replace the traditional way to prepare a tagine, but I think it’s an interesting alternative.”
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