It’s wanderlust time, and this year it’s a doozy. Thanks to the seasonal convergence of cabin fever, post-holiday decompression and (elephant in the room) pent-up travel cravings, the urge to flee to a far-flung destination is all-consuming. Dreams of leaving the careful confines of our homes and comfort of our fleece jammies (which we now refer to as Day Clothes) tease and distract. Yet, real life persists, and we refrain from jumping on an airplane, as our dreams also happen to collide with practical matters, such as work, school, weather and, yes, a healthy dose of caution.
So why not improvise and bring travel home to your kitchen? Tuck away the passport, hold off on booking a reservation, and turn to your spice cabinet and a cookbook (much less expensive than a plane ticket) for relief and cultural inspiration. It won’t be the same as a long-haul vacation, of course, but at least you can stay in your pajamas.
Today, we travel to Morocco. This stew is fragrant and meaty, softly sweetened with figs, heady with harissa, and redolent with ras el hanout, which is a North African spice blend consisting of an entire shelf of spices, including cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, ginger and clove. Ras el hanout is an Arabic term that means head of the shop or best on offer.
The blend will vary from cook to cook, or merchant to merchant, and can contain upward of 50 spices. It’s an essential ingredient to the deep and rich flavor of this stew. You don’t need 50 spices to make your own blend, and most likely you have many of the key spices at home, so I’ve included a recipe below to make your own. Otherwise, you can purchase ras el hanout in the spice aisle of well-stocked supermarkets.
North African Lamb Stew With Figs and Chickpeas
Active time: 30 minutes
Total time: 3 to 3 1/2 hours
Yield: Serves 6
2 1/2 to 3 pounds boneless lamb leg, excess fat trimmed, cut in 1 1/2- to 2-inch chunks
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
1 (14-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes with juice
2 cups chicken stock
12 dried Turkish figs, halved
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
2 teaspoons ras el hanout (recipe below)
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, drained
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon harissa or red chili paste
Chopped fresh cilantro leaves for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Generously season the lamb with salt and pepper.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large Dutch oven or ovenproof pot with lid over medium-high heat. Add the lamb in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan, and brown well on all sides. Transfer the lamb to a bowl.
Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from the pot (or add 1 tablespoon oil). Add the onion and carrot and saute until soft, about 3 minutes, stirring up any brown bits. Add the garlic and ginger and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then stir in the cumin, coriander and paprika, and stir for 15 to 30 seconds to lightly toast the spices.
Add the lamb and any collected juices, the tomatoes, stock, figs, cinnamon stick, ras el hanout, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. The lamb should be submerged in the stock. If not, add additional stock to cover.
Bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and transfer to the oven. Cook until the lamb is very tender, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. Transfer to the stovetop and stir in the chickpeas, brown sugar and harissa. Simmer over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, then taste for seasoning.
Ladle into bowls. Serve garnished with fresh cilantro.
Ras El Hanout
Makes scant 1/2 cup
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne
Combine all the spices together in a bowl and mix well. Store in a glass jar in a cool, dark place for up to 3 months.