In this blog post, Penn Press Advertising Manager Sara Davis does a bit of culinary time travel, guided by Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, and Leila Salloum Elias–the authors of Scheherazade's Feasts: Foods of the Medieval Arab World.
Cooking foods from
the past in the present season
I have a farmshare, which means that each week I receive a
box of locally and sustainably grown vegetables. It’s a true grab bag every
week, with an assortment of yearlong staples (mostly varieties of onions and
garlic) and long-awaited treats (like heirloom tomatoes in the summer and
squash in the fall). And, occasionally, a vegetable that must be dispensed with
rather than enjoyed. Fennel root was my
bête noire this week. Although I’ve come to tolerate its strong licorice-y
taste, it’s hardly my favorite.
But this week my neighbor and I tried the Lamb and Fennel
Tajine recipe from Scheherazade’s Feasts,
which caught my eye on the Penn Press Pinterest board. We had everything necessary except the lamb,
which was easily obtained. I got shoulder chops, one of the cheaper and tougher
cuts of lamb, but perfect for stewing.
The first step was to boil the meat, which was a new cooking
technique for me. I was taught to brown and then simmer meat, and thought that boiling
would toughen it and leech it of flavor. This theory was flatly disproven by
this dish. Boiling the lamb created a fragrant and flavorful broth, which we
set aside as directed. After we browned the preboiled meat, onions, and
seasonings in the pot, we returned the lamb broth to the pot, where it infused
everything else—including the fennel!–with its rich flavors. We let this stew
simmer for quite some time, causing the onions and garlic to dissolve and the
fennel and lamb to grow sweet and tender, mingling their own strong flavors
with the more subtle seasonings of caraway and coriander.
I should mention at this point that we were cooking in an
enameled cast iron Dutch oven, not a tajine. A tajine is an earthenware cooking
pot with a wide, shallow bottom and a narrow conical lid that permits steam to
escape. (The word tajine, like the word casserole, may refer to either the pot
or the stew that is made in it.) Cooking this dish in a tajine would have been
a fundamentally different experience. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that
the broad flat base would allow liquid to boil off more quickly, causing the
broth the thicken and coat the ingredients. In our smaller, deeper pot, the
broth was disinclined to reduce by much, so we ended up with a bit more of a
stew than a tajine. However, we added a pinch of flour to thicken it, and made
a pot of brown and black lentils to complete the meal (and soak up the extra
We ate ours with strips of cabbage that we had roasted while
waiting for the stew to simmer. It was an incredibly warm and comforting meal,
perfect for the cooling weather. It was also relatively easy to assemble and
prepare using ingredients that were local and seasonal in Philadelphia—a wonderful
find for a recipe that was invented in another century across the globe! But
perhaps most surprising of all is that the fennel, drenched in broth and
delicately seasoned, tasted absolutely delicious to me.
Sara Davis is the writer behind scenesofeating.com.