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North African cuisine helps melt winter away

Gordon Hamersley’s lamb tagine.
Gordon Hamersley’s lamb tagine.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Gordon Hamersley and his wife, Fiona, owned Hamersley's Bistro in the South End for 27 years, until they closed the restaurant late last year. His cooking column appears in the Food section biweekly, offering chef's tips, dishes he's been making lately, favorite recipes, and more. Read his columns on mac and cheese, cullen skink, and Pavlova.

Every New Englander has a snow story. Here's mine. A couple of weeks ago the guy who plows the driveway beached his truck in our yard. It was ugly! The two guys who came to winch him out were discussing a plan of action, and I recognized that the two were speaking Arabic. Turns out they were from Morocco, they said when I asked. And that started a conversation with one of the tow guys about his hometown and my trip to Morocco 25 years ago. I asked about his favorite lamb tagine recipe but our time was cut short by the plow guy's truck getting back on the road.

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A tagine is two things in North Africa. It is a type of clay braising pot and it is the name given to the many different dishes cooked in that pot. A tagine pot can be any size but most are perfect for cooking for four people and the design is brilliant. Made of clay and typically a reddish-brown color, the tagine has a conical top that captures the steam, turns it to condensation, and then lets that moisture fall back onto what is being cooked, making it wonderfully tender.

You don't lift the top off the pot if you can help it because you'll lose the essential condensation effect. Most tagine pots are kept at a slow simmer on top of the stove (Moroccan kitchens do not have ovens), but you need a diffuser to make sure they don't crack. I like to put them in the oven so I can maintain even heat and prevent any messy accidents. Of course, you don't need a clay tagine to make the dish. Use a Dutch oven, a crock pot, or another braising pot. When you're ready to buy a tagine, you'll be glad you did (they're available at Syrian Grocery Importing Co. in the South End, along with the spices you'll need, or at www.tagines.com).

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When I visited the Marrakesh market, I asked for a few ounces of the famous spice mixture, ras el hanout (it can have as many as 50 ingredients, which typically include cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, mace, and more). I was asked if I wanted the aphrodisiac version, with Spanish Fly added. This practice was banned sometime in the 1990s for both men and women. Damn!

Even without the additional ingredient, ras el hanout is my favorite Moroccan spice mixture and it literally means "top of the shelf." When you add it to soups and stews, the house fills up with heady, aromatic smells. It is said to be the Moroccan equivalent of a homemade Indian curry blend, and ingredients vary by region.

One classic tagine dish is made with lamb and the cut to use is the shoulder. It cooks in 2½ hours and produces very flavorful meat. Cut it into 2- to 3-inch cubes so it retains its shape and texture as it cooks. Snowy days are perfect for long slow cooking and the method brings out the best in big tough cuts of meat.

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Many braises are started by browning the meat to seal in the juices, but in Morocco cooks skip that step. They just add the uncooked meat to the pot, season it with salt and pepper, and let the mixture cook so the lamb turns wonderfully tender. Adding onions, butternut squash, fresh herbs, and toasted almonds to this braise gives it a fresh flavor that balances well with the richness of the meat.

I'm so glad the Moroccan tow truck guys came by to rescue our plow driver. It inspired me to pull out my well-worn clay tagine and fill the house with the bold flavors of North Africa on a cold winter night.

Hamersley's past columns:

Introducing a chef you already know, Gordon Hamersley

Recipe for crispy macaroni and blue cheese

Scottish fishing village soup proves quite a catch

Recipe for cullen skink with clams, leeks, and potatoes

A rare Valentine's Day together calls for a special treat


Gordon Hamersley can be reached at cookingwithgordonhamersley@gmail.com