Tagines come in various sizes and colors to make the Moroccan stew of the same name. - Jim Craven

Ancient comfort food

From the ancient Arab marketplace to gourmet emporiums like Allyson's Kitchen.

It's the unlikely path of the tagine, the signature slow-cooked and heavily seasoned dish of Morocco that lately has been embraced by adventurous American gourmets.

"People aren't traveling as much, and this is kind of a way to experience exotic lands without leaving home," says Allyson Holt, chef and co-owner of Allyson's Kitchen in Ashland.

While a traditional tagine's spices — cinnamon, cumin, fennel — transport cooks to Africa, India and the Mediterranean, the dish itself isn't so unfamiliar to Westerners. Essentially a stew that can combine all manner of meats, vegetables and fruits, tagine is pure comfort food, Holt says.

"These are really one-pot meals."

Popular tagines include chicken with olives and preserved lemon; meatballs in tomato sauce with eggs; lamb with prunes, almonds and onions; as well as simple tagines of meat and seasonal vegetables. Sweet, savory and salty flavors collide in the single dish, Holt says.

For serving, Moroccan families often sit around one piping-hot, communal tagine pot at the table and use fresh bread to mop up the juices and scoop up the vegetables. The meat is saved until last, when it is divided up among the family.

But it's a bit of an oversimplification to call tagine "a dish," for the term refers not only to a multitude of stews, but also to the unusual conical vessels in which they are cooked.

Traditionally made of clay, tagines allow liquid to slowly evaporate, condense on the chimney-like lid and reinfuse the food with moisture, leading to incredibly tender meat.

"You use a very gentle heat working from the bottom up," says Paula Wolfert, who pioneered North African cuisine in America with her 1973 cookbook, "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco."

"The point of a real tagine, authentic tagine, is to start low and stay low."

While nomadic Berbers of North Africa originally used the pots on slow-burning embers around the fire, modern tagines can be ceramic, stainless steel or cast iron and are intended for direct-flame or oven cooking. Allyson's carries four styles, ranging in price from an authentic Tunisian vessel for $69 to Le Creuset's heavy-duty tagine for $149. Kitchen goods catalogs also feature multiple models, and the Internet offers dozens of retail sources, including

However, Crock-Pots and Dutch ovens also make tasty tagines, Holt says. To that effect, the first tagine recipes that appeared decades ago in American cooking magazines instructed readers to use a casserole dish.

So why buy a tagine?

"It's obviously decorative, and it's a conversation piece," Holt says. "If you have it out on your counter, people are going to go, 'What's that?' "

And tagines easily can be used for other cuisines. Just about anything that need to simmer or braise could benefit from the incredibly gentle cooking of a tagine. Think root vegetables, short ribs or any tougher, less-expensive cut of meat, Holt says.

"It's just a great baking vessel."

About half of the students who attend her Moroccan class wind up purchasing a tagine, Holt says. Offered every quarter for the past year, the class remains popular, not least for Holt's efforts to infuse it with drama, washing students' hands and scenting them with orange-blossom water, welcoming them with a traditional mint tea and engaging belly-dancers for entertainment.

"People are so excited about it."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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