I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that Winter is over and Spring is here. I know, I know, there's still plenty of time for me to be proved wrong - there's been snow after Easter before - but I've seen the signs and I believe. What signs? My knee high boots and thick winter coat are starting to feel a bit ludicrous, like when you see people wearing shorts in the snow. It's now light when I leave work in the evenings, and when I get up in the mornings. Flowers are growing outside in gardens and window boxes (including little daffodils outside our bedroom windows, which are officially the cheeriest thing since Doris Day). The sun shone all weekend - not only shone, but was warm! - and for the first time ever, my husband and I did some gardening. In our new garden. We even hung our washing outside to dry, somewhat over-optimistically.
Most conclusive of all, my husband's hay fever has started. His nose is the official Siren of Spring for me and when 14 sneezes in quick succession rang through the balmy air, I knew the truth. So long, Winter! It's been nice knowing you, but it's time for you to bugger off and for me to pack away my extra-thick bed socks and coax the windows open. It'll be barbecues and ice lollies before we know it and, as the proud owners of a garden for the first time ever, I. Cannot. Wait.
While it's still just about chilly enough at evenings to get away with lighting the fire, dinner parties will take place inside. We had a few friends round this weekend to see the new house and that means that we needed food that could be prepared in advance, required little to no last minute faffing, and was easy to make. In other words, we needed Nigella.
This recipe comes from a book which I don't actually own, but it's all over the internet (legitimately) so we went for it. And we were not disappointed. This is the most gorgeously sticky, sweet, spicy, tender, meaty, rich tagine you can imagine, dark and intense and an all round blinder. We also made Nigella's suggested accompaniment, a sort of red onion and pomegranate relish about which my partner in crime had been hugely sceptical. I blithely ignored him and my faith was rewarded - it was fresh and sharp and zingy, a lovely contrast to the tagine itself. Served up with some chickpea-d couscous and roasted courgette, everyone had seconds and some people even had thirds. With a few crunchy nibbly things to start, the ohmygodamazing chocolate sorbet to follow and a selection of cheeses that are making my mouth water even now, two days on, I think we might just have found our new dinner party menu.
We did make a few changes, though. We'd first tested the tagine a couple of weeks ago, just for the two of us, and although we'd loved the flavour we felt the that the lamb came out a bit tough. This time round, we went to a butcher (I know! it's like we're from the 1950s) and asked which cut he'd recommend for such long, slow cooking. On his advice, we replaced leg of lamb with fillet, and it was a triumph - the meat was so much more tender, and really fell to shreds on the fork. We also increased the onions and the liquid, to make slightly more sauce, and cooked it for longer than she recommended.
The thing that really showed us that this was meant to be? On the morning of the dinner, we went for the first time to a Majestic wine shop to stock up. When the friendly woman asked if we needed any help, we asked for her recommendation of a wine to go with a spicy lamb dish - and it turned out that her "Recipe of the Week" on the tasting bench was the exact same recipe! So she had already chosen five wines to go perfectly with our EXACT dinner plan, and we had the chance to taste-test them all. Isn't that spooky? I've never felt more like a demographic. And I loved it. On current form, it's going to be a very good Spring!
Lamb and Date Tagine
Adapted from Nigella, available here
- 5 onions, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons of ground coriander (it was meant to be turmeric, we freestyled)
- 2 teaspoons of ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons of ground ginger
- 2 teaspoons of ground allspice
- 1.3kg of lamb fillet, diced
- 500g soft, dried, pitted dates
- 400ml pomegranate juice
- 400ml water
- salt, pepper, olive oil
If you have a fancy flameproof casserole, then you can do this all in one pot and cook it in the hob. We prepared it in a big, deep frying pan then transferred to a casserole dish and cooked it in the oven, so if you're doing the same then preheat the oven to 150C.
Warm a splash of olive oil in a large, wide pan and add the onions, stirring occasionally over a gentle heat for about ten minutes, or until softened. Add all the spices and stir well, then chuck in the lamb and turn the heat up high. Turn the meat frequently until browned on all sides.
Add the dates, pomegranate juice and water then season and bring to the boil. Either turn the heat right down and cook gently for a couple of hours, or transfer to a casserole dish and cook in the oven for 2 hours.
We cooked this in advance to let the flavours mingle, and just reheated it in the oven, adding a little water if it looked too thick.
Pomegranate and Red Onion Relish
Source as above
- 2 red onions
- 100ml fresh lime juice (we used one lime and one lemon)
- 100ml pomegranate juice and a small pack of seeds (you could just buy a whole pomegranate and use that)
- pinch of salt
- fresh coriander or parsley
Cut the onions in half, then into incredibly thin slices (or slice themn the food processor, which is the most fun ever). Combine the onion and juices in a bowl and leave to marinate
for about half an hour - this will stop the onions being too "raw oniony". Yes, that is a good description.
After half an hour, drain the onion (discarding the liquid) then mix with the pomegranate seeds and a sprinkling of salt. Nigella also adds chopped coriander but I hate it with a passion so I left it out and used some parsley instead.