A tagine is a North African earthenware pot with a tall, cone‑shaped lid; it’s also the name for the wonderfully aromatic and complex fish, meat, or vegetable stews that are cooked inside it. But you don’t need to own this specialty vessel to enjoy the dish, because the next best thing—a Dutch oven with a tight‑fitting lid—is also commonly used. I set out to create a light, fresh-tasting fish tagine.
The type of fish used in a tagine depends on the region and its available seafood, though white-fleshed fillets are common in Morocco. Regardless of the type of fish, the fillets are typically marinated in chermoula, an extraordinarily flavorful mixture of fresh herbs, garlic, and heady spices that’s loosened with olive oil and lemon juice (see “Herb Paste, Meet Spice Paste”).
To prepare a fish tagine, the bottom of the pot is lined with vegetables—often bell peppers, onions, carrots, and tomatoes—and the chermoula-coated fish is arranged on top before the lid is added and the assembly is moved to the stovetop or oven. At some point in the process, two signature Moroccan flavorings—pungent, floral preserved lemons and tangy green olives—are incorporated (see “Power Couple: Olives and Preserved Lemons”). Without any additional liquid in the steamy pot, the fish and vegetables slowly turn soft and tender, and their juices meld to create a tangy, garlicky, herbal broth. It’s just the thing to serve with warm flatbread or spoon atop a pile of fluffy couscous.
I chose cod for my tagine because it has a firm yet delicate meatiness and is widely available. I divided the fillets into substantial chunks to make serving easy and then proceeded with my chermoula, buzzing fresh cilantro, garlic, and lemon juice with cumin, paprika, and cayenne in the food processor. Finally, I stirred in a couple of tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil by hand since processing can make the oil taste bitter. Gently tossing the fish in the paste gave it a gorgeous orange-red, herb-flecked coat that would permeate the dish with its flavors.
Next I turned to the vegetables. I decided to give them a head start since they would take longer to cook than the delicate fish. To facilitate staggered cooking, I opted to work on the stovetop. I glossed a Dutch oven with olive oil and then sautéed a colorful mix of sliced grassy green bell pepper, savory onion, and sweet carrot. Once the vegetables were just softened, I poured in a can of diced tomatoes and layered the fish on top. I resisted adding more liquid since I knew that the fish and vegetables would eventually give up some of their juices. After about 10 minutes of covered cooking, I lifted the lid, delighted to find that my restraint had paid off: A shallow layer of richly scented broth bubbled at the bottom of the pot. I sprinkled a handful of quartered green olives and a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped preserved lemon over the top and served the tagine.
It was a decent start: The carrot, onion, and pepper were soft and flavorful, but the cod, well seasoned on the outside, was bland within since marinades don’t penetrate far beyond the surface. It was also overcooked. What’s more, reserving the olives and lemon until the end was a mistake. Without time for their flavors to meld with the other ingredients, they seemed like an afterthought.
I made a few tweaks. First, before coating the cod chunks in the chermoula, I tossed them with salt and let them sit while I prepped the rest of the ingredients. The salt would season the flesh and help keep it moist. The other change: adding the olives and preserved lemon earlier so that they could soften and mingle in the broth.
Both were good moves. The lemon and olives were now more integrated, as evidenced by the lively, tangy broth. The fish was well seasoned and held on to more moisture. And yet, it was still tough. I needed to cook it more gently.
I’ve had good luck in the past with other seafood recipes with heating the cooking liquid, adding seafood, covering the pot, and removing it from the burner, allowing residual heat to gently cook the flesh through. But at the point when I was adding the fish, the pot was essentially dry, so there wouldn’t be enough steam. How about a hybrid approach?
For my next batch, I added the cod and cooked the pot as before, but once the cod had released enough liquid to be actively simmering (meaning plenty of steam was being generated), I took the pot off the heat. Within 5 minutes, the pieces of cod were just opaque, tender, and flaky. After a final sprinkling of fresh cilantro, this beauty of a dish—with its layered, complex flavors—was complete.