Tajine cooking! Lamb with ginger, olives, garlic

A moment of hilarity from Jonathan Winters…

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Being a lifelong Jonathan Winters fan, I’m astonished by how little of him there is left for us to see. There are some clips on YouTube, for sure, but aside from his movies, there’s not much that’s available anymore.

Such is the case with 34 episodes of The Jonathan Winters Show of 1967 – 1969 on CBS, weekly wackiness I was addicted to as a college kid. I don’t know where the shows are now, but I remember sitting with friends and all of us would completely lose it watching these shows – gasping for breath, pounding the floor, the usual symptoms of Winters hysteria.

Since all these shows are apparently lost to the ages, I need to rely on memory to enjoy them again. Which is easy — since some of his bits and one-liners are so over-the-edge bizarre as to be unforgettable. One of these, I believe, is as good as Winters can get. Here’s the setup:

Each week, the show featured a sketch about a harried businessman husband, Willard Cratchlow (Winters) coming home after work to his wife Margaret (played by, I think, Abby Dalton). Invariably, Willard would arrive in a ragingly foul mood after eight hours of “groveling at the altar of commerce,” and, as often as not, Margaret would say something to set him off, which would provoke Willard to launch into some utterly off-the-wall rebuke. And so it happened in one episode: Margaret got his dander up, and Willard responded,

“Know what, Margaret? Tonight I’m going to booby-trap your bobby pins. So when your head hits the pillow, your hair will be in Cleveland!!”

Abby Dalton rarely had a clue what Winters would say, what crazy ad-lib would come out of his mouth – these Cratchlow episodes were barely scripted – so she sometimes got caught flat-footed, but in this case she bounced back with “Oh Willard, stop raving!”  Good enough.

My original thought was to take the core nuggets of this ad-lib — booby-trap your booby pins… your hair will be in Cleveland — and dissect it for its pure poetry, its rhythm, its absurdity, to understand why it sent us rolling on the floor, but like so much of Jonathan Winters’ genius and madness it lies out there in left field (actually over the left field wall) beyond analysis. With cameras rolling, he was wild and nearly certifiable, but off stage he was gentle, sometimes painfully shy, and deeply devoted to his wife of over 60 years: a stay-at-home type who (I think) was the funniest man in show business over the last hundred years.

Tajine lamb: you can’t have it any better.

DSC_0167Our tajine with lamb inside, gently stewing and steaming… note the heat diffuser under the tajine – essential to its survival on the stovetop!

The tajine (or tagine, pron. ta-ZHEEN) originated with the Berbers in Northern Africa but has since spread worldwide as a favorite, go-to cooker of meats, fish, vegetables, almost anything. It’s a two-piece pot, usually made of earthenware, and cooks a full meal faster and more efficiently than crock pots and other slow-cookers.

Why is it such a great cooker? The top conical part distributes the heat and moisture evenly inside, unlike traditional casseroles or your electric slow cooker. A great design that’s centuries old!

Ours arrived here a couple of months ago along with a Moroccan tajine cookbook loaded with recipes featuring meats cooked with prunes, apricots, pistachios, quince, chestnuts, saffron, figs, Subsaharan dates, kublazzi olives, Tunisian kumquats, Berber spice blend — all those ingredients I’m sure all of us have on hand all the time, right? Maybe not. In which case, it’s easy to skip the esoteric ingredients and get creative with what you have at the ready. That’s what we did last week, and it was one of the finest, most delicious meals I’ve had all year. So here it is:

Tajine lamb with ginger, garlic, onion, olives, almonds and tomatoes

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This is our own recipe, and I’m not sure you can do lamb any better! The meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender, flavorful, and not overly spiced.

You’ll need, for two people (double it for 4):
  • a tajine (and a heat diffuser for stovetop cooking)
  • about 1 lb. lamb stew meat (available in plastic trays at Hannaford)
  • about 6 oz. black, pitted Kalamata olives
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tsp. freshly grated ginger – or more, according to your taste
  • about 5 cocktail tomatoes, quartered
  • 2 Tbsp. ghee (clarified butter) or olive oil
  • 1/2 yellow onion or 1 small leek, minced
  • 1 tsp. saffron threads (if you have it; no problem if you don’t)
  • 1 tsp. coriander
  • small handful sliced almonds, toasted
  • 3-4 Tbsp. chopped parsley as garnish
  • water

Over low heat, melt the ghee (or heat the olive oil) in the base of the tajine. Stir in garlic, ginger, coriander (and saffron), and lamb chunks and stir so the lamb is well-coated. Sprinkle the minced onion or leek over the lamb, and add just enough water to cover everything.

Gently raise the heat until the water starts to boil (It’s important with the earthenware tajine to increase or reduce the heat gradually). Now put on the conical lid, reduce the heat to low, and cook gently for 1 1/2 hours.

After 1 1/2 hours, add the tomatoes and olives, raise the heat gently, and cook uncovered for another 20 minutes to reduce the sauce. You can also add salt and pepper. At the very end, sprinkle in the toasted almonds and chopped parsley. (We also had Basmati rice on the side, topped with almonds).

Bring the tajine base to a hot tray on the table and let people help themselves. The tajine naturally encourages community-style dining, and the earthenware base will keep the food hot for some time.

DSC_0182Yum.

There you have it.

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Lori Cole makes a good comment (and question) below, but darned if I can’t reply to her since I’m not on Facebook. However, if you don’t have a tajine, I think the next best thing is a large iron skillet with pour spouts, and a pyrex lid. The lid is curved enough so you’ll get a similar kind of steaming effect, with some ventilation through the pour spouts. But you need to watch it to make sure you don’t lose too much liquid too fast. Thanks.

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.