In the middle of the 20th century, La Maison Arabe was the most famous restaurant on the African continent. A French woman and her daughter opened it in 1946, after the pasha Thami el Glaoui granted them the right for the first restaurant in the medina open to foreigners and provided one of his chefs. Frequented by Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Queen Ingrid of Denmark, and Jackie Kennedy, La Maison Arabe remained a legendary, essential dining spot until the mesdames shuttered it in 1983. Fabrizio Ruspoli, an Italian-French aristocrat who spent much time during his childhood in Tanger, purchased the property in 1995 and converted it into Marrakech's first boutique hotel. Over the years, the food has regained its prominent place, and the kitchen is once again the finest in the city.
This sophisticated tagine from the La Maison Arabe kitchen, using the trademark mixing of sweet and savory, and drawing on the citrus groves around Marrakech, is guaranteed to impress. Sublime.
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*Note: Ras el hanout is commercially available, but a simplified bare-bones version can be prepared at home. Combine fenugreek, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, coriander seeds, white pepper, long pepper, nutmeg, caraway, sesame seeds, rosemary, and saffron. Quantities of each vary greatly depending if you want a sweeter or hotter version, though either way use nutmeg and saffron sparingly. For a milder mix, replace the white pepper with star anise or licorice, and for added aroma, include some dried rosebuds or lavender.
The Indian spice garam masala is a good substitution, though it is often hotter, so reduce the amount slightly.
- 1 Teaspoon unsalted butter, softened
- 1 Teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 Teaspoon ras el hanout*
- 1/2 Teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 Teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 Teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
- Generous pinch of saffron
- Salt, to taste
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 1/4 Pounds bone-in leg of lamb, cut into 8 or so pieces
- 1 small cinnamon stick, broken in half
- 1 medium-sized red onion, chopped finely
- 2 3/4 Cups water, plus more as needed
- 2 Tablespoons orange juice
- 1 Teaspoon honey
- 1 Valencia orange, scrubbed
- 1/4 Cup sugar
- 8 cloves
- 1 Teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted, for garnish
In a tagine, flameproof casserole, or large, heavy skillet or sauté pan, combine the butter, ginger, ras el hanout, cinnamon, turmeric, white pepper, and saffron. Season with salt, to taste. Moisten with the olive oil and blend well. One by one, place the pieces of lamb in the spice mixture, and turn to coat. Add half of the cinnamon stick and scatter the onion across the top.
Place the tagine over medium heat, cover, and cook, turning the lamb occasionally, until the meat is browned and the onion is softened but not scorched, about 15 minutes. Add 1 cup of the water, cover loosely, and cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add ½ cup of the water and 1 tablespoon of the orange juice and cook until the meat is tender, about 45 minutes. Add a bit more water if necessary to keep the sauce loose, or remove the lid to evaporate and thicken it. Stir in the honey and cook the lamb uncovered for a final 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel the orange, reserving the fruit. With a knife, scrape away some — but not all — of the white pith from the peel. Cut the peel into long, very thin strips about 1/8-inch wide.
In a small pan, bring ½ cup of the water to a boil. Add the strips of peel and a pinch of salt, and simmer for 2 minutes. Drain, discard the liquid, and rinse out the pan. Return the strips to the pan, cover with the remaining water, and bring to a boil. Stir in the sugar and add the remaining cinnamon stick and the cloves. Simmer until the liquid is syrupy and the strips of peel are tender but still a touch al dente, about 20 minutes. Stir in the remaining orange juice, remove from the heat, and let cool.
With a sharp knife, cut away any white pith from the reserved orange. Carefully cut along the membranes separating the segments and remove them. Lay the segments in a shallow bowl, spoon the syrup from the pan over the segments, and let soak until ready to serve.
To serve, divide the lamb among 4 plates, and top with the sauce, orange segments, and strips of caramelized peel. Lightly sprinkle with the sesame seeds.