Turmeric is one multifunctional little spice. It is used as a dye. It is used to deter ants in gardening. It is used medicinally, to fight memory loss and cancer. It is used cosmetically to deter aging. And, did I mention, it is used in foods, mostly in curries, but also as a substitute for saffron, and as a colorant in mustard. There’s pretty much nothing that turmeric can’t do, considering that we normally see it in an innocent little glass jar on the spice aisle, not looking like much of a superhero.
But my relationship with turmeric is simple: I eat it. And have, for as long as I can remember. My Mémé is from Morocco, and I can’t count the number of t-shirt I’ve sacrificed to the yellow spice while watching and helping Mémé concoct her tagines as they bubbled and blipped on the stove. I love that taste that I described last week as toasting earth, that is fragrant and almost floral, but also a touch metallic or bitter. The idea that people use it only for its color is so frustrating, because its flavor is so distinctive and dynamic.
This tagine is inspired by Mémé, although it’s not of her creation. I sear lamb shanks, and stew them with caramelized onions and green olives saturated with bright golden turmeric, a touch of cumin, and a cinnamon stick. Cilantro and fresh mint finish the resulting tagine that is mildly sweet and intensely savory, colored and flavored by the very special and prominent note of turmeric. Spooned over a bed of couscous, it doesn’t get much better than this.
It just goes to show you should never, ever judge a spice by its color.
Excerpted from my weekly column The Secret Ingredient on Serious Eats.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4 lamb shanks
- Kosher salt
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- 3 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced in halfmoons
- 3 garlic cloves, whole but peeled and smashed
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1/3 cup dry white wine
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
- 1/2 cup medium-sized green olives, pits in
Heat the olive oil in a high-sided sauté pan over medium-high heat. Season the lamb liberally with salt and pepper. Sear the lamb in the hot oil until the lamb is golden brown on all sides. It should take about 10 minutes in the pan.
Lower the heat to medium; place the lamb on a plate and set aside. Immediately and carefully add the onions and garlic to the hot oil, and season with salt and pepper. Sauté, stirring often, until the onions are slightly caramelized, about 10 minutes. Add the turmeric, cumin, and cinnamon to the onions, and sauté until the spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the wine and deglaze the pan.
When the wine has reduced by about half, add the vegetable broth and the olives. Bring the liquid to a boil, and add the lamb back into the pot. Cover, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 3 hours, turning the lamb over once in the pot. Then, simmer uncovered for minutes, to allow the sauce to thicken slightly. Serve over couscous and top with the fresh cilantro and mint.
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