Butternut Squash Tagine Recipe
There is a large North African community in France, and as a child I enjoyed many wonderful dishes from the region. The spices are very similar to Indian cuisine but the dishes incorporate sweet flavors, usually in the form of dried fruits. I’ve shared many of these dishes with Lulu, and he’s come to enjoy them as much as I do.
Lulu’s been craving a tagine lately, so today I made a butternut squash version. The squash adds a beautiful color and goes very well with saffron, cinnamon, cumin and ginger. The sweetness of dried plums and sundried tomatoes finished the dish, along with sunflower seeds for added crunch.
Instead of serving it with the usual couscous steamed semolina, I paired it with black rice, which worked wonderfully. To accommodate everyone in my home, I added fried tofu to soak up the delicious sauce for protein. Of course, you could simmer some lamb shanks (my favorite!) or chicken but it would take a lot more time to cook slowly until tender.
Yields: 6 servings6 tablespoons canola oil (or any neutral oil), as needed
½ cup Greek full fat plain yogurt
4 dried plums, quartered
4 dried apricots, halved
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
4 sun-dried tomatoes, quartered
2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely minced
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
6 dried red chiles
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon Baharat spice mix (see tips)
2 teaspoons lemon zest, finely chopped
1 (1-inch) chunk fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon salt
¼ cup date syrup (or honey)
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, for color
¼ cup fire-roasted diced tomatoes, canned
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered
1 (14-ounce) can low-sodium vegetable broth
1 (12-ounce) package firm tofu
3 tablespoons curly parsley leaves, chopped
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds (optional)
Steaming the butternut squash:
Peel and dice the butternut squash into 1-½" to 2" cubes.
In a pot with a steamer, add some cold water. Place the cubed butternut squash in the insert and cover with a lid. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Steam for about 30 minutes until softened, but still firm. Do not over-cook, as they will finish cooking in the tagine. Check the liquid periodically and add more water if all the liquid is absorbed. Remove the squash from the steamer and allow to cool.
Making the Baharat sauce:
In a cast iron pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil. Add the onions. Cook until slightly browned (about 5-7 minutes). When the color is translucent, add the garlic and 4 dried red chiles. Cook until fragrant. Add the diced tomatoes and the Baharat spice mix. Cook for another 1-2 minutes, then add yogurt. Transfer the mixture to a blender, blend until the sauce is smooth but still thick. Add ¼ to ½ cup vegetable broth for a smooth flow.
In the same pan, add more oil. Add the garlic. Cook until it's slightly golden. Add the artichoke hearts and stir-fry until fragrant. Transfer to a platter.
In the same pan, add fresh ginger, lemon zest, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, dried fruits, sun-dried tomatoes and remaining dried red chiles. Stir and cook for another 2 minutes. Add the thick Baharat mixture, the date syrup and the rest of the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, add the butternut squash, then reduce to low heat. Cook for about 15 minutes. Prepare the tofu.
Preparing the tofu:
Drain the liquid from the package of the tofu. Pat the tofu dry with a paper towel. Cut the piece of tofu in half, lengthwise. Cut each block into ½-inch slices.
In a small, deep pan, heat the canola oil for about 2-3 minutes. You should have about a 1-inch deep layer of oil. The key to good fried tofu is to get little bubbles when the tofu is in contact with the oil. Don't overheat the oil; otherwise the tofu will get too golden and chewy. Just stick to the slightly jumping bubbles.
Place the tofu one piece at a time in the hot oil; make sure the tofu pieces don't touch each other. Place up to 4 pieces per batch. Deep fry in batches for about 2 minutes per batch until golden on all sides. The tofu will start to pop and increase in volume. Lower the heat to medium-low for even cooking and to prevent them from browning too fast. Flip each piece and cook about a minute longer. Pick up each tofu piece using a spider skimmer (I use wooden chopsticks) with as little oil as possible and immediately dip the tofu into the tagine sauce. The tofu will deflate instantly. Repeat until all the tofu pieces are in the sauce.
Preheat the oven at 325°F
In a mortar and pestle, grind about 3 pinches of the saffron threads. Add about 3 tablespoons of water. Drizzle the saffron liquid into the tagine sauce. Stir well.
Cover the butternut squash tagine with the reserved artichoke hearts and 1 tablespoon of parsley. Cover with a lid.
Bake for 10 minutes at 325°F, then lower the heat to 300°F for another 20 minutes.
Remove from the oven. Remove the lid. The sauce should have thickened. Add more vegetable broth (up to ½ cup) if you think the sauce is too thick (I didn't). Sprinkle with sunflower seeds and drizzle some lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of parsley. Cover until you're ready to serve.
Before serving, remove and discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaf (if possible).
Transfer to a serving bowl.
Serve with steamed semolina or rice.
Baharat and garam masala spice mix are quite similar. Barahat, literally meaning "spice" in Arabic, is a North African spice mix with a tangier taste while garam masala, meaning "hot" in Urdu, has a spicier taste. The Baharat spice mix is very inexpensive if you buy all the spices at an Indian store.
Little reminder on how to obtain Baharat spice mix: In a pan, add ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, 1 whole star anise, 4 cloves, 1-½ teaspoons coriander seeds and the seeds from 3 greens cardamom pods. Dry roast over high heat for about 2 minutes and stir constantly. Remove the pan from the stove and add ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, 1 teaspoon of paprika, ½ teaspoon cayenne, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, ½ teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon ground ginger and 1 teaspoon turmeric powder. Put the spice mix in a grinder (I use a coffee grinder that I keep exclusively for spices) and grind the mixture into a fine powder. Sift the powder through a strainer. Set aside until cool.
The preparation of the tofu seems pretty simple to execute. You just need to be very careful on the temperature of the canola oil when you fry the tofu so it really triples in volume and deflates when it is dipped in the tagine sauce and absorbs all its flavor. For best results, the fresher the tofu, the better. I've noticed the tofu increases in volume a lot more when it's ultra fresh. I use Thanh Son tofu brand. If you live in the Bay Area, their main shop is on 2857 Senter Road, San Jose. I also like Golden Gate tofu brand; just make sure to look for the firm version..
I cooked this tagine in a cast iron pot. The traditional version calls for a terra cotta dish with its typical cone-shaped lid, but I find it very heavy. I also sometimes use a silicone tajine for easy clean-up; it's very convenient.
You could also replace the butternut squash with pumpkin or acorn squash.
You can use the same base for the sauce and make this dish with other vegetables or with meat such as chicken or lamb, which are also fairly common.
You can find the ingredients in most Indian stores.