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Moroccan Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine is built on a base of onions and carrots, and can be served with Israeli couscous. Photo by Sue Doeden

Moroccan Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine packed with protein, fiber and flavor

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A friend of mine sent me an email not long ago to tell me she received a tagine for Christmas. She wondered what to do with her new clay cooking vessel that combines a low-rimmed, round, shallow base with a high conical top.

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Tagine (tuh-zheen). It's a term that refers to the visually seductive cooking vessel as well as an aromatic North African stew, cooked in the clay pot.

The good news is that you don't need a tagine to prepare tagine. A heavy covered pot will work, although the design of a tagine pot has both practical and aesthetic functions. The tight-fitting lid leaves plenty of room for steam to form, keeping meat and other ingredients moist while they cook. And it makes a dramatic presentation. Bring the pot to the table. As the lid is lifted, the aroma trapped within will waft through the air.

I use my favorite 6-quart Dutch oven and forgo the theatrics.

Tagine is often a robust mixture of lamb or chicken, vegetables, spices and some dried fruits and nuts. Moroccan Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine is built on a base of onions and carrots, cooked until they are soft and their flavor is concentrated, ready to welcome the spices - coriander, cumin, turmeric and cayenne. To intensify their flavor, whole coriander and cumin seeds are toasted in a small dry pan on a hot burner before being ground. Fresh, minced gingerroot added to the pot along with garlic offers a touch of intrigue. Sweet potatoes and buttery chickpeas only add to the exoticism of this African-inspired dish, providing a lovely balance of textures. Rather than stirring dried fruits into the tagine, it's nice to offer them in small bowls at the table for guests to add to their liking. Fresh, bright cilantro is another pleasing addition.

Dried chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, become plump and creamy once they've been soaked overnight and cooked. Canned chickpeas are seldom that creamy, but are certainly convenient. Do try cooking them yourself sometime. You will find a noticeable difference in their velvety texture and a more pronounced nutty flavor.

Couscous is a natural match for tagine. These tiny granules are classically made of semolina and take little time to cook. Couscous can be made of other grains, as well. Barley, corn, millet and wheat can all become couscous when finely ground and steamed.

Unlike familiar small, yellow semolina-based North African couscous, Israeli couscous (sometimes called pearl couscous) is twice as big and is toasted rather than dried. This gives it a nutty flavor and a sturdy composition with a chewy bite. Whole wheat Israeli couscous is especially wonderful with this tagine.

A meatless dish, packed with protein, fiber and flavor, Moroccan Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine is bold and intriguing. As it cooks, you'll begin to visualize a maze of narrow, winding alleys opening into a loud, bustling bazaar of silk and spices, ebony and ivory. As you eat, you'll find it won't be easy to put your finger on which of the flavors is urging you to have another bite. It's part of the mystique of tagine.

Moroccan Chickpea and Sweet Potato Tagine

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions, diced

2 carrots, chopped

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons peeled, minced gingerroot

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), rinsed and drained, or 1 1/2 cups cooked

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

4 cups vegetable broth

1/2 cup cilantro leaves, minced, for serving

1/4 cup dried apricots, sliced thin, for serving

1/4 cup golden raisins, for serving

8 ounces whole wheat Israeli couscous, uncooked

2 cups vegetable broth or water

Preheat a heavy, 4- to 6-quart pot over medium heat. Add oil, onions and carrots. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender and golden, about eight minutes. Meanwhile, toast coriander and cumin in a small pan over medium heat, stirring until fragrant. Remove from heat. Transfer toasted seeds to coffee grinder and grind into a powder. Transfer ground cumin and coriander to a small bowl, then stir together with turmeric, salt and cayenne pepper. Add ginger and garlic to the onions, then stir in the spices and cook another three to five minutes to let the spices color the onions, stirring to prevent garlic from burning.

Add sweet potatoes, chickpeas, and tomatoes and stir to blend. Add 2 cups vegetable broth and simmer about 20 minutes or until sweet potatoes are fork-tender. Check stew and add more vegetable broth as needed.

Meanwhile, in another pot, bring 2 cups vegetable broth to a boil. Stir in whole wheat Israeli couscous, cover and reduce heat. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, or until liquid is almost gone. Stir and serve immediately with tagine. Offer cilantro, dried apricots and raisins at the table for diners to stir into the tagine. Serves six as a main course.

Tips from the cook

--Couscous is a natural choice to accompany this tagine, but basmati rice, jasmine rice or even quinoa, are also very good. Whole wheat Israeli couscous is found in some supermarkets.

--I keep an inexpensive coffee grinder in my cupboard that I use only for grinding spices.

--I like to serve this with torn pieces of flat bread, such as Naan. Naan can be found in some grocery stores and specialty markets.

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