My mother has always been a step or two ahead of her time. The only girl in her Hebrew school – her father was adamant about his daughters as well as his son receiving proper religious training – she suffered teasing, taunting and her father’s wrath when the boys played tricks on her, such as stealing her books and hiding them in the snow, yet she loved school. Following her younger sister to New York City, her sister that had to run away from home in order to study nursing – her father was adamant about girls not going to university even as his son went to MIT and Princeton – to work. She apparently, and details are sketchy, seduced my father when he didn’t return her flirting with notice. And then married him after, upon her return to New York, where she worked, from her Miami vacation, where he was studying, not having heard from him for a year until one day, according to her own telling, she received a short note in the mail announcing “Okay, we can get married now. Go see my father at this address and arrange it.” And when we were kids and the other moms all seemed to be the stay-at-home kind, this was the 1960s, she worked and did volunteer work and ran the Sisterhood as well as the Sunday school, among all of her various activities.
Maybe this was just par for the course back in the days, but I always felt that for the small town we lived in, my mom was special. She was utterly glamorous in her beaded evening gowns and satin party pajamas going from cocktail party to Bahamas cruise, intimidating as she ruled the synagogue hallways or marched into school to take care of any problem we had with a teacher, defending us to her very core. She had complete and total confidence in us, in our honesty, our smarts and in our capacity to take care of ourselves and get along. Where she was lacking in that Mrs. Cleaver maternal attention and warmth she all but made up for in her imposing power, her self-reliance and self-assurance and her humor. She patiently taught us how to play Mah Jongg, allowed us to choose our own Hanukkah gifts and encouraged our creativity, put up with our silliness and defended our differences from the other kids. Her punishment was swift and decisive, her praise was few and far between but all the more compelling and cherished; we knew it came from the heart. The rest of the time, it was simply understood.
Oh, it wasn’t all roses and cookies. I often craved the presence of a more traditional mother and at least once she left me suffering in bed after a bike accident or while sick as she went off to a meeting; she did indeed trust us and encourage us to take care of ourselves, cook and entertain ourselves but I knew that it was because it allowed her the freedom to live her own life. Yet what some may have mistaken for aloofness or motherly neglect actually turned us into pretty self-reliant kids; her dislike for cooking drew each of us into the kitchen, allowing us not to learn from a traditional mom but rather giving us the freedom, curiosity and desire to learn to cook for ourselves from which grew an overwhelming passion. Still, our childhood was carefree and exuberant and our mother was ever present and a strong, solid force in our lives, her independence stirring up and reinforcing our own.
Now another Mother’s Day approaches, and it is rather difficult to write about Mother’s Day when the dates in France, where I am a mother, and the United States, where my own mom lives, never fall on the same day, and we often quite simply forget. Yet when I see the blogosphere studded with a plethora of Mother’s Day posts and recipes, I can’t but think of my own mom. More best friend than mother, she is still a remarkable woman at 85. Although she retired just last year, having finally sold her own real estate business, she still volunteers – practically runs – the Association for the Blind that she has been involved with since the 1960s, has theater nights with her girlfriends and still gossips with the best of them. When I’m home, we still love running up to the mall and shopping together – she is as crazy for shoes, bags and clothes as she always has been (and I am) - followed by lunch at the deli, bagels and lox or chopped liver on Challah. We chat on the phone regularly when she catches me up on the latest gossip, her comings and goings, and her dog Buster who keeps her on her toes.
When I visit her, I rarely cook; we always prefer to eat out or pick at what’s in the fridge or the freezer, our energy more concentrated on the ice cream, which follows every meal. Yet if I cooked a meal for her, I might make this flavorful yet utterly simple Moroccan-style Tagine of lamb, tiny potatoes and tender sweet peas, delicately flavored with saffron and fresh coriander. She is adventurous in her eating although preferring the familiar, so this dish is perfect for her. And with peas arriving on the market, the bright flavors of the coriander and lemon, this Tagine makes for the perfect Spring dish. Serve with couscous grains, of course.
SPRING LAMB, POTATO & PEA TAGINE
32 – 35 oz (900 g – 1 kg) lamb shoulder cut into about 8 large chunks
1 yellow onion, peeled, trimmed and chopped
A pinch of saffron strands or saffron powder
¼ tsp turmeric/curcuma powder
1 tsp dried ground mint
About ¼ - ½ tsp-sized chunk of chicken or vegetable bouillon cube, optional
1 bunch fresh coriander/cilantro
1 small to medium-sized preserved lemon
1 lb (500 g) fingerling, ratte or grenaille potatoes (any small, marble-sized firm-fleshed potatoes), rinsed well
1 cup fresh or frozen peas, the sweeter and more tender the better
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Also highly recommended: 1 bunch small Violet Artichokes, stem trimmed, outer tough leaves pulled off, spiny top sliced off and quartered.
Trim any excess fat off of the pieces of lamb, rinse and pat dry.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat (depending upon your stove) with a few tablespoons of vegetable oil. Toss in a piece of onion and when the oil sizzles and spits around the onion bit, add all of the chopped onion; stir and toss and allow to cook for only a minute or two until it just begins to soften. Add the large chunks of lamb in one layer (do this in two batches if necessary), pushing them underneath the onions so they are in immediate contact with the hot pot. Allow them to brown on all sides, stirring around the onions as you turn the lamb to keep the onions from burning; rather you want your onions tender and a deep golden caramel.
When all of the meat has been browned, transfer the chunks from the pot onto a clean plate; add the saffron, the turmeric and the dried mint to the onions in the pot, salt and pepper and stir to blend. Place the meat back into the pot and add just enough water to cover; add a pinch of chicken or vegetable bouillon or stock cube.
Slice the preserved lemon in 2 lengthwise and add to the pot, pushing the halves down below water. Coarsely and quickly chop about 2 tablespoons of the fresh coriander and add it to the pot as well. Bring to the boil, lower the heat to low, cover the pot and allow to simmer for one hour.
At the end of the hour, remove the preserved lemon halves. Add the cleaned potatoes (if adding slices or quarters of fresh artichokes, add them now as well) to the tagine, top up with more water if too much has evaporated, bring back up to the simmer, cover and allow to continue cooking for another 20 minutes. At the end of the 20 minutes, add the frozen peas (if using fresh peas, add them at the same time as the potatoes). You can add a bit more chopped fresh coriander here as well. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes or until the potatoes and the peas (and the artichokes) are tender à souhait…as you like. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt and/or pepper as you like.
Remove from the heat. Add more chopped fresh coriander and allow to rest until ready to serve. I made this tagine right after lunch to serve at dinner, allowing it most of the afternoon to rest before gently reheating it as I prepared couscous grains. I found that the flavor of the lemon had mellowed perfectly while the other flavors melded and developed to create one of my favorite tagines we have prepared yet…absolutely incredible in flavor! Just before serving or reheating, you can either increase the amount of sauce – or thin it a bit if too much liquid has evaporated in the cooking, by adding more water and allowing it to heat through; or if the sauce seems too liquid and you want to thicken it a bit, simply lift out the meat and vegetables with a slotted spoon into a bowl and simmer the liquid until the desired consistency before returning the meat and vegetables to the pot and heating through.
Serve over couscous grains.