Lamb Tagine Smothered in Onions

Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Serves


Appears in

The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen

By Paula Wolfert

Published 2003

  • About

Moroccan tagine pots, shallow, earthenware pots with high cone-shaped tops, glazed on only one side, are great for cooking meat stews. As the stew simmers, steam rises into the cone. The unglazed interior of the conical top absorbs some of the excess moisture, ensuring a steady, slow reduction of liquid below.

This dish of chunks of lamb slowly simmered with cinnamon, ginger, and saffron, called quamamma, may look like a lot of work, but it is worth it, because it is one of the very best tagines in the Moroccan repertoire.

You begin this tagine “cold,” which is to say that the lamb is not browned, but rather, gently heated along with the spices and other ingredients, which allows the flavors to fully penetrate the meat.

Actually, in traditional Moroccan cookery, very few tagines began with browning. Instead the meat is usually browned at the end by covering the bottom half of the tagine with a flat ceramic plate, then piling hot coals on top. I simply run the meat under the broiler.

The onions create a thick, soft sauce. Note that two preparations of onions are used: grated, which disintegrate and thicken the sauce; and sliced, which impart a rich silky texture.


  • 5 pounds lamb shanks, trimmed of excess fat
  • Salt and freshly, finely ground pepper
  • teaspoons ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely grated (½ cup), plus 4 pounds large onions, quartered lengthwise and thickly sliced crosswise
  • 3 whole canned Italian plum tomatoes, seeded and crushed
  • 1 cinnamon stick, 2 inches long
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons butter
  • 3 tablespoons sugar


  1. Early in the day place the lamb in a large, heavy casserole or tagine pot. Toss with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon each pepper and ginger, 2 pinches of the saffron, the grated onion, tomatoes, cinnamon stick, and olive oil. Stir over low heat until the aroma of the spices is released, about 5 minutes. Do not brown the meat. Add 2 cups water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and simmer over very low heat for 3 to 3 ½ hours. (The meat should be seven-eighths cooked—almost falling off the bone.) You can do this in a 250°F oven or in an electric slow-cooker set on high, if desired.) Remove and let cool.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large heavy saucepan or flameproof casserole, combine the sliced onions with ¼ cup water, a pinch of saffron, the ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon each salt and pepper, ½ teaspoon ginger, 2 tablespoons of the butter, and 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 1½ hours. Remove the cover and cook until the liquid evaporates, about 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to moderately low and cook, stirring often, until the onions are golden, about 20 more minutes. Transfer the onions to a large plate to cool.
  3. When the lamb shanks are cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones and trim off any fat or gristle. Cut the meat into 1-inch chunks and transfer to a bowl. Discard the cinnamon stick. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 2 days in advance. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate the meat, onions, and cooking liquid in separate containers)
  4. About 1 hour before serving, preheat the oven to 400°F. Discard all the fat from the lamb juices and boil the liquid down to 1 cup. Arrange the lamb in a single layer in a shallow ovenproof serving dish. Pour the reduced lamb juices over the meat. Spread the golden onion mixture on top. Spoon any remaining onion cooking liquid over all. Sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon sugar on top and dot with the remaining 2 teaspoons butter. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the topping is caramelized and bubbling.