And given that it's made in a huge pot, it's an antidote to loneliness. It begs to be shared with your neighbours!
One of my favourite stews is a tagine (pronounced tah-JEEN). North African in origin, the dish gets its name from the unmistakable pot in which it traditionally is prepared. The vessel consists of a wide, shallow cooking pot (usually not more than a couple inches deep) and a tall conical cover. The cover gathers and cools the steam from the cooking ingredients so that it drips back into the dish. This allows cooks in hot, dry climates to cook with as little liquid as possible, yet still produce moist food. But don't worry if you don't own a tagine. In my kitchen, I make do with my trusty Dutch oven, which still does a respectable job.
The cooking technique is not unlike any stew you've probably made — saute some aromatics, add the meat and/or vegetables, some kind of liquid, then simmer away. It's the spicing that sets a tagine apart.
Sweet cinnamon, warm ground ginger and a little peppery turmeric combine to form a perfume that transports you to the spice markets of Morocco. Sprinkle over some softly caramelized onions and garlic, add some tomatoes, briny olives and sweet currants, and the grey skies above you will give way to swaying date palms and sienna-tinted dunes.
If you've never made a tagine, this vegetable and chickpea version is a great first step. It cooks in less than an hour! Serve it over some couscous or alongside a loaf of warm, crusty bread.
I like to slice my onions lengthwise, from pole to pole rather than across the grain. I find that this helps the onions break down more quickly during cooking.
Start to finish: 1 hour
1 large lemon, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium parsnip, peeled and cut into 1-inch rounds
1 small sweet potato (about 1/2 pound), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes (about 2 cups)
1 small cauliflower, cut into 1-inch florets (about 2 cups)
2 teaspoons ground dry ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
Pinch of cayenne pepper
14 1/2-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 1/2 cups water
15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 medium zucchini, sliced into 1-inch half moons
1 tablespoon dried currants
8 green olives, pitted and halved
Ground black pepper
Make a quick preserved lemon. In a small skillet over medium-high heat, combine lemon slices, lemon juice and 1 tablespoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the lemon is tender. Cool. Mince 3 slices, peel and pulp included, discarding any seeds. Set aside. Save the remaining slices for another use.
In a large Dutch oven or a tagine over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic, then saute until softened and slightly golden, about 8 minutes.
Add the parsnip, sweet potato, cauliflower, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric and cayenne. Stir and cook for 1 minute, or until the vegetables are coated in spices and the whole thing is fragrant, making sure not to let the spices scorch. Add the tomatoes, minced lemon and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked halfway.
Add the chickpeas, squash, currants and olives. Cook, with the lid ajar, another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Season with salt and pepper, then serve with couscous or crusty bread.
Nutrition information per serving: 220 calories; 90 calories from fat (41 per cent of total calories); 10 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 29 g carbohydrate; 8 g fiber; 8 g sugar; 6 g protein; 840 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Food Network star Aarti Sequeira is the author of "Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul." She blogs at http://www.AartiPaarti.com .