Stirring the Pot: Dump Trucks and Donabes

It began so simply. The Little Blue Truck. Thomas the Tank Engine. And before you knew it, Jordan had branched out into bulldozers and cement mixers, cranes, dump trucks, forklifts, wheel loaders, and even cherry pickers.

My grandson Jordan is two years old, and he lives in Chicago, a great place to view all manner of vehicles. His favorite words are “construction site,” and “gooey tar.” He and I have become great friends over the past two months since I came to help out with his new baby sister, Isabella.

Jordan’s fascination with trucks of all kinds has forced me to up my game. I need to be able to distinguish between a backhoe and an excavator, as well as to explain what they do and why they do it. His curiosity becomes my curiosity. He learns as I learn.


So when I return to the familiar terrain of my kitchen, I consider the vessels around me. Curiosity peaked, I explore other methods and materials for cooking. Cast iron pots have served me well, but what about clay? Will rice in a Japanese donabe be a new taste treat? And how does a Tunisian tagine enrich a flavor palette? Will adding an untried spice to the mix lead me to new taste sensations? What might I create with new tools?

I am eager to set off in a new culinary direction!

And to think that a little child — with his toy bulldozer in hand — shall lead me.

Lamb or Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Dates

A few notes about tagine cooking: There are as many different tagine recipes as there are glaze patterns. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for seasoning the vessel before you begin. Consider the recipe below a general guideline and feel free to improvise with what you have on hand. If you are not keen on a sweet version, substitute the dried fruit and sweet potatoes for canned or cooked chickpeas and olives. A bit of lemon lends necessary acidity to the dish, or use diced tomatoes if you prefer. Browning the meat in a sauté pan over higher heat imparts more flavor, but if you’d rather throw everything in the tagine, it still works out fine. Always use a heat diffuser, which comes with most tagines, on the burner. And never place the hot tagine on a cold counter as it might crack from the thermal shock. Use a wooden trivet or a cloth. If you don’t have a clay tagine, no worries! This recipe works well in any pot with a good lid. You can even use a Crock-Pot, just omit the liquid.

Ruthie's Lamb or Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Dates. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Ruthie’s Lamb or Chicken Tagine with Apricots and Dates. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons salt
2 pounds lamb, cut into 2-inch chunks (or 2 pounds skinless boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch chunks)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 medium eggplant, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
3/4 cup halved dates, figs, or apricots (or a combination)
20 pistachios, chopped

Combine all of the spices and salt in a bowl, mixing well.

Place lamb or chicken in a glass dish with a lid. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and the lemon juice. Sprinkle half of the spice mixture over the meat and mix in. Cover the dish and refrigerate for an hour.

Remove lamb from the refrigerator and let sit on the counter for about an hour until it comes to room temperature. Heat a sauté pan. Remove meat chunks from marinade, setting the liquid aside, and brown meat in the skillet and set aside.

Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil to the tagine. Place tagine and diffuser over low heat and sauté onion for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add the garlic and continue to sauté. Sprinkle the remaining spice mixture over the onions and garlic to coat. Bring the heat up to low/medium. Mix in the eggplant, sweet potato, and the broth. Pour in the saved marinade. Add the meat. Cover the tagine with the lid. Cook for 45 minutes, lowering the heat as necessary if heat is billowing out from under the domed lid. Remove the lid. If the sauce is too liquidy, continue to cook uncovered to reduce and thicken to desired consistency. Add the dried fruit. Cover and cook for an additional 20 minutes. Remove lid and adjust seasoning. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped pistachios.


Orange Scented Buttered Rice in a Double-Lid Donabe

Ruthie's Orange Scented Buttered Rice in a Double-Lid Donabe. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

Ruthie’s Orange Scented Buttered Rice in a Double-Lid Donabe. | Photo by Ruthie Cohen

The donabe also requires seasoning before use. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions. While this fragrant rice recipe is a great complement to the tagine, don’t limit yourself to just rice in this lovely and versatile wonder. It is similar to the tagine for making delicious one pot meals.

1 navel orange
3 cups jasmine rice
2 1/4 cups water
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons soy sauce

Slice off the zest of the orange, being careful to remove the top waxy layer and to not include the bitter white pith. Julienne into strips and set aside.

Squeeze the orange into a measuring cup. You should get about 1/4 cup.

Rinse the rice and place in the donabe bowl. Pour in orange juice. Add the water. Let the rice soak for 20 minutes. 

Cover the bowl with both lids, making sure that the holes are perpendicular to each other. Heat on medium for 15 minutes or until steam escapes from the hole. Turn off the heat and leave it alone.

After 20 minutes, lift the lid. Add the butter and soy sauce. Mix and fluff with a wooden spoon. Before serving, add the orange zest.

Ruthie Cohen
Ruthie Cohen moved from New Jersey to Bloomington in November 2011. Every day she marvels at her good fortune to be living in this gem of a town. When she is not devising recipes in her kitchen and feeding her friends, Ruthie practices and teaches yoga at Ekah and Bloomington Yoga Collective.