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the guinea pig goes to college

The past two weeks have been quite out of the ordinary around here. It all started when the Guinea Pig went back to school…Stanford is training him how to be a business leader…I know…he’s really kind of somethin‘! I decided to use this time as a bit of a retreat of my own and do the sorts of things I don’t generally do when he’s around.

I set up a long table in front of the big window where I normally shoot my food photos. Outside that window are maybe half a dozen different sorts of bird feeders and a place for birds to drink. Nearby are the tall trees where they nest. For days and days, I sewed together squares of colorful flowers and polka dots for the little one who calls herself Lala. As my machine whirred, I watched the birds, literally by the hundreds, swoop in, grab their nuts or thistle, catch their wind and retreat to a nearby branch. I watched the fog rise and descend like a quilt’s airy batting, forming tiny glittering crystals on everything it touched. I watched a determined squirrel (already obese) hang upside-down, each sticky little paw clutching tight a different branch, as he filled his cheeks, trying hard to empty the bird feeder before again losing his balance.

These have been unusually cold days, with both a glorious sun and a freezing fog alternating through the day.   It’s been quiet and serene at this window and I’ve had a chance to contemplate the sorts of things I’d hoped to, love lots on my dogs, and sew a quilt for Lala. This all came at a good time, coinciding as it did with a new year.

I made a discovery early on…without the ever-grateful G.P. here to share the table, some of the joy of cooking has been absent. I’ve eaten very simply…which isn’t all bad. And I’ve eaten a lot of leftovers. This earthy warm tagine got me through several wintry nights…


Served over couscous, this syrupy, caramel-y tagine makes a delicious vegetarian meal served with salad. But it would also go well paired with grilled or roasted meats. Substitute butternut squash or sweet potatoes for the yams, or small shallots for the pearl onions if you like.  You don’t need a tagine to prepare this dish – use a heavy-bottomed casserole dish if that’s what you have. (And if you don’t have preserved lemons…I suppose you could make it without…or…here’s a thought: you could make some!)


a Tagine of Yam, Pearl Onions, Carrots, Prunes & Preserved Lemons

2 to 3 Tablespoons Olive Oil along with a pat of Butter

Fresh Ginger Root – 1½-inch piece about the thickness of your thumb, minced or grated

2 sticks Cinnamon (or 1½ to 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon)

10 ounces Pearl Onions* peeled (See NOTE below on how to peel)

2 pounds Yams or Sweet Potatoes, in bite-size chunks

2 medium Carrots, in bite-size chunks

¾ cup Pitted Prunes

2 teaspoons Maple Syrup

1¾ cups Vegetable or Chicken Stock

Preserved Lemon (rind only) from ½ lemon, small dice

small bunch Cilantro Leaves, roughly chopped

several Mint Leaves, chopped

salt & freshly ground pepper to taste


*  (or 10 – 12 very small shallots)

In a heavy-bottomed casserole dish or a tagine, heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the ginger and cinnamon sticks and stir for one minute. Toss in the peeled pearl onions and when they begin to color, toss in the yams or sweet potatoes, the carrots and the preserved lemon. Sauté for several minutes, then drop in the prunes and maple syrup. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, top with a lid and cook for about 20 to 25 minutes…until vegetables pierce easily with a fork. 

Sprinkle some of the chopped cilantro and mint and season to taste with salt and pepper. If it appears a tad soupier than you’d like, increase the heat a bit to reduce the liquid, cooking for another 2 or 3 minutes without the lid. The vegetables should be slightly caramelized and the sauce syrupy. Scatter the remaining cilantro and mint before serving. Serve while steaming hot…we like it best over couscous.


{ to print recipe…click here.}

Tomorrow I’ll be back to reading the blogs I like so much, and the day after that, Guinea flies home again!


(NOTE on removing the peels from the onions: Drop the onions into boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse in cold water. Slice off the ends of each onion and the skins will slip off quite easily.)

44 Comments Post a comment
  1. carolyn #

    We love anything you have to say about that tail-twitching guinea pig! (wait- do their tails twitch?) I kinda feel sorry he missed out on this cozy, delicious meal. Do you think HE would suck the juices from the cinnamon stick? I want to know how many of your readers would. It’s so worth it. yum!

    January 23, 2013
    • Since the job of sucking cinnamon sticks usually falls on me, GP rarely sees them. In the interest of an orderly division of labor, I think we’ll keep it that way. :-). But as you can see from the comments by Ali below, at least one reader intends to suck the goodness from the stick! .

      January 24, 2013
  2. Ali #

    sweet and savory-can’t wait to try…and to suck that cinnamon stick dry! 😉

    January 23, 2013
  3. I’m making a tagine on Saturday. It was going to be a chicken and merguez tagine, but it’s now going to be a vegetarian one. Lovely pictures.

    January 24, 2013
    • I’d love to hear what vegetables and end up in your pot, Roger. Happy eating and a great weekend.

      January 24, 2013
  4. This talks to me .. but I have to add chicken and bacon to it … post and review will follow – the review on your bread will be posted on Saturday – LOVE IT!!!!

    January 24, 2013
    • I’ll be heading over to your place on Saturday Viveka for a peek at your bread! I love that you loved it. 🙂 And now I’ll look forward to seeing what makes its way into your tagine too. Can’t wait!

      January 24, 2013
      • That tagine I will .. do next week after I been to mums.
        Had the last slice of you bread … this morning for breakfast.
        Your bread and secret agents in the same post. Welcome over.

        January 24, 2013
        • Hah! 😉

          January 24, 2013
          • Very nice romantic music … and a very sexy secret agent by name Hamilton – but hand off .. his mine *smile

            January 24, 2013
            • Hahah! Well, I’ve got my hands full (or will again tomorrow) so hamilton’s all yours! Enjoy!

              January 24, 2013
  5. That tajine looks os beautiful – and usually they taste better a day or two later. Do we get to see the quilt? Please 🙂

    January 24, 2013
    • I agree Tanya – they (like we) get better with time! And I’d love to show you Lala’s quilt! I’ve only finished the piecing of the top and now comes the sandwiching of the three layers together, then the actual quilting, then the binding. It’ll be another couple weeks probably but I’d be happy to show you once it’s done…hopefully I can get that little elf to wrap up in it for the shoot! 🙂

      January 24, 2013
  6. My mum recieved a tagine as a gift a couple of years ago and she gave it to me nonths ago and I am ashamed to say I am still working up the courage to use it
    This looks like the perfect recipe to start with 🙂
    I loved reading the intro, I love to stitch but hardly have the time. I have fond memories of spending cold evenings stitching with my mum.

    January 24, 2013
    • Oh Sawsan, they’re so easy and so forgiving! No fear! Really fun to use them. The one regret I think that I have in switching from a gas cooktop to an induction one is that I can no longer use my tagine on the stovetop. But I do still use it in the oven and still love it. I was leery the first time I used it thinking that surely the gas flame would break it. But no. It holds up just like it’s supposed to. Like you, I don’t spend as much time sewing as I would like to, but there is something about the rhythm of quilt making that is so therapeutic! And I was in serious need of some therapy. 🙂 Have a lovely weekend, Sawsan!

      January 24, 2013
  7. I could eat your beautiful tagine for a week and be very happy.

    January 24, 2013
    • Thank you Karen, that’s sweet!

      January 24, 2013
  8. Your beautiful photos say it all, Spree. This is one delicious looking dish, good enough for me to consider going vegetarian — well, for a meal anyway. And thanks for the cooking and substitution tips.
    And on another front, I finally found Meyer lemons. YAY!!! These are going to be preserved, following your methods. I’ll keep you posted as to my/their progress.
    Thanks for both recipes! 🙂

    January 24, 2013
    • You always say the kindest things, John. Thank you!
      On the other front, yay!!! So glad. And I can hardly wait to see what a good cook like you does with them! You’ll have to let me know! I’ll be sharing a roasted chicken recipe that pairs up with preserved lemons and olives. And another with shrimp and pasta. I’ll wait a little while though to give your lemons a chance to catch up! 🙂

      January 25, 2013
  9. Such a image of serenity, you sewing something beautiful for a special one in front of a lovely outdoor vista. And your tagine looks like perfect sustenance during this peaceful, reflective time.

    January 24, 2013
    • Thanks Mar! It was all you said! It’s almost hard now to extricate myself from that window with those birds, and those little squares of brightly colored fabric.

      January 25, 2013
  10. I wish someone would cook this beautiful mix of goodness for me Spree! It is gorgeous, and your photos have me hungry as always! XO

    January 24, 2013
    • Shira – if only we lived closer, friend! I’d love to special deliver a tagine to your doorstep! XO too!

      January 25, 2013
  11. Wonderful! a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

    January 25, 2013
  12. I love this beauty you’re creating for Lala. I love this beauty you’ve created right here — for G.P. and for us. I love the color and art of your life coming out all over the place. This sounds like healthy, rib-sticking comfort food at its best!

    January 25, 2013
    • I’m loving it too, Ashley, thank you! It was such a lovely week!!

      January 25, 2013
  13. Stanford has a very fine reputation. I’m sure he’ll bring some tasty thoughts and ideas back home.

    January 26, 2013
  14. It looks amazing! Apparently guinea pigs are useful after all 😉 I love mine!

    January 26, 2013
  15. What a perfectly lovely picture you have painted here. Sigh… makes me wish I were a bird outside your window!

    January 26, 2013
    • I wish you were a bird outside my window Miss Movita Beaucoup so I could invite you in. We’d sit by this window together, looking out….you’d feel (and I’d feel) so much better after. xo

      January 31, 2013
  16. Those times are nice to have a chance to stay inside your head with thoughts and ideas but also to appreciate the fact you miss your love and you miss your eating companion 🙂 I have to say, I’m not quite as inspired to cook big when my hubs, Mr O is gone. I still do bits for Chloe and myself but it’s just not the same.
    Enjoy your time though….birds and crafting- lovely combination. x wt

    January 26, 2013
    • You SO get what it’s all about Wendy! Thank you much! 🙂

      January 31, 2013
  17. Hello Spree, sorry it has been so long since I visited but for some reason you stopped showing up in my reader. If you ever need a replacement guinea pig while he is away at Uni, I would love to take his place and try some of your delicious dishes. So colorful and flavorful this tagine is and enjoy some of your new time. Take care, BAM

    January 27, 2013
    • I’m happy to see you dear Bam! There are quite a few times when I could really use a Guinea stand-in…the invitation is open!

      January 31, 2013
  18. What a delicious looking tagine, I love anything Moroccan when vegetarian, photos are sensual and warming Mmmmmm x

    February 1, 2013
  19. Aahh, I see, some sweet comfort food for a cold day/night. Yum! Can you come and cook for me…. 🙂

    February 13, 2013
    • You’re invited to come for dinner, any night Janina!

      February 13, 2013
      • Thank you so much, spree! Now, how do I get over there….there’s snow, hail, wind, a huge ocean and extreme cold to contend with and something else called transport and money as well!! If I could, I would….I’ll just continue to enjoy your meals vicariously! 🙂

        February 15, 2013

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