Some sentences you just never forget.
When I was twelve, a beautiful boy leaned toward me and whispered in my ear, “Come with me to the Casbah.”
I can still remember the hazy sunshine I saw through the window as he said it. He smelled faintly of sweat, that day’s lunch, and Dove shampoo. I could feel my knees buckle beneath me. The cool water with which I had been rinsing the dishes rushed over my baffled hands. I couldn’t move. Mike Kelly had just said that to me?
Ah, Mike Kelly. My first real love, the crush that enveloped my entire being and left me trembling on a daily basis. For months, in his presence, I felt charged with hormones and content to simply sit and stare at the back of his neck. Remember that first real love of your life, when your heart really does throb in your chest and everything feels so wonderfully woeful? Aside from a few celebrities — Mikhail Baryshnikov, Paul McCartney, and even (I have to admit it) Sean Cassidy for two or three days — I had never been able to see a boy as swoony beautiful before. Until I met Mike Kelly.
We were best friends for almost a year, during the seventh grade, the tortured time. He came over to my house, every afternoon, to play Monopoly, listen to Steve Martin records, and throw the baseball back and forth with me in the front yard. He and my younger brother and I made movies with our Super-8 camera, slow-motion shots of us spitting milk out of our noses because we laughed so hard, mostly. But there were the damsel in distress films. Mike always played the hero.
The popular girls at my school hated me, because they wanted him. He was tall, blond, and easily graceful. I was suffering under the last remnants of a home perm I had never chosen, and my eyes looked tiny behind enormous, thick glasses. My family refers to this as my Albert Brooks period. Mike glided into rooms and everyone gathered around him. I preferred to utter as little as possible in large groups, for fear of saying anything wrong. Mike made everyone giggle. He quipped and bantered and danced with words. He threw sentences into the air between us and I fell down laughing. I was his best and favorite audience.
And then I had to go and fall in love with him.
There were blurs of excitement when he looked at me, fits of tears when he ignored me, and the tremble of wondering what would happen next. Everything felt highly dramatic. For weeks afterward, I lived on the memory of when we were in the darkroom together, developing photographs, and Olivia Newton John’s Xanadu came on the radio, and we danced together. And oh, the dizzying fever-pitch joy when Mike gave me my first-ever kiss, in front of the map of Disneyland hanging on my bedroom wall.
But when he leaned over to kiss the Casbah sentence into my ear as I did the dishes on a typical summer afternoon, I nearly lost my mind. With that little breath of wind, he wafted Morocco into my head. Visions of a warm sun, earthy spices, and langorous summer days spent eating olives with my twelve-year-old Charles Boyer. I didn’t know where he had picked up such a suave line, or why he said it to me that day, or rested his head upon my shoulder afterwards. But I know that I never forgot it. For ever afterward, whispers of Charles Boyer and Morocco meant romance to me.
This rose to my mind the other day when I was standing in Trader Joe’s. Tired from a long day, I meandered down the aisle with no fixed idea in mind. Above the rices and polentas, I saw a line of jarred sauces. Before I started cooking so seriously, I used to always grab a Trader Joe’s simmer sauce and throw it on some chicken, toss it on top of some rice, and eat without thinking. I had not resorted to this in months, and in fact, I didn’t even know if any of them were gluten-free. On instinct, I picked up a Moroccan tagine simmer sauce. At this point, I’m trained. I turned the jar and looked at the label, going into detetctive mode. Everything looked fine — no gluten lurking there, I suppose. I almost put it in my basket. But then I stopped and read it again, with a different trained eye. What was in it? Green olives, golden raisins, chopped tomatoes, garlic, onions, chicken stock — ah hell, I could make that.
So I did. Tender bites of lamb, layered in with piquant green olives, the supple sweetness of golden raisins lingering in with sharp tomato tastes. Every bite increasingly familiar, like a warm whisper.
Quick lamb tagine
All those years, I thought Mike was quoting a Charles Boyer film to me, when he whispered, “Come with me to the Casbah.” It’s only recently that I realized that Charles Boyer never said that line. It was said, instead, by Pepe Le Pew, the super-suave skunk who was perpetually trying to woo his diffident female skunk lover. The first love of my life was using the Looney Tunes to woo me.
That feels about right.
I’m certain that this dish of mine is probably the Pepe Le Pew of lamb tagine, in comparison to the Charles Boyer-authentic Moroccan tagine, slow-simmered for hours in a tagine pot. However, the same way that Mike’s whispered line worked just fine on the twelve-year-old me, this dish will fulfill that little craving and make you sigh.
three tablespoons olive oil
one white onion, finely diced
three cloves garlic, smashed
two thin shoulder steaks of lamb, cut into bite-size pieces
one teaspoon sea salt
one teaspoon pepper, cracked
one teaspoon paprkia
one teaspoon cumin
one-half cup spicy green olives, pitted
one-half cup golden raisins
one cup diced tomatoes
one cup chicken stock
Put the high-quality olive oil into a braising pan heated on high. When it has warmed, throw in the diced onions and sautee them until they are starting to soften, about five minutes. At this point, throw in the garlic and stir it all around. (Don’t forget to lower your nose toward the skillet and whiff in this heavenly smell.) Put in the pieces of lamb and add half the salt and pepper. Let the lamb cook for one minute or so, or until browned. Remove the meat from the skillet and set aside for the moment.
Add the spices to the onion and garlic simmering mixture and heat until the smell begins to waft by your nose. Place the green olives, golden raisins, and tomatoes into the skillet and cook until it all starts to sizzle.
Put the sauteed lamb pieces back into the braising pan, and add the chicken stock. Stir until you’ve made a lovely mixture. As soon as you have stirred it into a consistency, put the braising pan in a pre-heated, 350° oven. Let the tagine simmer and bubble inside the braising pan for at least an hour and a half, preferably two hours, until the lamb is meltingly tender.
Serve over brown jasmine rice.