AT a recent dinner in a fancy restaurant, my braised lamb shanks were served pulled off the bone and molded into a neat little brick. The silken shreds of meat were so soft and succulent that neither knife nor teeth were required. Technically correct and perfectly executed, it held my interest for all of three bites and then I got bored. Those supple, homogeneous morsels slid too easily across my tongue with nary a struggle. There were no elastic bits of gristle, no chewy tidbits of fat, no bones to nibble and gnaw. My companion, however, was in his own private carnivore's heaven. Spooning up the tender remains from my plate, he sighed with pleasure: No gristle, no fat, no bones!
Remembering this scene the next time I made my way to the kitchen to braise some lamb, I decided I wanted a dish that was flexible enough to delight both bone pickers and leavers. I started with the cut. I needed a piece of meat that had some bones, but not too many. Shanks and legs are too big-boned. Stew meat and loin, too spineless. After a chat with the butcher, I settled on shoulder chops. Each chop contained a few small gnawable bones, and plenty of velvety meat that would slip right off them after a long, gentle braise. (You could substitute entirely boneless stew meat if all your guests share the same bone-free ideal.)
Next, I needed to puzzle out the seasonings. Winter's persistence made me envious of other people's exotic vacations, so I focused on places I would rather be, like Morocco. It's warmer there, and they braise their lamb with fragrant, blood-heating spices. A lamb tagine, infused with aromatics and dried sweet fruit, began to take shape in my mind. Out came the cookbooks, starting with Paula Wolfert's classic, ''Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco'' (William Morrow, 1987). As I skimmed the 30 recipes for tagine -- the name for both a traditional slow-cooked stew and the conical-covered pot it stews in -- I noticed that while elements of each recipe intrigued, there was none in particular that contained them all.
So I cherry-picked, stealing ground ginger and cinnamon sticks from a vegetable tagine, mixing in green olives, cumin and paprika from lamb tagine with lemons and olives, and adding saffron because nearly all the recipes called for either that or turmeric, of which I had none. I settled on dried apricots as the fruit because their sunny hue had warmer connotations than, say, prunes. In terms of tagine technique, recipes varied widely, though all were cooked in their eponymous pot. I even briefly considered feeding my kitchenware addiction and running out to buy a tagine (several manufacturers, including All-Clad, make them). But common sense and my sturdy Dutch oven prevailed.
Following Ms. Wolfert's directions, I heated the lamb and spices in the pot on the stove just long enough to release the aromas, but not long enough to brown the meat. Having been schooled in the belief that properly browned meat was an essential building block for any sauce, I was a little dubious. But skipping the browning also saved me 20 stove-splattering minutes, so I decided to give it a try.
After everything came to a simmer, I covered the pot and popped it in the oven and continued reading about tagines. Some were cooked in enough butter to keep for a month, preserved beneath a coating of honey, spices and fat somewhat like a confit. Riffing on the butter theme, I decided to garnish the tagine with butter-fried almonds.
When the meat was soft enough to fall away from the bones, the tagine was ready, and I served it over mounds of fluffy couscous, heaping the fleshy lamb chunks on my friend's plate and the bony bits on mine. Then I drizzled buttered almonds over it all. Both the butter and almonds had turned golden brown, taking on a nutty, roasted, caramelized flavor, almost like what browned meat would have contributed to the sauce, but gentler and sweeter. The spices had mellowed, the onions softened, the olives and apricots melted into the sauce. As Ms. Wolfert likes to write, it was really very good. But best of all, we each got to eat our meat exactly the way we like it, and all from one pot.
Lamb Tagine With Apricots, Olives and Buttered Almonds
Time: 2 hours
4 pounds bone-in lamb shoulder or neck, or 2 1/4 pounds boneless lamb stew meat, cut into 2-inch chunks
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 large Spanish onions, peeled and quartered
2 cinnamon sticks, each 2 inches long
Large pinch crumbled saffron
1 1/4 cups dried apricots, sliced
1 cup cracked green olives, pitted and sliced if desired
2 to 4 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup sliced almonds
Cooked couscous, for serving
Chopped parsley or cilantro, for garnish
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Trim excess fat off lamb. Put meat in a deep Dutch oven or cast-iron pot with the garlic, salt, black pepper, paprika, ginger and cumin. Rub spices and garlic evenly all over meat.
2. Thinly slice onions, then mince enough of them to yield 1/2 cup. Add minced onion to pot with lamb; reserve onion slices.
3. Place pot over high heat and let cook, turning meat on all sides, until spices release their scent, about 3 minutes. You need not brown meat. Add 3 cups water to pot (it should come 3/4 of the way up lamb), along with cinnamon and saffron. Bring to a simmer, then cover pot and transfer to oven. Let braise for 45 minutes.
4. Turn meat, then top with onion slices. Cover pot and braise for another 45 minutes to an hour, or until lamb is very tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer meat to a bowl, leaving broth and onions in pot.
5. Place pot on stove over high heat and add 3/4 cup apricots and the olives. Simmer broth until it reduces by a third and thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Return lamb to pot and keep warm until serving. (Tagine can be prepared 4 days ahead; chill, then remove fat and reheat before serving.)
6. To serve, chop remaining 1/2 cup apricot slices. In a small skillet, melt butter. Add almonds and cook until well browned and toasted, about 2 minutes. Put couscous in a serving bowl and top with almonds and butter and chopped apricots. Pile tagine in center of couscous and garnish with herbs.
Yield: 6 servings.