“Better the gurgling of a camel than the prayers of a fish.”
– Moroccan proverb
Buenos Aires – I’d been wanting to offer a middle eastern dinner of some sort for awhile, and Independence Day in Morocco seemed the perfect opportunity. I like the cuisine from that country in particular, because for me it embodies a seamless blend of Middle Eastern, African, and French influences. It turned into an odd weekend for us, reservation-wise, perhaps due to the lunar eclipse, but it seemed as if every time I turned around someone was cancelling, someone new was reserving, and the cycle repeating – by the time the two evenings arrived, we weren’t 100% sure who or how many people were actually coming. In the end, we had two smaller groups, but fun was had by all… and some pretty darned good food I think.
This salad might more properly be termed simply a Mediterranean salad of fennel, oranges, and black olives. In one version or another it seems to pop up throughout – the south of France, Sicily, Greece, the Middle East, and, yes, Morocco. My first reaction was that perhaps some combination of spices was uniquely Moroccan, but, not really. It’s just a light, refreshing salad, that’s perfect in this weather. The one thing that I changed was that rather than slicing the fennel thinly and leaving it raw, I sauteed it with the garlic and dried chili peppers in a little olive oil, then let it soak in the juice and grated peel of the oranges. Afterwards I added orange supremes, salt-cured black olives, ground coriander seed, salt, and a lot of fresh chopped mint.
Harira is one of those soups that there are probably as many different recipes as their are Moroccan cooks. While traditionally a soup prepared for holiday meals, many families, especially in modern times, prepare it on other occasions… like a Casa SaltShaker dinner. At its heart, from reading through a wide variety of recipes, it’s a chickpea based soup with tomato and spices, and often lentils and thin pasta added. Now, this is where I hit some, well, snags. I looked over my reference materials for the dishes that I’d decided to prepare. All three middle courses basically used the same combination of spices, often in relatively close proportions – turmeric, pepper or chili, cinnamon, and ginger – and they also all seemed to incorporate chickpeas, lentils, and/or some form of pasta. I decided to play around a bit and just use the traditional recipes as inspiration – our usual Casa S approach – and also to split up the starches. The soup began with soaking a good quantity of chickpeas overnight. I then sauteed (in butter) some chopped white onion, celery, and the pimienton rojo that I focused on a couple of posts ago – a red bell pepper would do just fine. When this trio was nicely softened I added coarsely chopped tomatoes, and turmeric, white pepper, and cinnamon (2:2:1) and continued to cook until the spices were nicely aromatic. At that point I added the chickpeas and a chicken and corn stock, along with a spoonful of tomato paste. Brought to a boil, turned down to a simmer, and simmered until the chickpeas were soft. You could also use canned chickpeas, but then I’d add them after the vegetables have had a bit of time to cook in the stock. When ready to serve, add a handful of chopped cilantro to the soup.
Next up, I’d decided on a dish of “Moroccan Style Mussels” – basically mussels that have been stewed in a spicy tomato sauce. First, I steamed the mussels and removed them from the shells – pretty as the presentation might be, if I’m not just simply presenting shellfish on the half shell, I’m not fond of shells in my dishes. Meanwhile, I sauteed three shallots and three garlic cloves (finely chopped) until lightly golden, then added coarsely chopped tomatoes and cooked until softened. Then a 1″ cube of fresh ginger, sliced, ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper, 2 teaspoons sweet smoked paprika, 2 tablespoons cider vinegar, and 3 tablespoons of sugar. I continued cooking until the whole mixture was darkened and becoming relatively thick. At this point, I tossed it all in the blender along with a large handful of parsley leaves and pureed it. I returned it to the pot and added the mussels and let them cook a bit longer in the sauce. You can thin the sauce out slightly with some of the mussel cooking liquid if you like – probably if you were going to serve this atop rice. I decided to serve it over little nests of angel hair pasta cooked al dente. Garnish with a little more parsley.
I’m not sure it’s possible to seriously consider Moroccan food and not at least give some thought to a tagine, those delicious slow cooked meat stews flavored with preserved fruits and vegetables. But a couple of things – I don’t have a tagine pot, though that’s perhaps the least of the considerations. I also didn’t have any preserved lemons, a traditional element in one of my favorite tagines, chicken with green olives and preserved lemons. There wasn’t time to preserve my own – it’s a 2-3 week process. But, hey, there’s no reason I can’t use fresh lemons. And I decided that here was the spot for the lentils that I’d left out of the soup. The first thing to do was brown the chicken parts in just a touch of olive oil – not much, the chicken fat will render into the pan providing plenty of fat – thighs and legs work best in this dish as they stay juicy and flavorful. Then set them aside. In the rendered chicken fat, cook two chopped red onions and four cloves of minced garlic along with: 4 teaspoons of ají rojo, or a medium hot paprika, 2 teaspoons of ground cumin, 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Cook until the mixture is turning dark and toasty. Then add a cup of golden raisins, 2 cups of pitted green olives (good quality, please…), and two lemons, cut into small wedges, seeds removed (but leave the peel and pith on). Continue cooking until it’s all starting to soften. Add the chicken pieces back into the pot (I had a dozen each of legs and thighs), add about a quart of water, bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the chicken and set aside again. Add about a cup and a half of lentils to the pan, cover, and cook until the lentils are soft and cooked through. Serve the chicken accompanied by the lentil mixture. Garnish with a mix of parsley and cilantro.
Finally, we come to the dessert. Like a tagine, it’s probably impossible to discuss Moroccan cuisine without discussing couscous, and the proper ways to cook it (steamed over aromatic liquid, not boiled in it). But I wanted to do something different with it. I’d seen various recipes for couscous cakes. I decided to simply use my new favorite cupcake recipe, making two substitutions… the two cups plus two tablespoons of flour became 1½ cups of flour, and ½ cup plus two tablespoons of uncooked couscous; and, instead of melted butter, olive oil. The first night I made them in straighforward muffin tins. While I liked the flavor, I didn’t like the presentation, so the second night I baked them in ramekins so that they came out as little domed cylinders. They were accompanied by fresh figs, quartered and stewed until soft in butter, brown sugar, and white wine (I used some leftover champagne that was going flat…), and topped with whipped cream made with brown sugar. A little drizzle of fig syrup atop and we’re done.