Just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics will not take an interest in you.
~Pericles

Ancient, mystical lands ever praised for mesmerizing skies, colorful souks (markets) and seductively rugged landscapes, just became critically strategic. Morocco is seen in the West as a bulwark against the threat of instability from the terrorism and violent fundamentalism spreading throughout North Africa. Faced with the challenges posed by the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI adroitly negotiated and then held a constitutional referendum on political reforms which was soon followed by multiparty elections. One of Washington’s closest allies in the region, the State Department has now been working feverishly to cement relationships with this land of contrast since the recent appalling deaths of four members of the embassy staff in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has even praised Morocco as a “leader and a model” in the region.

Threats from Mali after the northern half of the nearby central African state fell under the control of militant, radical concerns have now been coupled with the perceived peril posed by Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Maghreb. The assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, the almost sudden revolutions that toppled leaders elsewhere (including Hosni Mubarak, the former leader of Egypt who was a long-time U.S. ally), the seemingly unending strife in Syria, and the profound uncertainties in Tunisia, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, the region just seems ablaze. The kingdom of Morocco seems a haven of sorts from intolerance and could emerge as a crucial partner there. This makes some sense given recent events and because historically Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence in 1777.

So, on to a memorable Moroccan staple, past and present. Praiseworthy stuff. Couscous should be light and fluffy, not gummy. So, allow the grains to absorb the liquid.

COUSCOUS WITH CHICKPEAS & MINT

1 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t caraway seeds, toasted and ground

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
Sea salt, to taste
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 T turmeric
1 T pimenton agridulce
Pinch of cayenne pepper

2 C chickpeas, soaked in water overnight and drained
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt water, warmed
Bouquet garni of parsley and cilantro, tied with twine

1 T tomato paste
2 T harissa, plus more for serving

2 C couscous
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C stock (reserved)
1 1/2 C water
1/4 C dried currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 t finely grated orange zest
3 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a heavy medium dry pan lightly toast the coriander, cumin and carraway until fragrant. Grind in a spice grinder and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it is tender, about 5 minutes, and stir in a generous pinch of salt, the garlic, coriander, caraway, turmeric, pimenton and cayenne. Stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant, then add the drained chickpeas, stock, water and the bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour. Add the tomato paste, the harissa and salt to taste. Bring back to a simmer and simmer another 45 minutes, until the chickpeas are tender. Strain but reserve and keep warm 1 cup of the broth and set aside for the couscous.

Add the couscous to a heavy large saucepan with olive oil over medium heat and stir. Then add the warmed stock and water. Gently stir with a fork to combine and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Add the currants and orange zest and fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the mint, tossing gently to combine.

Pass harissa in a bowl at the table.

Harissa

2 T cumin, toasted and ground
1 t coriander, toasted and ground
1 t carraway, toasted and ground

1 lb small hot red chilies, roasted and peeled
2 large red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 C cilantro, roughly chopped
1 T sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil

Lightly toast and grind the cumin, coriander and carraway. Finely mince the chilies, roasted peppers, lemon and garlic with a knife or food processor. Combine with the cilantro and salt. Transfer to an airtight jar and cover with a light splash of olive oil and place in the refrigerator until needed.

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Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.
~Marcel Proust

Another remembrance rekindled.  This time from La Table de Fès, an inauspicious restaurant morocain on la rue Sainte-Beuve in Paris’ 6eme arrondissement, festooned with a painted teal & white facade and a curtained, rather dark interior with woodwork and simple white clothed tables.  A room teeming with the aromas of intoxicating Moroccan spices.  The chicken tajine with preserved lemons, braised vegetables, and couscous there were beyond superlative, nearly peerless.   In this quaint haunt, the quirky plump proprietress took us on an engaging imaginary voyage over Moroccan landscapes by way of our plates.  While the 20eme is home to many north African immigrants and chez Omar is considered quite branché (“in”), fond memories of sublime food were born at La Table de Fès.  Not just a place, but a new way of seeing.

Little doubt that I will fail at replicating this enchanting dish, but here goes…

CHICKEN TAJINE WITH PRESERVED LEMONS & OLIVES

1 medium cinnamon stick, broken some
1 t whole black peppercorns
1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
1 t red pepper flakes

1/2 T turmeric
1/2 T paprika dulce or agridulce

3 T+ extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1 t fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 C fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
1 large pinch saffron
4-6 chicken leg-thigh quarters, trimmed of excess fat

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced
2 preserved lemons (see below)
3/4 C green and red olives, pitted and sliced
1/2 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine

Toast cinnamon stick, peppercorns, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom pods, and pepper flakes in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. Allow to reach room temperature, then in a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Place in a small bowl and add turmeric and paprika and mix well.

In a large baking dish or casserole, mix the oil, spices, garlic, ginger, cilantro, bay leaves and saffron. Add chicken, rubbing, massaging the marinade over all the pieces. Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or preferably overnight.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and reserve marinade and bring to room temperature. Pat chicken dry and season with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or tagine or large casserole over medium high heat add 2 tablespoons olive oil. Put in chicken pieces until lightly brown on both sides, about 5 minutes each. Add onions and cook until translucent and just starting to lightly brown, about 4 minutes. Scoop out flesh and discard and then rinse the preserved lemons. Cut peel into strips and add to pan. Add reserved marinade, olives, currants, chicken stock, and wine. Cover and cook over medium heat until chicken is done, about 30-35 minutes. Discard bay leaf and taste to adjust seasoning.

Place chicken on a platter or individual plates. Spoon juices with the preserved lemon, olives, and onions over chicken and serve accompanied by plain couscous or couscous with apricots (see below).

Preserved Lemons

6 lemons, scrubbed and cleaned
3 C+ sea salt
Cold water

Fill the bottom of a large, hinged glass jar with 1 cup of salt. Slice off the end of each lemon.  Cut the lemons into quarters lengthwise twice, but do not slice all the way through, so the lemon remains intact on one end. Open up the lemon and pack copious amounts of salt inside. Arrange three of the lemons on top of the first layer of salt and then add a second cup of salt. Add the last three lemons and then pour in the last cup of salt on top of the lemons. Press down the fruit so the juices release and then fill the rest of the jar with water just until it covers the lemons. Tightly close the jar and store in a cool, dark place for at least one month until the lemon peel has softened. Occasionally turn the jar upside down and gently shake so the salt redistributes.

When ready to use, just remove the pulp and use the peel only. Make sure to rinse off the almost translucent peel to remove excess salt before adding to the dish. Preserved lemons can be stored for up to 4 months in the refrigerator.

Couscous with Apricots

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander, toasted & ground

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.

On this solemn day of remembrance, we pause to recall that ninety-five years ago one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century began. In that dark moment of history, 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.
~Barack Obama, April 24, 2010

Apricots were originally cultivated in China or India, depending on the source. They arrived in Europe through Armenia, which explains the scientific name Prunus armenaica. While this small, densely canopied tree first arrived in Virginia in the early 18th century, its appearance in the Spanish missions of California several decades later marked the real arrival on North America’s center stage. As the climate on the west coast is perfectly suited to apricot culture, these pastelled gems are grown primarily in sunny orchards there.

A drupe similar to a small peach, flesh tones range from yellow to orange, and even tinged red on the side most exposed to the sun. A single seed is enclosed in a hard stony shell which has three ridges running down one side. The skin can be glabrous or display short pubescent hairs—some catholic priests’ dreams. (Just this week, northwest Jesuits agreed to pay $166 million to more than 500 victims of sexual abuse, many of whom were American Indians and Alaska Natives who were debased decades ago at boarding schools and on the safe grounds of remote villages.)

Apricots are a good source of vitamins A and C, and also provide needed dietary fiber and potassium.

In the mood, once again, for my luscious little pearly friends known as Israeli couscous. This version is chocked with texture: the distinct pop of couscous, the nutty crunch of almonds, the tender chew of sweet apricots and currants. An apotheosis when nestled up to roasted or grilled meats.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS, ALMONDS & CURRANTS

Sea salt
2 C Israeli couscous

Extra virgin olive oil
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
1 t cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1/2 C sliced almonds, toasted
1 C chicken stock

1/2 C dried apricots, diced into 1/2″ pieces
1/4 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
4 scallions, both white and green parts, cut thin on the bias
Fresh mint, minced

Bring a saucepan or pot of generously salted cold water to a boil over high heat. Add the Israeli couscous and cook until cooked through, about 6-7 minutes. Strain from the water and reserve.

Coat a large sauté pan with olive oil. Add the garlic, crushed red pepper and cum, then bring to medium high heat. After a few minutes, add the almonds to toast them in the oil. When the garlic is golden and aromatic, remove from the pan and discard. Do not brown or the garlic will become bitter. Add the cooked couscous and chicken stock. Season with salt and cook until the stock has reduced by half. Add the apricots, currants, scallions and mint. Stir to combine well and serve.

Words do not change their meanings so drastically in the course of centuries as, in our minds, names do in the course of a year or two.
~Marcel Proust

With steady overdoses of dissonance — the BP gulf cataclysm, insecure financial markets, Wall St avarice, rampant unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, endless wars, species depletion, global warming, political antagonism, and the like. Anxiety, animus, and acrimony all run amok, urged on by the madding crowd. Makes me apoplectic sometimes.

Little wonder the Scripps National Spelling Bee is such a welcome relief and maybe a cause for optimism. Youth, words, and a gathering of beautiful minds…and sometimes helicopter parents.

The Bee entails arduous vocab prep over countless hours and seemingly endless regional competitions. It is an honor born of toil to even be chosen for the national contest. There, contestants, oversized placards hanging from their necks, try not to fidget in their chairs as they await their turn. One by one, each is given a word with meticulous pronounciation, and if requested, the definition, origin and sentence use. Standing solo before the mike, contestants nervously form letters to spell that word, followed by either applause and ebullience or the knell of dashed hopes. There are so many pitfalls…an “a” used instead of an “e” or “i;” uttering a double consonant rather than a single one; forgetting a soft “c” after an “s;” confusing Greek with Latin or other etymologies. Each speller has their own quirks and rhythms, and the drama is palpable. Tense teens form words like revirescent, congener, laodicean, poilu, schadenfreude, effleurage, pfeffernuss, onomatopoeia, sesquipedalian, appoggiatura, guerdon, logorrhea, succedaneum, until a winner is crowned. This year, stromuhr (an instrument for measuring the velocity of blood flow), was le dernier mot, assiduously spelled by the champion, Anamika Veeramani.

This lamb tajine sounds the usual polyphony, but also has a nectarous tinge due to the bees’ honey, oranges, and cinnamon.

LAMB TAJINE WITH CURRANT COUSCOUS

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 jalapeño peppers (red & green), stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 T sweet paprika
1 T turmeric
1 t ground cumin
1 t ground cardamom
1 t saffron threads
1 T ginger, peeled and minced
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 bay leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 C extra virgin olive oil

1 1/2 lbs boned lamb shoulder, cut into 2″ cubes, patted dry

2 C chicken stock, barely simmering
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced
2 oranges, freshly juiced
1 16 oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/4 C honey
1/2 T ground cinnamon
1 cinnamon stick
2/3 C prunes, pitted
2/3 C dried apricots

Sesame seeds
1/2 C blanched almonds, roasted
Fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped

Combine the chopped onion with the chopped jalapeños, paprika, turmeric, cumin, cardamom, saffron, ginger, bay leaves, salt, pepper and olive oil. In a large bowl or heavy ziploc bag, combine this marinade with the cubed lamb shoulder. Coat well and marinate for at least 4 hours, or preferably overnight.

In a heavy, large Dutch oven, sauté the lamb over medium high heat until browned, about 8 minutes or so. Add hot chicken stock, reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes. Then, add onions, orange juice, chickpeas, honey, cinnamon, cinnamon stick, prunes, and apricots. Simmer until the lamb is very tender, about another 20-30 minutes. Remove lamb and spoon onto a mound of warm couscous in a shallow bowl. Pour the sauce over the top and garnish first with sesame seeds, then almonds and finally mint.

Couscous with Cumin, Coriander & Currants

1/2 T cumin seeds
1/2 T coriander seeds

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 T unsalted butter
1 C couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock

1/2 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained

In a dry heavy small skillet over medium heat add cumin and coriander seeds. Toast briefly until essences are released, about 2 mintes. Do not brown deeply or burn. Set aside and allow to cool to room temperature. Then, using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, grind the roasted seeds. Set aside.

Heat stock in a small heavy saucepan to a low simmer. In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil and butter over medium heat until butter melts. Then, add the couscous, cumin and coriander. Stir well to coat the couscous with the spices. Add the hot broth and stir with a fork to combine well. Cover and let rest undisturbed for 10 minutes. Uncover, add the plumped currants and fluff again gently with a fork.

Couscous & Vinaigrette

October 7, 2009

A pantry staple, Israeli couscous is a small, round semolina pasta that should not be confused with the tiny, light yellow tinted North African couscous. After being shaped and rolled into small balls, these semolina granules are toasted in an oven, lending a distinctive nutty and buttery flavor and a pleasing firm yet gentle texture—little bursts in the mouth. The labor intensive sieving and toasting process also seals in the starches and reinforces the exterior, allowing these minute globules to absorb liquid without falling apart.

Israeli couscous serves as a light and fluffy standby carb to round out a meal and can also be the base for a luscious salad that can be customized in a myriad of ways. Season versatile. I have become fixated on these little pearls.

ISRAELI COUSCOUS SALAD

1 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C red wine vinegar
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T honey
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2-3 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C zucchini, cubed, using only the outside skinned area
1/2 C red onion, diced, rinsed and dried
Fresh thyme leaves, minced

2-3 ears fresh sweet corn, shucked
2 C cherry tomatoes, halved

2 C Israeli couscous
1 1/2 C water
1 C chicken stock

3-4 T mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk together the red wine vinegar, mustard and honey, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil while continuously whisking to emulsify. Season with salt and pepper, then set aside.

In a large heavy sauté pan, heat the olive oil, and add red onion, thyme and then the zucchini and sauté until cooked, yet al dente. Add the sweet corn and cherry tomatoes and cook more, but just briefly.

Bring water and stock to a lively boil in heavy pot. Add couscous and cook until al dente, about 8-10 minutes, then drain. Allow the couscous to cool and then toss with the vinaigrette, and finally the zucchini, red onion, corn, tomatoes and mint. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This salad tends to be even more flavorful after it sits for awhile in the frig.

Pourboire: Rincing the minced raw onions removes the pungent, sometimes overpowering, flavor. When onions are chopped, sulfurous compounds are released from the cell walls. Cold rinsing this sulfur away results in a more mellow product. Also, as always, the base vinaigrette can be varied to suit your tastes.

…rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe.
~King Hassan II

Al Maghreb means “furthest west” or “where the sun sets,” as when the Arabs first arrived in northern Africa in the 7th century, the lands of present day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were considered to be the outermost western region in the world.

Morocco is situated on the northwest coast of Africa at an intersection of and bordered by Algeria and Western Sahara, the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea…its northernmost tip nearly touches the Iberian peninsula. So, it is little wonder that these lands display a captivating cultural mosaic with traditional cuisine borrowing culinary influences from the indigenous Berbers, invading Arabs, as well as more recently French and Spanish colonialists.

Generous hospitality and custom are the touchstones of Moroccan entertaining, and it often centers around food. Guests are often treated to an abundant tiered feast served at a low communal table covered with brightly colored cloths while seated on pillows. The central meal is usually served at midday. A ritual of handwashing over a basin is performed before serving with perfumed water sprinkled on the right hand as Moroccans eat using the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand only. (Food eaten with your fingers tastes better, remember?) Savory homemeade bread is also offered for use as a utensil.

The resplendent meal is served in several profoundly aromatic courses and culminates in a palate cleansing mint tea.

This succulent lamb dish and the accompanying couscous makes immediate use of the recently posted recipe for Ras El Hanout (08.11.2009)…certainly by now some has made its way into your pantry. The complex, colorful aromas created by the luscious fresh lamb, varied spices and dried fruits will pervade your abode through the night.

MOROCCAN LAMB SHANKS WITH DRIED FRUITS & COUSCOUS

4 1-1 1/4 lb lamb shanks, not trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6 T Ras El Hanout (North African spices)

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, halved across and then quartered lengthwise
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 T tomato paste
1 C dry red wine

1 28-ounce can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
3-4 C chicken stock
1/2 C dried figs
1/2 C dried apricots
1/2 C pitted prunes

Preheat oven to 450 F

Season the shanks with salt and pepper and then rub the Ras El Hanout spice mix all over the surface, massaging it into the meat some.

Place the shanks, standing heavy side down and narrow end up in a large, heavy Dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot. Roast in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour. Transfer lamb to a platter or baking dish and loosely tent.

Place the Dutch oven or pot on the stove over medium high, and deglaze briefly with a little red wine, scraping up cooked bits off the bottom. Reduce to medium heat and add olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking the onion and carrots and a couple minutes or so later the garlic and season with salt and pepper and a pinch of Ras El Hanout. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about a total 4 to 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and wine and cook another 4 or 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and dried fruits to the casserole; and then nestle the lamb shanks in the liquid. Cover the pan and return it to the oven. Bring to a simmer and braise, basting occasionally, until the meat is quite tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and again transfer lamb to platter and tent. Strain the sauce into a bowl, gently pressing on the vegetables and skim off any fat. Reserve the vegetables for serving. Return the sauce to the Dutch oven or pot and boil over high heat until reduced to 1 cup, about 10-15 minutes. Keep sauce warm.

Mound the couscous somewhat off center of each large dish or platter. Arrange the lamb shanks atop the reserved vegetables slight atop and to one side of the couscous and spoon over with sauce. Have a bowl of Harissa (04.02.09 post) on the table for passing should some want heat.

COUSCOUS WITH ALMONDS, CURRANTS AND HERBS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T green onions
1 T Ras El Hanout
1/4 C whole almonds toasted, coarsely chopped

1 c instant couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, warmed
1/2 t lemon zest

1/2 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat add olive oil. Reduce heat to low and add the green onions, Ras El Hanout, and almonds and sauté gently until softened and slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Let sit for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the currants, mint and cilantro. Fluff again with a fork. Toss gently to combine.

….I decided I was a lemon for a couple of weeks. I kept myself amused all that time jumping in and out of a gin and tonic.
~Douglas Adams, Life, The Universe and Everything

Another relatively flat stage in the Tour today, coursing through the pastoral Champagne Berry region smack dab in the middle of France. A day which displays the gracefully tessellated peloton and culminates in a crazed sprint for those pursuing the green jersey.

The quaint start town, Vatan, with a little over 2,000 inhabitants, is one of several French villages with tongue in cheek names: (Vatan means “Go Away”), Arnac-la-Poste (“Cheat the Post Office”), Bouzillé (“Broken”), Trécon (“Very Stupid”), Poil (“Naked”), Monteton (“My Tit”), Corps-Nuds (“Nude Bodies”). Coincidentally, the town of Condom is on the river Baïse which without the umlaut over the “i” means “coitus” in common French parlance. With the ironic exception of Condom, these towns even belong to a group called the Association des communes de France aux noms burlesques et chantants.

The Tour town displays it motto without pretense: “Vatan… you’ll be back”…a saying which could be applied to Condom as well.

A refreshing change from the insipid names that tend to grace many of the towns, streets, and subdivisions of dysturbia.

LEMON ISRAELI COUSCOUS

1 1/2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/3 C yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 C Israeli couscous
2 C chicken stock

3 T fresh mint, finely chopped
1 T grated lemon zest
3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 T parsley, minced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until tender and translucent. Stir in the couscous and cook for 2 to 3 minutes longer, until evenly coated with oil. Add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until tender, about 12 to 14 minutes.

Stir in the mint, lemon zest, lemon juice, and parsley, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook the couscous, stirring, over medium low heat until the mint and lemon are aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes longer. The couscous should be tender and fluffy.