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.

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La Kama is an aromatic spice blend which harmonizes well with tagines, lamb or poultry dishes but also suits fish, soups and stews. This warm Moroccan concoction depends on the creator. Occasionally called “Tangier’s five spice,” la kama can be purchased at specialty stores or from spice vendors online, but also can be simply made at home. Somewhat similar to its more notable cousin, ras el hanout (Aug 11, 2009), la kama tends to have far fewer ingredients in the formula.

LA KAMA

1 T ground ginger
1 T ground turmeric
1 T finely ground black pepper
2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly grated nutmeg

Optional:
1/2 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 T ground cubeb pepper

Combine the spices thoroughly and transfer to a small jar with a tight fitting lid and store in the cupboard.

Pourboire: instead of the already ground versions, consider using a 1 1/2″ piece of cinnamon stick and black peppercorns, toasted and then ground.

…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.

Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.
~Pliny

Harissa is a hot chili sauce or paste that is commonly found in North African cuisine, added to a range of dishes, including couscous, soups, and grains.

MORROCAN OLIVES

1 1/2 C fine green olives and 1 1/2 C fine black olives (with pits), lightly smashed to crack open slightly

4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2 t tomato paste
1/2 C harissa
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 lemon slices, thinly sliced

Cover olives with water in a small saucepan and briefly bring to a gentle boil, then drain and allow to dry.

In a heavy skillet, saute garlic in olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat until garlic is light golden, about 2 minutes. Do not burn the garlic. Remove from pan and discard. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in harissa, thyme, and olives and simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, until liquid is thickened and coats olives, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon slices. Transfer to an airtight jar and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

HARISSA

1 lb small hot red chilies, roasted and peeled
2 large red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
1 preserved lemon (see preserved lemons)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled

1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
2 T ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground carraway
1 T sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil

Finely mince the chilies, roasted peppers, preserved lemons and garlic with a knife or food processor. Combine with the cilantro, cumin, and salt. Transfer to an airtight jar and cover with olive oil and place in the refrigerator until needed.

Pourboire: For a smokier more hedonistic version, grill the chilies, peppers and garlic over medium high hot coals on the barbeque.

In Morocco, it’s possible to see the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time.
~Tahar Ben Jelloun

A tajine (طاجين), is a cooking vessel—a partially glazed earthenware dish with a pointed, conical lid. But, tajine also refers to the traditional North African method of slowly braising succulent meat (often lamb and chicken) with sweet & savory fruit woven in a prolific complexity of aromatic spices.

Couscous is a coarsely ground semolina pasta which has been a staple in North Africa since the 12th century. It is often steamed in a device the French call a couscoussier. which resembles a double boiler with the upper part having a perforated bottom which is set over a pot of boiling water or over the tajine served with the couscous. The recipes below are created using more conventional cookware.

Couscous scents are unmistakable—intricate, ambrosial with thoughts drifting to Paul Bowles’ contemplative Moroccan sojourn in The Sheltering Sky and the doleful blue magic of Ali Farka Touré’s guitar and plaintive voice.

CHICKEN MAROCAIN

1 1/2 T coriander seeds
1 1/2 T cumin seeds
6 cardamom pods

1 T paprika
1 T turmeric
1/2 T ground cinnamon
1/2 T cayenne pepper
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

4 local, free range, organic chicken leg-thigh quarters or one whole chicken cut into 8 pieces, room temperature
Extra virgin olive oil
3 peeled, slightly crushed fresh garlic cloves

3/4 C medium yellow onion, diced
1+ T fresh ginger, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1 T red pepper flakes
2 cinnamon sticks
2 jalapeno or other chile peppers, diced

1 C dry white wine
1 T tomato paste

1 28 oz can of san marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 C chicken broth
1 C canned chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
3/4 C kalamata olives, pitted and halved
2 T honey
2 preserved lemons,* cut into wedges
2 bay leaves
1/2 C chopped dried figs
3/4 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained

Toast cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom pods in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. In a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Combine with remainder of rub spices, then rub over chicken liberally. Let stand for at least 1/2 hour or refrigerate longer. Keep unused spice rub in pantry for later use in other dishes.

Heat 3 TB oil a high-sided, heavy bottomed pan or dutch oven over medium high heat with smashed garlics. Remove garlic, then add chicken skin side down, sauté chicken until browned on both sides, 5 minutes each side. Remove and loosely tent. Pour off all but 1-2 TB drippings.

Add onions and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in peppers and saute another minute. Then, stir in the ginger, garlic, pepper flakes, cinnamon stick. Cook until fragrant, for another 1 minute.

Deglaze with wine and tomato paste, stirring. Simmer gently until liquid almost evaporates.

Add tomatoes, broth, chickpeas, olives, honey, lemons, bay leaves, figs, currants and stir to combine. Arrange chicken in pan, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce is somewhat reduced, about 20 minutes.

Finish with:

Fresh mint & cilantro, chopped
Grated lemon rind
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

*Preserved lemons are among the most widely used ingredients in Moroccan cuisine.

4 large lemons (preferably thin skinned), scrubbed
2/3 cup coarse sea salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice
4 caradamom pods
olive oil

Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl, toss wedges with salt and transfer to a glass jar (about 6-cup capacity). Add lemon juice and cardamom pods; cover jar with a tight fitting glass lid. Let lemons stand at room temperature 7 days, shaking jar each day to redistribute salt and juice. Add thin layer of olive oil to cover lemons and store, covered and chilled, up to 6 months.

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.