…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.

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Ras El Hanout (رأس الحانوت‎), which means “head of the shop” in Arabic, is a complex and distinctive mixture of multiple spices and herbs. The recipes vary according to the individual spice blender, but it remains basic to the cooking of North Africa, commonly used with meat, game, poultry and couscous. Ras el Hanout can be purchased commercially at specialty stores, but also can be made at home depending on spice availability. This recipe does not include the highly exotic, nearly impossible to obtain, ingredients such as ash berries, belladonna leaves, cantharides, orrisroot, galingale, and monk’s pepper.

A pantry must.

RAS EL HANOUT

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 T allspice berries
1 T cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
1 t anise seed

1 T black peppercorns
1/2 T white peppercorns
6 whole cloves
1 T ground ginger
I T turmeric
1/2 T sea salt
3/4 T ground cinnamon
1/2 T cayenne pepper
1/2 T grated nutmeg
1 t dried lavender

Heat the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, allspice berries, cardamom seeds, and anise seeds in a heavy skillet. Dry sauté them until aromatic, about a minute or so. Do not brown or burn. Mix together with the remaining ingredients in a bowl, then transfer into a food processor, spice mill or mortar and pestle and process until finely ground. Take care with the food processor or spice mill to grind in pulses, so the rapidly moving blade does not burn the mixture during the process.