The Food of Morocco
An Introduction to One of Our Greatest Cuisines
Until recently my experience with Moroccan food was limited to a few restaurant meals eaten on a trip to France where this North African cuisine is popular. I remember big platters of couscous served with chicken and vegetables in a fragrant broth, a taste memory that inspired me to add couscous to my pantry at home. But I've never tried to recreate what I ate in those restaurants. Instead I'd simply use couscous as an alternative to pasta, which of course it sort of is, couscous being a small grain of rolled semolina flour and water. A favorite recipe, one I included in my book, combines couscous with chopped raw vegetables with red wine vinaigrette.
Then I was sent a copy of Paula Wolfert's extraordinary new book, The Food of Morocco (Ecco, October 2011, Hardcover With Color Photographs, $40.00).
I was already a Paula Wolfert fan because of her earlier book, The Cooking of Southwest France. I've often said that if my kitchen were on fire and I could only grab three cookbooks before my shelf of favorites burst into flames, I would grab my 1979 dog-eared and a-lifetime-of-margin-notated copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and my almost as dog-eared and sweetly autographed copy of Marcella Hazan's The Classic Italian Cookbook. And for number three? Wolfert's Southwest France. This book taught me how to create some of the greatest dishes ever invented. Who knew white beans and a little duck fat could be so extraordinary?
But Moroccan cooking? I've never been to Morocco and aside from reading The Sheltering Sky and remembering those vacation couscous platters, I had nothing to provoke an interest. Besides, it seemed like one of those cuisines that needed specialty hardware and exotic ingredients just to get into the game. With my small kitchen and anxiety about space and storage, I tend to avoid such culinary investments. I mean, what if I bought all the stuff and then didn't like the food once I cooked it? This has happened before to me. (There's a downtown thrift shop that was very happy to accept my barely used wok, dim sum baskets, and cleaver.)
Soon after receiving Wolfert's new book, I read about Mourad Lahlou. He is the Casablanca-born chef whose popular San Francisco restaurant, Aziza, is the basis for his new book, Mourad: New Moroccan (Artisan Books, November 2011, Hardcover With Color Photographs, $40.00). Where Wolfert is traditional and authentic as only the outsider can be, Mourad has added modernity to his native cuisine. His book is also beautifully written. His is a story of leaving home to become an immigrant who became a respected chef in northern California's ingredient-focused food world. As he weaves his narrative, Lahlou also tells us about the essence of this cuisine's exquisite nuance of flavors, texture, family traditions, and spice.
That these two masterful books have been published simultaneously is a rich gift to those of us who wish to get acquainted with what Chef Paul Bocuse has called one of the world's three greatest cuisines (French and Chinese are the other two).
See below for a link to how The New York Times reviewed both books.
A Conversation With Paula Wolfert
Being completely unfamiliar with Moroccan cooking, I loved spending time with Wolfert's book. It is exquisitely designed and photographed and could make anyone want to grab their passport and book the next flight to Tangier. It is that alluring. Wolfert is also a natural teacher and if you put yourself in her hands -- learning the spices, choosing and buying a tagine, understanding the flavors -- you will not only become familiar with Moroccan cooking, you will become a better cook.
I had heard of tagines and knew that the word meant both a kind of Moroccan stew as well as the cone-shaped pot in which it was cooked. But I thought tagines were baked in an oven, which they're not. Instead, these clay pots are themselves little ovens. Used on top of the stove, the cone-shaped cover stays cool relative to the base that contains the food, letting moisture condensate and then fall back below. This results in remarkably tender meat, fish, chicken, or vegetables; lamb roasted in a tagine can be cut with the side of a spoon, and yet it's not falling apart. It's a cooking method perfected by the Berbers, early settlers in Morocco.
While visiting New York to promote her book, Wolfert sat down with me to talk about the basics of Moroccan cooking. You can listen to our conversation (see our link) and you'll hear her passion for not just the food but also the culture and people of a country she clearly loves.
She also shared some recipes, including the essential Preserved Lemons. This was the first thing I made from her book. Six lemons, lemon juice and salt. Thirty days later they were perfect and ready to use in many of her recipes, including her Lamb Tagine With Baby Spinach, Lemon and Olives, which was my first ever tagine. I purchased my tagine, a gorgeous black 12-inch model by Emile Henri, on Ebay and I love it for its beauty and performance. It's very clumsy to store but I've promised myself to use it often, which will make its demand for shelf space worth it.
Two other recipes she's shared are Riffian Split Pea Soup With Paprika Oil and Sautéed Shrimp Casa Pepe (Pil Pil) which Wolfert suggested as a perfect choice for someone new to Moroccan cooking. You won't need any special equipment but you will need cumin seeds and saffron. I've made it twice and both times served it with rice. The flavors are outstanding and the finished dish is beautiful.
Chef Mourad Lahlou has also shared some recipes. Charred Eggplant Purée and Chicken Legs Preserved Lemons Green Olives. In their spices, flavors, and cooking techniques, both dishes are essentially Moroccan. But they are also transformed through Lahlou's personal understanding of his native cuisine.
Which book to buy? Each is a beautiful hardcover and costs $40.00. You should take a look at each for its approach, culinary lessons, and range of recipes. And try the recipes here to see if they influence which book you prefer.
Regardless which you choose, all Moroccan cooking requires certain spices to achieve its authentic flavors; leave anything out and you will short-change yourself from experiencing the greatness of this cuisine. Both books include a list of sources for buying these spices. But if you live in New York, you can find almost everything you'll need at Kalustyan's or Dual. Penzeys, the national spice merchant, which has retail stores in many U.S. cities, also sells almost everything you'll need online.
The exception is Moroccan cumin seeds that seem to be only available online. I haven't yet bought these because I had recently purchased a little bag of very good Indian cumin seeds and after hearing how Paula Wolfert said that once you've had Moroccan cumin you can't use any other, I'm afraid she'll be right and what I already have will be abandoned.