During these cold, dark weeks I like to pass the time cozying up with some of my old cookbooks. One book I return to time and again is called "Scheherazade's Feast" by Habeeb Salloum. The book finds inspiration in the cuisine of the medieval Arab world, including the region of Morocco. The recipes are adapted for the modern kitchen, and as Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Schola Cooking School can attest, Moroccan cooking is outright fabulous. And to boot, it pairs up extremely well with locally produced Maryland meats, seafood and vegetables.
As you might expect from its location, Moroccan cuisine is something of a melting pot. Influences from the far ends of the Mediterranean abound. For proteins there is beef, lamb, goat, chicken and seafood. For grains, wheat, couscous, and barley are popular. All manner of vegetables are used, especially aubergine, tomatoes, onions and peppers. But it is the spices that set aside Morocco.
The king of Moroccan spice is the famous Ras el Hanout, an elaborate blend of up to thirty spices that is as aromatic as it is pungent. A savory spice, it is usually blended from a shopkeeper's best lots. Ingredients include cardamom, cumin, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, allspice, dry ginger, chili peppers, coriander seed, peppercorn, paprika, fenugreek and turmeric. Whew! While some people insist that exactly 12 spices be used, others go for three times that amount. Regardless of composition it is to Moroccan cooking as garam masala is to Indian.
Although many standard cooking techniques are used, the classic Moroccan meal centers on a terra cotta cooking vessel called a tagine. The tajine has two parts: the bottom is a round. broad somewhat shallow bowl to hold the ingredients; a removable conical top, often elaborately painted, fits snugly on the bottom. The very top knob in open, allowing for a calculated amount of vapor to escape.
Cooking with a tagine is the ultimate in one pot meals. You load the bottom in this order: a layer of sliced onions, a sprinkling of garlic, a small pile of meat, copious spoonfuls of Ras el Hanout, a layer of cut up vegetables, more spice, and finally a garnish of cured lemons, olives, cut up peppers and sprigs of herbs. Add water for cooking.
The covered tagine is placed in a slow 300° oven. Never place the tagine directly over the heat source or it will crack! Now just add a bit of patience and let the tagine and the ingredients do all the work. On the side you will want to whip up a batch of couscous or rice to add as a side dish.
Here are some recipes that Jerry and Amy use at Schola Cooking School whenever it's Moroccan night.
All of these recipes have been adapted from either Mourad Lahlou’s book ‘Mourad, New Moroccan’ or Ghillie Basan’s book ‘Tagines & Couscous.’
Ras el Hanout
Dried Spices to toast:
3 tablespoons coriander seeds
1 ½ tablespoons cumin seeds
2 teaspoons dried orange peel
1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon grains of paradise
15 allspice berries
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
One 1 ½ inch piece of cinnamon stick, crumbled
10 green cardamom pods, shelled and seeds reserved
2 black cardamom pods, shelled and seeds reserved
2 teaspoons Kubeben peppercorns
1 chili de árbol
1 star anise
Dried Spices you will not toast:
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
2 teaspoons dried rosebuds or rose petals
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons ground ginger
½ nutmeg, grated
½ teaspoon citric acid
In a cast iron skillet set over medium heat, toast the spices until fragrant but not smoking. Immediately put them into a bowl with the mustard seeds and rose buds. Mix until cool. Grind the spices on the medium setting of a burr grinder. Mix in the ground spices with a fork and store in an airtight container for up to three months.
Chicken Tagine with Preserved Lemon Green Olives and Thyme
8-10 Chicken Thighs
2 tablespoons clarified butter or olive oil
2 preserved lemons, cut into strips
½ lb. cracked green olives
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
For the Marinade
1 small yellow onion, grated
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1 pinch saffron threads
1 lemon, zest & juice
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Chicken and Lemon cont’d
Mix all of the ingredients together for the marinade in a large bowl and pour it into a large ziploc bag. Add the chicken and allow it to marinate for 1 to 2 hours. Remove the chicken from the bag and pat dry with paper towels. Heat the butter in the tagine until just smoking. Brown the skin side of each piece of chicken a few pieces at a time removing them when they are down onto a large plate. Once all the chicken has been browned, add the garlic and ginger and cook for two minutes. Add the chicken pieces back to the tagine, pour in the marinade from the bag and add the preserved lemon. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover the tagine and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook the chicken for 30 minutes. Remove the lid, add the olives and fresh thyme and carefully stir to combine. Replace the lid and cook for an additional 15 minutes. Check to make sure the chicken is cooked through by carefully slicing open one of the thighs. Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the tagine and place it on a large platter. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and serve with couscous or flatbread.
Tagine of Sweet Potato, Shallots, Carrots & Prunes
3 tablespoons olive oil
One 1 ½ inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
4 cinnamon sticks
16 small shallots, peeled and left whole
2 lbs. sweet potato peeled and cut into 1 inch dice
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch dice
1 cup pitted prunes
¼ cup dark honey
1 cup chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon Ras el Hanout
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
10 mint leaves roughly chopped
Salt & pepper
Heat the oil in the tagine over medium high heat until just smoking. Add the cinnamon sticks, shallots and carrots and cook until golden brown on the edges. Add the ginger and Ras el Hanout and cook for two minutes. Add the sweet potato, honey and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cover the tagine and reduce the heat to medium low. Cook for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and add the prunes, ½ of the cilantro and the mint. Stir carefully to combine and replace the lid. Cook for an additional 20 minutes. Remove the lid and test the yams with a fork. They should be soft but not mushy. Once they are cooked, use q slotted spoon to remove the vegetables and place on a platter. Reduce the sauce until it coats the back of a spoon. Pour over the vegetables and garnish with the remaining cilantro.
Couscous Tfaia with Beef
2 lbs. beef, cut into 1 inch cubes
2 onions, cut into ¼ inch dice
12 fresh apricots, halved and pitted
1 tablespoon Ras el Hanout
4 cups chicken or beef stock
2 tablespoons olive oil plus more for browning the beef
1 tablespoon butter
For the couscous
3 cups couscous
2 cups of chicken stock
A pinch of saffron threads
For the Tfaia
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 onions, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon saffron threads soaked in 2 tablespoons warm water
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons golden raisins plumped in warm water for 15 minutes and drained
Salt & pepper
In a cast iron skillet (or heavy sauté pan) heat ¼ inch of oil until just smoking. Season the beef cubes with salt and pepper and brown the pieces, a few at a time, on all sides. Place the finished cubes of beef on a plate and continue until you’ve browned all of the meat. In the bottom pot of the couscousier, heat the butter and oil until the butter begins to foam. Add the onions and cook until they begin to brown on the edges. Add the browned beef, Ras el Hanout and stock. Bring to a boil and add the apricots. While the beef is coming to a boil, in a sauce pan heat the stock for the couscous with the saffron. Bring the liquid to a boil and pour it over the couscous in a large bowl. Stir occasionally with a fork and allow to cool. Once the couscous has cooled, rub it between the palms of your hands to break up and clumps. Once the couscous is light and fluffy, gently place it in the top of the couscousier. Do not press it down. Place the top of the couscousier over the bottom pot. Once steam is visible rising through the couscous, cook it for 30 minutes. To make the Tfaia, heat the butter and oil in a large skillet. Cook the onions over medium heat until they are soft but not brown. Add the cinnamon, ginger, saffron and honey and cover. Simmer the onions for 20 minutes, adding more water if needed. Add the raisins and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Once everything is finished, arrange the couscous in a ring on a large platter. Remove the beef and apricots and place them in the center of the couscous. Spoon ample amounts of Tfaia over the beef and serve.