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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Road to Morocco

My restaurant review in today's Metroland extols Tara Kitchen in Schenectady, where excellent Moroccan cuisine is offered. Back in November, one of my food columns looked at three new Moroccan cookbooks, in the course of which I lamented the lack of such fare in the area. As noted in the restaurant review, I quickly heard from Aneesa Waheed, who promised that she was about to right that wrong. She's done so spectacularly. Here's the piece that prompted her response, written from a mid-autumn perspective.


DAYS ARE SHORTER, nights are colder, it’s root vegetable season. It’s time to spend a little longer in the kitchen. I’ve been spending more of time with earthenware cookers, in particular one of the most marvelous of clay-pot designs, the Moroccan tagine.

I featured it during one of a quartet of Mediterranean-themed cooking classes I taught not long ago. France, Italy and Spain were the easy-to-choose first stops and, although more of Morocco extends around the Atlantic Ocean, there was enough of it on the Mediterranean Sea, I decided, to justify its inclusion. Not to mention that it has been greatly influenced by the cuisines of its neighbors. Almost simultaneously, three new Moroccan cookbooks appeared. Were it not a Turkish term, I’d call it kismet.

Take a Spanish cazuela, a large clay dish, and add a conical cover. That’s the tagine. As chef Mourad Lahlou writes in Mourad: New Moroccan (Artisan), “Their ingenuity is twofold. First, they’re designed to circulate heat in a way that’s not unlike what a convection oven does. The tapering lid forces hot air back down over the food, so that when everything is mounted the same way – the meat on the bottom, the vegetables over it, with the softest ones on top – everything cooks in the same amount of time.”

Tagine refers both to the cooking vessel and the meal it produces, and the quality it imparts is known as goût de terrior – the flavor of the earth.

Like Mourad, Zouhair Zairi uses his Moroccan background as a center into which he draws other influences, described in his lavishly illustrated Moorish Fusion Cuisine (Emerald Book Co.). He gives his version of a traditional dish of lamb meatballs finished in a tomato sauce with poached eggs on top, but ventures into more original territory with a lamb tagine (using shoulder cuts) with braised artichoke hearts and preserved lemons and a lamb tagine finished with apricots and honey.

Lamb shanks, once almost a throwaway, have become luxury meat items. They need a long cooking time, but they tenderize into such flavorful richness that it’s worth the wait. Mourad developed a lamb shanks dish that pairs it more classically with prunes. Honey was once an ingredient, but he found it “very sweet and very much about the honey,” and restyled it as a more savory dish.

It’s not all about lamb, of course. Although chicken and beef figure into other recipes, Moroccan cuisine is also about fish and vegetables, with a particular emphasis on salads, and what’s considered the country’s national dish, couscous. The stuff we buy rice instead of.

To understand couscous, writes Mourad, start by sitting on the floor. “That’s where couscous starts, with a woman (and it’s pretty much always a woman, and usually more than one) sitting on the floor of a kitchen or a courtyard, cradling a huge terra-cotta tray in her lap, the perfect position for hand-rolling.”

Most people assume it’s a grain, he notes, and I have to confess myself as one of them. It is in fact a kind of pasta that is cooked by steaming. And so he offers a lengthy, accessible description of the rolling process, which he advises you to try at least once before going back to the store-bought dried stuff.

Paula Wolfort has been writing about Mediterranean fare for decades, having first visited Morocco as a teenager 50 years ago and gone on to live there for nearly a decade. The Food of Morocco (Ecco) contains a rich narrative that looks at how history, politics – and available ingredients – shaped the country’s cuisine.

She doesn’t turn you loose on recipes until you get to know component ingredients, such as olives, preserved lemons (salted whole lemons that sit for month and develop a unique pungency) and spices like cumin, cinnamon, saffron and ginger. Because we have nary a souk (a Moroccan market) in sight, she also explains such characteristic spice blends as ras el hanout, where the aforementioned spices (and many more) combine.

Mourad’s book starts with a similar section, although he’s less restrained. “Cumin is not the powder in that jar labeled ‘cumin’ in your spice cabinet,” he writes. “That’s stale cumin ... Throw it away before you read another word.”

Zairi’s approach is more chef to chef. He trusts that you have some kitchen skills and want to learn new recipes. Deep-fried cauliflower with saffron batter? Green and white asparagus salad with lavender vinaigrette, parmesan crisp and poached egg? Sign me up. And he dips into tradition with a recipe for chicken bastilla, a sweet and savory pastry dish – like a pot pie but with phyllo dough – with long Moroccan roots

During a recent visit to Manhattan, I sought a Moroccan restaurant. There’s nothing in our region, which is a shame. The closest I’ve found is Fez in Saugerties, where Moroccan cuisine is fused with other Mediterranean influences. Manhattan’s array tends to showcase the Frenchness of the cuisine, but I found a small Moroccan-only place in Hell’s Kitchen called Bab Marrakech, which has the look of a take-out pizza place but offers a low-priced menu of sandwiches and salads, platters and tagines.

The $10 lamb tagine featured prunes and caramelized onions, which I ordered with couscous ($3 extra). A big piece of shank is the centerpiece, with carrots and potatoes also featured in the mix. Although much on the menu is cooked to order, shanks need more time and thus aren’t actually cooked in a tagine, the amiable counterman explained. But the restaurant does its best to uphold traditions.

Would such a place work around here? I’d like to think so. There’s nothing but welcome in the flavors, and just enough exoticism to remind us of Rick’s Café. Meanwhile, with my own batch of preserved lemons now ready to use, I’m going to give Mourad’s recipe for roasted chicken with root vegetables a try. It starts with a twelve-hour brining process, so the kitchen and I are about to enjoy some quality time together.

Metroland Magazine, Nov. 3, 2011

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