Moroccan Vegetable Stew over Quinoa

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Mention the word Morocco and I am transported into a fantasy world where my inner beatnik has meaningful conversations with Paul Bowles as we wander through the labyrinths of Tangier’s souks and medina.  Yes, Morocco is on my top 5 list of places to visit before I die. No surprise that I have eagerly sampled Moroccan cuisine, anxious to get a foretaste of my dream destination.

The first time was strangely, in Jakarta, where a friend had discovered (and later brought us to) a Moroccan restaurant that one entered, literally, through a hole in the wall.  Like Alice tumbling down the hole, we discovered upon entering, rooms leading to other rooms, each one bigger than the last, filled with large wooden tables covered with pristine white cloths and set with heavy crockery and burnished silver filigree flatware.  I remember heady stews–lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables–heavy with spices I had thought were confined to Indian cuisine: cumin, coriander, turmeric. And then the surprising addition of sweetness to the savory: cinnamon and fruit, plums, apricots, dates.  Afterward we shared a hookah, and there was belly dancing, and laughter, and beautiful strange music. And I came away feeling as if I had dreamed it all, but I never forgot.

Here is a Moroccan stew, called a tagine, that is properly braised in a clay cooking vessel (also called a tagine) with a round base and conical top. In its absence a good heavy saucepan works well. This is a vegetable stew, but the technique and the basic flavoring is essentially the same for chicken or other meats.

Moroccan Vegetable Stew

The spices: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cardamom, a stick of cinnamon

The vegetables (cut in small pieces):  onions, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, green beans,  pre-cooked chick peas.

Others:  olive oil, preserved salted lemon and dates cut in small pieces.  Salt and pepper to taste. Flat leaf parsley.

Technique:  Pound the cumin, coriander, cardamom and turmeric altogether in a mortar.  Heat some olive oil in a pot and add the spices, stirring lightly until the spices begin to release their smell. Add the onions and tomatoes and leave for 2 minutes. Then add the other vegetables in order of cooking time.  Add the preserved lemon, the dates and cinammon stick. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Add water or vegetable stock as needed. Simmer for around 10 minutes until the vegetables are cooked.  Add the flat leaf parsley and serve over couscous or quinoa.

Notes :

  • You can vary the vegetables as you wish. For example, eggplants, peas, potatoes, and even sweet potatoes work well in this dish. However the tomatoes and onions are a must, and I think chick peas need to be in this stew. Slivered almonds are nice to top off this stew.
  • Preserved lemon gives this stew a distinctive flavor. If you can’t get it, you can make it! (I will post separately on this)
  • I used dates because it’s what I had, but you can use dried apricots, or even prunes, to give the stew its characteristic “fruity sweet” profile.
  • Couscous is the traditional grain served with tagine, but I think quinoa works very well too.  Quinoa is a very nutritious high-protein grain (actually it’s a seed) which is native to the Andes in South America. It’s cooked just like rice: that is, 1 cup of quinoa is boiled with 2 cups of water and simmered for about 15 minutes until almost dry.

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Fresh Mangoes & Homemade Yoghurt

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Returning recently after a holiday to the humid embrace of muggy Manila, I had one gratifying consolation: I was back in the land of mangoes. I am unabashedly biased–I have tried mangoes from Thailand, Mexico, Australia, India and others of unknown origin, and I think Philippine mangoes are the best in the world. One particular variety known as the carabao mango is succulent, sweet, juicy with a pure mango flavor (no hint of guava or apple, as other varieties have) that is an incomparable and singular taste memory to most Filipinos.

When I was a child mangoes were a seasonal fruit abundant in the hot months between February and April and forever linked in nostalgia to the end of school, the longs days of Lent, and summer prickly heat. My mother was a great fan: she would buy a bushel at a time, each one cleverly stacked with the ripest on top and the greenest at the bottom, so that you could “harvest” 5 or 6 ripe mangoes everyday for about a week. And you bought another when the basket was empty, and another, all through the mango season until they were gone and you said goodbye to mangoes until the next year.

Today mangoes can be had the whole year round and they are enjoyed in many ways.  Green (unripe, sour) mangoes are peeled, sliced and eaten with salty condiments like bagoong, chopped with tomatoes and onions to make relishes and salads, pickled in vinegar, salt and sugar. Ripe mangoes are juiced, dried, made into jams, ice cream, sherbets and a host of sweets and desserts. For me the best way to enjoy ripe mangoes is to eat them plain, sliced open in 3 pieces, the flesh scooped out with a spoon, and the pulp of the seed eaten over the kitchen sink 🙂  Ripe mangoes are also traditionally paired with suman– sweet sticky rice cakes made with coconut milk and steamed in banana or buri leaves.

I had these mangoes for breakfast recently with homemade yoghurt.  Yoghurt is surprisingly easy to prepare.  I was buying it regularly ready-made, until a lady at an Indian grocery taught me how to make it.  For about a liter of yoghurt, heat a liter of milk (skimmed, low-fat or whole, it doesn’t matter) in a pot to almost boiling point, about 90 degrees Celsius.  This kills any pathogens that may be in the milk that could interfere with the probiotics you want to encourage. Let the milk cool down to room temperature, or about 35 degrees Celsius.  Add in about a quarter cup of good starter yoghurt (make sure it has an active culture), mix thoroughly, cover, and set aside at room temperature and do not touch for 8 to 12 hours.  That’s it!  You only need to buy commercial starter once, as you should keep some of your current batch to start the next one.  This is wonderful, tangy, textured yoghurt that you can flavor and sweeten (or not) as you wish, wonderful on its own, to make lassi, to use in cooking, in cereal and of course, with fresh ripe mangoes.

Fab Fattoush

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This is a blog about food journeys, a journal of the different ways a vegetarian like myself explores the culinary world.  What better way then to kick off this journey than with a salad that sounds so exotic, and yet is made with very familiar ingredients put together in a special and delicious way? Fattoush!

Fattoush is a mediterranean salad made with lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes and pieces of toasted pita bread.  In fact the word fattoush comes from the arabic word that means “crushed” or “crumbled”, and refers to the pita in the dish. It’s a key ingredient, as it soaks up the various flavors in the dressing as well as the vegetables.  Generous handfuls of chopped mint, flat leaf parsley and green onion give the salad a very fresh taste.  The dressing is a tangy mixture of lemon juice (lots of it!), olive oil, and garlic minced with salt.  The classic fattoush also needs sumac, a spice made from a mediterranean plant that has a lemony flavor. Crumbled feta cheese makes a nice addition to this salad.

Except for the sumac, none of the ingredients in fattoush are really very unusual. Yet this is a clear case where the dish is greater than the sum of its parts. The first time we made it we were surprised how well it turned out, and it was so good we made it again the next day 🙂  It’s very good just on its own, and a big serving makes a great lunch on a hot day. I think it’s important to cut up the veggies in rather smallish pieces, and also to mix in the dressing and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving. This way the salad becomes more flavorful, almost a relish, really–plus the crumbled, dressing-soaked pita takes the dish to another level!