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.
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.
- 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.