Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Morocco for Foodies Issue I

My Morocco for Foodies Issue I.

My apologies friends for taking so long in getting this column started; but here I am. Before I go too far I would like to caution that this is my own personal take on the foods and dishes from the Oujda to Nador areas of Morocco; basically the northeast and a bit beyond. While regional dishes and spicing is to be found, just as much does not vary; such as the 7 Essential Spices in *every* Moroccan kitchen. Oujda for example uses very little to no cinnamon in savory dishes yet sells some of the finest cinnamon to be found anywhere. I have yet to have a dish here in Oujda that contained the sweet warm spices save ginger. You probably have food experiences that differ from mine here and I would be most happy to post dishes from other areas which you know and make yourself or have been served.

I have been cooking Moroccan food for over 20 years; ever since I saw Madhur Jaffrey’s series on Morocco on PBS. Oh, that dates me! I found when I came here that my food was on target for Moroccan flavors and ingredients. To date, 500 Moroccan souls have tasted my own Moroccan food and have said “this is Moroccan.” I also have recipes from lala (the mother of my husband), Mohamed, the house maid, and a few “home cooking” restaurants which I ran home and copied!! So, let us take an epicurean tour of Moroccan food together. Whether you have been cooking Moroccan food or want to learn, I am here to help, guide, and walk you through my Morocco.

One note on Moroccan recipes from the internet. Many, many of these recipes are from Morocco’s restaurant chefs and bear little resemblance to home cooking. These are most usually large hotel international style or chain hotels. Also, beware of *any* recipe called Moroccan *style*, it is just not Moroccan!! I cannot stress this enough!

The 7 Essential Seasonings for Every Kitchen:

PAPRIKA: This is a must! It must be a very deep yet very bright red sweet paprika. You will pay for this as the closest approximation for those outside of Morocco would be a good Spanish or Hungarian variety usually found in the international foods section of good supermarkets. I am completely addicted to the paprika here and it is used in many to most dishes! Never in my life nor anywhere in the world have I tasted a paprika with so much vibrant flavor! If you can only find the stuff in a jar that is not imported and turns brown quickly, I might skip it. It just is not worth the loss of flavor and color to use bad paprika. It isn’t only used to decorate potato salad and deviled eggs here!

GROUND GINGER: Used surprisingly enough in many to most dishes again in varying quantities. Also again, this must be high quality fragrant and fairly strong ground ginger. An Indian ground ginger could be a suitable replacement and perhaps Chinese as well. While fresh ginger is called for in Moroccan style recipes; someone decided that “fresh MUST be better!” Wrong answer!! In Moroccan homes and restaurants I have yet to see any fresh ginger! Pungent is what you are looking for with the color, if possible, of very golden sand. I have discovered the delights of cooking with ginger now.

GROUND BLACK PEPPER: Again of the highest quality available to you. None of that old, dry, powdery pepper that is most likely laced with saw dust!! If you grind your own you want a medium fine pepper. The first time that I smelled Moroccan black pepper, during Mohamed’s “name that spice” test, I actually thought that it was sage! The smell and flavor are unrivaled. It packs a bit of heat to quite a lot of heat depending on how much you use. Most recipes call for a teaspoon or more! I also use it by the pinch when I am cooking foods of other countries for wonderful flavor and scent without the heat. This is used for heat here more than any other type of pepper.

TURMERIC: Here you may be stumped for finding good turmeric. Here it is finely ground to powder, the color of autumn gold and actually has flavor! It is *not* used in Morocco to color food but to give flavor. All Moroccan houses keep a box of “coleur synthetique digestive” to color foods. 98 little paper packets of an orange powder that colors foods quite golden. All I can say is that you must find turmeric that has flavor and a lovely aroma! There is also a turmeric/saffron blend that most use at home. More on saffron in a bit.

CUMIN: Yes, very essential though rarely used in quantity. I have tasted very few foods where I could actually clearly taste the cumin. There are a few dishes which call for quite a fair bit of this spice though usually it is a very background flavor. Get your hands on the most fragrant cumin you can find and Mexican could be your best bet. While vast amounts are not usually used it is most definitely an essential! I can smell mine *through* the container every time I am in the kitchen, mmmm!

SAFFRON: Remarkably not used every day or even most days. All of the Moroccan households and people whom I know, when using saffron, use either the turmeric/saffron blend or ground saffron. The ground saffron can actually be mistaken for turmeric in color and flavor! If one lives in or near the mountains where the crocus that provides the stamens for saffron is grown, then you will see more “thread” saffron used. Saffron is mainly used for “guest food” though does make an appearance occasionally in daily home cooking.

COOKING SALT: (Grey and unrefined) Here how I WISH that all of you could taste Moroccan salt!! The flavor is like no other I have tasted! While Morocco has fine table salt, which Mohamed prefers, I *always* use the cooking salt for dishes and for the table! It is course but like sand and one cannot see through it, it has almost a grayish cast. Please dear cooks do not use rock salt as a substitute! Kosher flaked cooking salt is as near as you will be able to come to Moroccan cooking salt; for this cook, it simply cannot be replaced!
Due to the length of this first column I am not including a recipe this time. The next column will have recipes using these essential flavorings. Also, it must be said that while these are the essentials and great Moroccan food is made using them, there are a few others which are fresh and only used fresh, *never* dried.

Here is the following short list as Moroccan home food is simple and delicious!

Lemons/Vinegar: They are equally substituted for each other unless of course making “lemon something.”

Fresh Flat Leaf Parsley: Again, a finer flavor than I have found in any of my travels about the Mediterranean! If purchased in quantity this will keep for at least 2-3 weeks in a white translucent plastic bag, rolled up and placed in the coldest part of your fridge or freezer door.

Fresh Coriander/Cilantro: I have never seen fresh coriander such as this. It contains the tiny white flowers as well as the top fronds and is fragrant enough that I know when it is in the house! Store the same as for the parsley and save your stems from both in the freezer for throwing into dishes and soups tied in a bundle. Great flavor in those stems!!

Garlic: Fresh garlic is a must, must! Here, at this time of year the garlic is shades of purple and pink with fat juicy sweet cloves. Do not be tempted to use dried garlic of any type; I may find out! Also keep away from chopped fresh garlic in jars! It has a taste and smell like garlic “gone off!”
I hope that you have enjoyed our little jaunt through the essential Moroccan kitchen, perhaps have learned a bit, but above all enjoyed yourself! Please DO keep in mind that this is my Moroccan kitchen from what I have seen and know in my own area of Morocco.

c.\2005 L Elizabeth

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