Category Archives: Morocco

Swordfish, the other other white meat

Cooking fish can be intimidating. It’s expensive and very easy to overcook or over-season. So over the years I’ve tended to stick with what I know, mainly shrimp and salmon, or something cheap like tilapia or catfish. That is, until my recent (and delicious!) encounters with swordfish.

Swordfish is a firm fish that stands up well to cooking on the grill, and can handle a little more seasoning and spice than some other fish dishes. As with any other fish it will dry out when it’s overcooked, but unlike other fish it does not necessarily “flake” when it’s done. Simply look for it to turn white and opaque with a little bit of pink at the center.

Grilled swordfish is absolutely delicious, it absorbs the smoky flavor of the grill with a firm texture almost like steak.  This recipe is for a swordfish kebab, seasoned with Moroccan spices and grilled briefly.  The end result is a moist, firm and flavorful fish that doesn’t really taste “fishy” at all. It’s a great complement to a main dish salad, or serve with vegetables and rice.

Swordfish Brochettes (Qotbane de Hut)
1 lb. swordfish, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 c. Italian parsley, chopped
¼ tsp. cayenne
1 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. paprika
2 garlic cloves, minced

Mix swordfish with other ingredients and season with sea salt. Leave to marinate at least 2 hours (I marinated overnight and grilled in the morning).

Thread onto skewers and grill 2-3 minutes on each side.

Adapted from: Café Morocco by Anissa Helou

The magic of phyllo

You can wrap just about anything up in phyllo dough, brush it with oil or butter and bake for a tasty treat. Sweet, savory – it doesn’t matter. It might look difficult, but if you ever folded paper footballs in class – that’s the same technique for folding a phyllo-filled triangle, anyone can do it!  It is a bit time-consuming, but most phyllo items can also be frozen after folding, for a quick appetizer in a pinch. Just be sure to set them in one layer on waxed paper or foil until frozen – otherwise they may stick together and that just makes a mess when you have to pull them apart. Add a little more baking time from frozen and you’re good to go! 

Spanakopita (spinach-filled phyllo) is perhaps the most popular of these that you’ll see as a party appetizer. The filling is typically made of spinach and feta, and often flavored with dill. In Moroccan culture, similar filled phyllo pastries are called briouat. Actually, they traditionally use a pastry called brik or warka, but you can’t get that in the U.S. very easily so phyllo is a good substitute.

This variation is a fairly simple briouat filling of egg and herbs.  I sauteed minced onion in a non-stick pan until translucent, then added fresh chopped parsley and cilantro, a pinch of saffron threads and cinnamon. After the spices and onion had cooked for another couple of minutes, I slowly stirred in beaten eggs over low heat to mix into the other ingredients and gently scramble. As soon as the eggs firmed up, I removed the pan from the heat and set it aside to cool.

When the filling was cool, I used it to fill the pastry and folded to make triangles. I sealed the edges with canola oil and used that also to brush the tops lightly before baking.  They bake for about 20 minutes at 350 or until nicely browned.  

Semolina for Breakfast

One morning during my parents’ visit to Japan in the early 70’s, they were offered an “American breakfast”. When they ordered it, they received a tossed salad! Breakfast is an interesting and diverse concept around the world, so perhaps it’s not surprising that such misunderstandings would exist. After having perused so many cookbooks over the past year, I’m amazed at how few of them actually include specific breakfast recipes. I’m increasingly intrigued by the concept of breakfast and how it has evolved in different cultures.

Many cultures have coffee or tea, bread and fruit, and maybe a sweet pastry. In communities where folks are doing manual labor, fishing or farming all day, a hearty breakfast with more protein and carbs is preferred. But this can vary from a big bowl of Pho noodle soup in Vietnam to the more familiar hearty eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast, etc. breakfast of the U.S. and U.K.

In the Middle East / North Africa, semolina seems to be the base of a number of breakfast foods, as well as many desserts. Semolina is similar to a fine cornmeal (I’m referring here to a coarse-ground semolina rather than a semolina “flour”). Here are two semolina breakfast recipes that I tried recently – Harcha (Moroccan) and Semolina Porridge (Syrian).

Harcha is very easy to make, and tastes like a dry cornbread. I probably didn’t add quite enough water to the mixture this time, it seemed a little too dry in the end.  Here are the directions – and a video of how to make it. By itself it wasn’t very flavorful, but while still warm and drizzled with honey it was a decent breakfast. If I make it again, I think I’ll try the suggestions of adding some honey to the dough itself to sweeten it up a bit.

The second dish was a Syrian Semolina Porridge from a friend of a friend who submitted the recipe for our International Festival cookbook.  He says this was a traditional breakfast in Syria, particularly on cold winter mornings. From some of my reading, it looks like semolina porridge is also popular in Russia and Eastern Europe as a breakfast food, and in other parts of Europe and Scandinavia as a dessert.

I found this recipe with the added sugar to be a bit sweet, so added a pinch of salt (if you like olives you might try that addition as suggested by the recipe author).  A rich flavor develops from toasting the semolina in butter first until it is golden brown, then adding the hot water for it to absorb. The texture is something between grits and cream of wheat (to which semolina is closely related). I think I might try it as a savory concoction the next time, perhaps adding a bit of cheese to mimic the cheese grits concept. How you dress up this dish really depends on whether you prefer sweet or savory items for your breakfast, so don’t let my savory preference turn you off from trying this recipe as it is written.

Semolina Porridge
1 c. semolina
3/4 c. salted butter
4 1/2 c. cold water
1 c. sugar
1 tsp. olive oil
pine nuts and/or slivered almonds
cinnamon to taste

Melt 1/2 c. of the butter in a medium sized pot. Add the semolina a cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until golden brown and fragrant. Remove from heat and cover. In another pot, combine the water and sugar and bring to a boil. Add this syrup to the semolina with the remaining butter and stir well. Set aside covered for at least 5 minutes to absorb. In a small non-stick pan, heat the olive oil and toast the nuts over medium heat until fragrant and golden brown. Stir the porridge again, then portion out into bowls and garnish with nuts and cinnamon as you like. It can also be served with green olives and cheese. This recipe

Baked Chicken and Zucchini with Fruit

This perhaps doesn’t look Moroccan, and probably isn’t traditional – since it’s another recipe from the cookbook “Moroccan Modern”. But nonetheless, it is Moroccan flavors stuffed inside a chicken breast, wrapped in phyllo and baked, yum! Both of these recipes make enough to serve two – and could make a nice meal together.

Harissa Baked Chicken
2 chicken breasts, smaller ones work better
2 tsp. Harissa paste
1 preserved lemon rind, sliced thinly
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Phyllo pastry sheets
melted butter
2 artichoke hearts, sliced
2 Roma tomatoes, sliced and deseeded
1 tsp. cumin seeds

Preheat the oven to 300F.  Prepare the chicken breasts by cutting into each one and stuffing the cavity with Harissa paste, cilantro, and thinly sliced preserved lemon. You can do this part ahead, kind of like a marinade that soaks into the chicken.

Stack 4 sheets of phyllo dough on top of each other, brushing each one with melted butter. Pat out any extra moisture from the chicken, artichoke and tomatoes before assembly (I had problems with the phyllo getting soggy on the bottom while baking, and I think this step plus seeding the tomatoes will help). Lay slices of artichoke and tomato onto the middle of the phyllo, then lay the chicken breast on top. Wrap up in phyllo dough and use more melted butter to brush all over, place the wrapped package seam-side down (artichoke/tomato-side up) in a baking dish. Repeat with second chicken breast. Sprinkle with cumin seeds.

Bake for at least 40 minutes, maybe 10-15 minutes more if the chicken is on the thick side. Let rest a few minutes before serving. If it gets soggy on the bottom like mine, no worries, it still tastes really good!

Adapted from: Moroccan Modern, by Hassan M’Souli

To go along with this dish, I made a roasted zucchini, apple and orange side dish. It’s pretty, tangy, and full of vitamins – what more could you ask?

Slada gharaa bil tofah (Roasted Zucchini Salad)
1 zucchini, trimmed and cut into large strips
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and cut into thin wedges
1 Tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. honey
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 orange, peeled and cut into small sections
1 tsp. preserved lemon peel, sliced thinly
mint leaves for garnish
salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F. Toss the zucchini with olive oil and roast for 20 minutes in a baking pan just big enough to hold it all in a single layer. Add the green apple and roast for the final 5 minutes with zucchini. Remove from oven and don’t stir (I had trouble with the apple falling apart, so I am recommending that you add it later in the process and don’t stir). Mix together lemon juice and honey and pour over the top. Put pan back in the oven and roast for another 10 minutes, or until starting to brown nicely. Let it cool in the pan without disturbing zucchini and apple.

Meanwhile, peel and cut the orange over a plate or bowl to catch the extra orange juice. Stir the roasted apple and zucchini in with the orange sections. Stir the orange juice into the pan juices from roasting and pour over the salad mixture. Season with salt to taste and scatter the top with preserved lemon peel and mint leaves. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Adapted from: Flavors of Morocco, by Ghillie Basan

Moroccan Desserts

Most Moroccan desserts seem to be flavored with orange blossom or rose water, and many also involve almonds or less frequently pistachios.  Here is a platter of desserts, my last installment of recipes from a Moroccan dinner party that I hosted a couple of weeks ago.

The orange squares on the plate are actually a pistachio nougat covered with dried apricot puree – or apricot ‘leather’, we would have called it when I was growing up – kind of like a natural fruit roll-up. This is a sweet that I purchased at Neomonde (Lebanese) bakery and grocery store. Most of my friends thought they were too chewy – but that’s ok, I didn’t make them! :)  The other two items were ones that I made for the meal.

Moroccan ‘snowball’ cookies were the only cookie I could find that didn’t involve nuts – which is important when you’re inviting someone with a nut allergy! The recipe is again from the website cookingwithalia.  Basically it’s just a sugar/shortbread type cookie, dipped in jam flavored with orange blossom water and rolled in coconut.  I used pear jam which I already had in my pantry, and rolled the cookies in sweetened coconut flakes.  I looked for the unsweetened flakes, but they don’t seem to carry those in the grocery stores around here anymore.  But the sweetened coconut worked just fine too!

The chocolate covered treats are Almond-Stuffed Dates.  Large, good quality Turkish or Medjool dates are sliced open, pitted, and stuffed with an almond paste. Then they’re dipped into melted semisweet chocolate and refrigerated to harden. They can be garnished with sanding sugar as I did, or other glittering edible garnish like gold flake. Here’s the simple almond paste recipe:

8 oz. almonds
4 oz. sugar
1/2 tsp. orange blossom water
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
2 Tbsp. butter

Blend together the almonds and sugar until very pulverized. Then add orange blossom water, cinnamon and butter to make a sticky paste.

Finally, I made a watermelon salad to serve with dessert along with some green grapes and Moroccan mint tea. This salad wasn’t as well-received by my guests, and I have to admit that I didn’t like it as well as the other dessert options either.  The salad is simple, watermelon chopped into pieces and mixed with rose water and fresh mint and lemon balm, plus just a little bit of honey.  But even though I reduced the amount of rose water that the recipe called for, it was still very perfumed, which is not really what I look for in a dessert.

Overall though, I think my guests were pretty happy by the end of the meal, we had a nice time and great conversation! Even little Heidi enjoyed the phyllo dough from the chicken bastilla and tried some of the other foods :)

What’s a Tagine?

I recently sent out a note to my church, asking if anyone had a tagine I could borrow.  Most people had to ask “what is a tagine?” – so if that’s what you’re wondering, just look at this photo above. THIS is a tagine (also sometimes spelled “tajine”). Luckily, there was actually one tagine in the congregation that I was able to borrow for a week.

The word “tagine” is also used to describe dishes made in the terra cotta cooking pot. Combinations of meat and vegetables, pretty much any kind of stew mixture is placed in the bottom of the pot (the lighter color in the photo above).  As the mixture cooks, the steam condensates in the conical top and drips back onto the ingredients in what is supposed to be a special way of slow-cooking.

I must say that I wasn’t very impressed with the method.  Without the history of cooking this way, it is very difficult to know how long to cook something, and when you open the lid to check, it disturbs the process.  Also, most of the cookbooks I was reading said it was just as good to cook a tagine dish in a large soup pot as in the clay pot itself.  I think a crock-pot would also work well for most of these recipes.  I’m sure there are Moroccan cooking devotees out there who might disagree, but I’m not going to be rushing out to buy my own tagine anytime soon!

The first tagine dish that I made was a beef, lentil and turnip stew. It was ok, but not outstanding enough to share the recipe, I won’t be making this one again.  Later, as the entree for my Moroccan dinner party, I made the most traditional tagine dish, a lemon chicken tagine. Somehow, I didn’t actually end up with a photo of that dish – oops!  Sorry, but I have to admit is wasn’t very pretty anyway :)  Chicken pieces (I used all dark meat since it stays moist better) were slow-cooked with garlic, saffron, ginger and lemon juice, then garnished late in baking with artichoke hearts and slivers of preserved lemon. The flavor was good, and it was fall-off-the-bone tender, but it wasn’t pretty.  Cookingwithalia.com has a recipe for this dish, traditionally it is served with green olives, but I don’t like olives so I served them on the side – chef’s prerogative!

While I’m talking about preserved lemons, let me go ahead and tell you a little about those. This is a jar of lemons I picked up at my local Middle Eastern market, lemons are preserved in a type of salt solution. To use them, you strip out all the pulp and rinse the peel a couple of times in cold water to get rid of some of the saltiness. They actually smell like a very strong cleaning solution – not something you’d want to eat. But in moderation, once you’ve rinsed the peel and cut it into very thin strips, you can use it to garnish a dish or add it towards the end of cooking for flavor.  And somehow, once it’s in the dish the preserved lemon loses that chemical flavor and adds a nice semi-lemony flavor. Hard to describe, but you should try it.  Actually, if anyone would like some, just ask – looks like I’m going to have this jar on hand for quite a while before I ever use them up!!

There’s an ‘app’ for that!

The weekend before last, I hosted a Moroccan dinner party at my house. I’ll start at the beginning* and share with you the recipes for two appetizers that I made. They were served with crusty bread.

Fava Bean Dip (Bissara)
1/2 c. olive oil
1/2 lb. dried split fava beans
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 c. minced onion
2 c. water, plus more as needed
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground pepper
2 tsp. paprika
salt, to taste
1-2 tsp. cumin seeds, toasted for garnish

Heat 1/4 c. olive oil in a medium saucepan, and saute beans, garlic and onion for ~5 minutes over medium heat – until onion is translucent. Add 1 1/2 cups water and bring to a simmer. Simmer covered for 30 minutes or until beans are tender. Stir occasionally and add a little more water as necessary.

Mix 1/4 c. water with cumin, pepper, and paprika to make a paste. Mix this into the fava beans and stir well. Continue simmering for another 15 minutes until thickened and mashed, stirring regularly. Add more water as needed to keep mixture from sticking to the bottom.

Remove from heat and add salt to taste. Spoon into a serving bowl and garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and toasted cumin seeds. Serve with french bread or pita.

Adapted from: Moroccan Modern, by Hassan M’Souli

Roasted Peppers and Chickpeas with Herbed Goat Cheese
1 garlic clove, minced
2 sprigs fresh oregano
1/2 tsp. dried basil
3 Tbsp. olive oil
10 oz. goat cheese

Mash together the above ingredients and form a ball of the herbed cheese.

4 red bell peppers, roasted and cut into strips
1 can chickpeas, drained
1 Tbsp. olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 sprig fresh oregano
salt and pepper, to taste

Mix the chickpeas with oil, lemon, garlic and oregano. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Gently mix with roasted pepper strips. Place this mixture around the cheese ball.  Serve with french bread, crackers or pita.

Adapted from: Arabesque: A taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon – by Claudia Roden

*Stay tuned for 2 more posts on this meal, the main dish tagine, and the desserts!