Twenty-five years ago I purchased a cookbook that I found fascinating in its approach to different cuisines - Ethnic Cuisine: the Flavor-Principle Cookbook by Elisabeth Rozin. Its central premise is that when you analyze a regional cuisine, certain seasoning combinations are pervasive. "Every culture tends to combine a small number of flavoring ingredients so frequently and so consistently that they become definitive of that particular cuisine."
Of course, this doesn't spell monotony. "When we... look closely at any cuisine, we find rich and subtle variations in seasoning practices," wrote Rozin. "The flavor principle, that characteristic bond of flavor ingredients, provides a culinary theme that is varied by the addition of other ingredients... different proportions and different cooking techniques. What results then, is a set of variations on a general theme."
To make her point, she presents a list of over 30 flavor principles. For example, garlic + cumin + mint evokes Northeast Africa, while tomato + cinnamon is a typically Greek pairing. For me learning formulas of flavor was almost as satisfying as learning a new language.
Over the years, from cooking and dining with Moroccan relatives and friends, as well as sampling the fare of such fine restaurants as Timgad in Paris, Darna in Jerusalem and Koutoubia in Los Angeles, I have refined my own Moroccan flavor formulas.
When I want to prepare an easy vegetable dish in the Maghreb style, I might look at the homey recipes of Rena Ben-Simhon, author of Moroccan Food (in Hebrew). She accents her cooked carrot salad with sweet peppers, garlic, cumin, parsley, lemon juice and oil, and her cooked chard with sauteed garlic, cumin, paprika and lemon juice. Similar seasonings with the addition of hot paprika are used by Viviane and Nina Moryoussef in their book on Moroccan Jewish cooking, La Cuisine Juive Marocaine. Neither specifies what kind of oil to use; I opt for fruity extra virgin olive oil.
Whenever I yearn for a taste of Morocco, I utilize the flavor principle. Even when I want to cook a vegetable that wasn't available in North Africa, I can prepare it so it "tastes Moroccan." Recipes for eggplant and peppers are easy to find in Moroccan cookbooks but not dishes using broccoli, mushrooms or asparagus. No problem; I use their flavorings to make my own Moroccan-style vegetable accompaniments and cooked salads.
I have often improvised with different vegetables and have been delighted with the results. Using traditional Moroccan carrot salad as a model, I make carrot-asparagus and carrot-zucchini salad. The flavorings used in Ben-Simhon's chard recipe are fine with spinach and other cooking greens, and I also like them with cauliflower, broccoli and mushrooms.
Similarly, when I want to cook in the Tunisian fashion, I treat the vegetable the way Pascal Perez, author of North African Cooking (in Hebrew), makes her red carrot salad; it's similar to Moroccan carrots but with the addition of tomato paste and with ground caraway and cinnamon substituted for cumin.
In the following recipes, you can vary the vegetables according to what you have, including medleys of frozen vegetables. To prevent soupy dressings, start with a small amount of water and add more if the pan starts to become dry before the vegetables are tender. Serve the vegetables hot or cold as appetizers or as accompaniments.
MAGHREB ZUCCHINI SALAD IN TOMATO DRESSING
It's the seasonings that are the secret to the delicious cooked vegetable starters in the North African kitchen. In this easy-to-make salad, the zucchini cook in a spicy tomato garlic dressing, then are crowned with fresh coriander.
I also like to make this salad with a combination of fresh green beans and zucchini. Cut the green beans in half and cook them in the liquid for 3 minutes before adding the zucchini.
700 gr. zucchini or white squash (kishuim)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1â„4 tsp. hot pepper flakes, or cayenne pepper to taste
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1â„4 cup water
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 green onion, chopped
1 to 2 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
Quarter zucchini lengthwise, and then cut it in 2.5-cm. lengths. Put zucchini in a large skillet or saute pan with garlic, pepper flakes, oil and water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cook uncovered over medium-high heat, stirring often, for 3 to 5 minutes or until zucchini is crisp-tender and most of the liquid has evaporated; during cooking, if the liquid evaporates too fast and the zucchini is not yet tender, add a few more tablespoons water.
Add tomato paste, cumin and cayenne pepper (if using) and stir over low heat for 30 seconds.
At this point, if the dressing is too soupy, remove the zucchini with a slotted spoon and cook the dressing uncovered for 2 or 3 minutes to thicken it. Off heat, add green onion and lemon juice.
If you have removed the zucchini, return it to the sauce now. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm or cool, sprinkled with fresh coriander.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.
CAULIFLOWER WITH MUSHROOMS AND FRESH CORIANDER
For this satisfying cooked vegetable salad, which you can serve hot or cold, the cauliflower and mushrooms cook briefly in a Moroccan-spiced garlic dressing. A hint of acidity from fresh lemon juice, along with cumin and other spices, gives the cauliflower a lively flavor. Some Moroccan cooks consider turmeric a standard in their spice pantry too; adding it gives the cauliflower an appealing golden hue. If you have a Moroccan preserved lemon, you can dice a little of it and add it to the dressing along with the lemon juice.
Serve the crisp-tender vegetables cool as a salad or warm with roast chicken and couscous or with a vegetable burger.
450 gr. cauliflower, divided in small to medium florets
225 gr. mushrooms, quartered
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1â„3 cup water
salt and freshly ground pepper
3â„4 tsp. ground cumin
1â„2 tsp. ground ginger
1â„4 tsp. turmeric (optional)
1â„2 tsp. sweet (regular) paprika
1â„4 tsp. hot paprika or cayenne pepper, or to taste
1 Tbsp. strained fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp chopped fresh coriander, parsley or a mixture of
Put cauliflower and mushrooms in a saute pan with garlic, 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1â„3 cup water. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 3 minutes.
Add mushrooms and cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, for 4 more minutes or until cauliflower florets are crisp-tender and most of liquid evaporates. Add cumin, ginger, turmeric, paprika and cayenne pepper and stir over low heat for 30 seconds.
At this point, if the dressing is too soupy, remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon and cook the dressing uncovered for 2 or 3 minutes to thicken it. Off heat, add lemon juice and half of fresh coriander.
If you have removed the vegetables, return them to the sauce now. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm or cool, sprinkled with remaining coriander.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home and Feast from the Mideast.