Hearty fare with Moroccan flair

Upgrade traditional winter comfort dishes with help from our Middle East neighbors.

Moroccan lamb stew (photo credit: Courtesy)
Moroccan lamb stew
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At a recent dinner at Mamounia Restaurant in Anaheim, California, we tasted delicious dishes that illustrated the diversity, richness and subtlety of Moroccan cuisine. Fortunately, many of the specialties from the southwest shores of the Mediterranean are easy to prepare in home kitchens and are perfect additions to our repertoire of special-occasion meals.
Our dinner began with an array of salads of single vegetables that together formed a colorful display. Zucchini strips sauteed in olive oil with herbs were paired on a platter with the familiar spicy Moroccan carrot salad. On another platter lined with leaves of romaine lettuce, a salad of cooked cauliflower with parsley vinaigrette was served alongside bright red roasted sweet peppers.
A tasty salad of chopped green cabbage was dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, a hint of garlic, salt and pepper. It was attractively presented with small lettuce leaves and lemon wedges at the edge of the plate and a garnish of rows of chopped parsley. At home, the cabbage can be quickly chopped in a food processor.
Bowls of hearty harira soup, made of beef cooked with chickpeas and lentils in a rich tomato broth, were served with house-baked breads. We found the soup satisfying enough to be a main course.
The stars of the buffet dinner were the traditional tajines (Moroccan stews), including chicken tajine with olives and lamb tajine with prunes. Chef Souad El Khantouri, who is from Rabat, told us she flavored the sauce for the chicken with preserved lemon and added garlic, ginger and saffron, which balanced the saltiness of the spicy green olives. Saffron and ginger also delicately flavored the sauce for the lamb, along with chopped red onions, which turned mellow and lightly thickened the sauce as it simmered. At serving time the chef topped the lamb with the prunes and sprinkled them with toasted blanched almonds and toasted sesame seeds.
Tajines vary from one region of Morocco to another, notes our friend Kitty Morse, author of Come with Me to the Kasbah: A Cook’s Tour of Morocco. Morse, who was born in Casablanca, puts cinnamon in her tajine of lamb and prunes and finishes the sauce with honey.
Some add apple wedges to the lamb and prune tajine, writes Fortunee Hazan-Arama, author of Saveurs de Mon Enfance (“Flavors of My Childhood”), a book on Moroccan Jewish cooking. In Fez and Meknes, she notes, cooks prepare a lamb and raisin tajine and season it with cinnamon and saffron.
Another tajine that we enjoyed at the restaurant was composed of beef kefta (meatballs, or “kufta” in Hebrew) cooked with potatoes and green peppers in a rich reddish sauce. Morse notes that “kefta is a popular and inexpensive family meal in Morocco” and can be made with meat or fish that is ground with herbs and spices, shaped into balls or patties and grilled or baked. She makes her kefta from ground beef or lamb and seasons it with parsley, cilantro (fresh coriander), onions, garlic, cumin, paprika, salt and pepper. To make the sauce, she combines tomatoes with tomato paste, onion and a generous amount of cilantro and seasons the mixture with cinnamon and sugar. It’s simple to make – you blend the sauce ingredients and cook the meatballs in the sauce.
You could serve such tajines with couscous, but at the restaurant there was yellow rice studded with raisins and chopped parsley, as well as potatoes m’chermla – potatoes baked with chermoula, which is best known as a marinade for fish but also produces tasty potatoes. To prepare them, the chef halved small potatoes and marinated them in a mixture of olive oil, parsley, garlic, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper, and then baked them.
Tajines may seem exotic but many can be put together in a home kitchen without much effort. Traditional tajine recipes often do not call for browning the meat or the onions, and so are faster and easier to cook than many classic European stews.
Although the customary conical-lidded tajine pan is attractive, you can use any heavy stew pan.
This recipe is from The Scent of Orange Blossoms.
Authors Kitty Morse and Danielle Mamane write that many Jewish cooks in Morocco steam the potatoes before marinating and roasting them, “to ensure a soft center within a well-cooked, reddishgold exterior.” In this recipe they add saffron to the classic chermoula blend, but you could omit it if you like.
Makes 6 servings, or 12 small servings in a meal that also has couscous or rice
900 gr. (2 pounds) potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-cm. (1⁄2-inch) wedges 1and 3⁄4 tsp salt 3 Tbsp. virgin olive oil 1 tsp. sweet paprika 11⁄2 tsp. ground cumin 5 threads Spanish saffron, toasted and crushed (see Note below) 3 cloves garlic, minced
Fill the bottom part of a couscoussier (couscous pot) or large soup pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Place the potatoes in a colander that fits tightly over the soup pot. Steam until partially tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Set aside to partially cool. Preheat the oven to 220ºC (425ºF).
In a bowl, combine the potatoes with the salt, oil, paprika, cumin, saffron and garlic. Set the wedges in a baking dish large enough to accommodate them in one layer, or on a foil-lined baking sheet.
Roast, turning over once or twice, until golden orange-brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve hot.
Note: Lightly toasting saffron threads helps release their intense aroma. Place the threads in a small skillet over medium-high heat, shaking gently until the threads dark slightly, about 1 minute.
Do not overcook or they will turn bitter. Grind them with a pinch of salt in a mortar and pestle.
Ground ginger and saffron give this stew a distinctive flavor. Serve it with couscous, rice or roasted potatoes, as well as with carrots or green beans.
You can substitute beef shoulder for the lamb, if you like. After adding the water, cook the beef for about 21⁄2 hours or until tender, adding more water occasionally so the sauce will not be dry.
Makes 4 servings
1 to 1.2 kg. (21⁄2 pounds) lean boneless lamb shoulder, fat trimmed, meat cut in 2.5-cm. (1-inch) cubes, or 1.4 to 1.5 kg. (3 to 31⁄4 lb.) lamb with bones, cut in pieces 2 large onions, minced 1 to 2 tsp. olive oil (optional)Salt and freshly ground pepper 11⁄2 cups water A large pinch of saffron threads (about 1⁄8 tsp.) A 5-cm. (2-inch) cinnamon stick (optional) 1 tsp. ground ginger 11⁄4 cups pitted prunes 1 or 2 Tbsp. honey, to taste 1⁄3 cup whole blanched almonds, toasted (see Note below) 1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted (see Note below)
Combine lamb, onions, oil, salt and pepper in a heavy casserole. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add water, saffron, ginger and cinnamon stick, pushing the cinnamon stick into the liquid. Bring to a boil.
Cover and simmer over low heat, turning pieces occasionally, for 1 to 11⁄2 hours or until lamb is tender, adding a little water from time to time if the sauce evaporates.
Add prunes and cook uncovered over medium heat for 15 minutes or until just tender. Add honey and cook over medium heat, occasionally stirring very gently, for 5 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Discard cinnamon stick. Serve hot, garnished with almonds and sesame seeds.
Note: To toast almonds: Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Toast nuts on a baking sheet in oven for 7 minutes or until lightly browned. Transfer them immediately to a plate.
To toast sesame seeds: Put seeds in a small, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Toast them, shaking pan often, for 2 minutes or until golden brown.
Transfer immediately to a plate.Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.