Sunday, August 06, 2006

Meticulously Moroccan

Last year, a friend and I took a series of cooking classes from Mariam, the Moroccan wife of one of my colleagues and an amazing chef. Mariam is a complete perfectionist, and everything perfect is Moroccan, so it was very hard for us to satisfy her exacting standards.

We took turns buying ingredients for our class, for example, and that week’s purchaser had to steel herself for Mariam’s inevitable criticisms. These criticisms always followed a predicable pattern: “You call this ground ginger [or any other ingredient]? Here, smell my ginger. From Morocco.”

One day I was particularly pleased with the olive oil I had found at the shops; it was reasonably priced and imported from Spain. Mariam’s niece opened the bottle and took a sniff – “Not bad,” she declared. Mariam drew the bottle to her nose, quickly put it down, strode over to her pantry and returned with another bottle. “This, this is olive oil,” she said, waving it under my nose. I smelled. It was, indeed, very, very fragrant. “Is it from Morocco?” I inquired, knowing full well the answer. “Yes, from the olive trees in my family’s garden. We pressed the oil ourselves, by hand.” It is difficult to compete with such olive oil.

Mariam’s cooking standards were also demanding – one week as I rolled out my dough to make m’semmen she said (approvingly?), “Ah, yes, even Carolyn can do this.” Despite the consistent blows to our egos, we loved every minute of class.

As far as I can tell, the secret to Moroccan cooking is three-fold – never measure, never set a timer and use twice as much paprika, cumin, black pepper and olive oil (preferably all sourced from Morocco) as you consider reasonable. I jotted down this recipe for vegetable tajine based on my observations of Mariam’s innate “feel” for cooking, and have used it numerous times over the past year. Not surprisingly, the dish has never quite approached Mariam standards, but, then again, what would?

Mariam’s Vegetable Tajine
Serves 6

2/3 cup* olive oil, plus 1 tablespoon
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
10 small onions, cut in half from top to bottom, and sliced into fine rings
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper
1½ teaspoons sweet paprika
¾ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon salt
Water, as needed
2 pounds of potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾-inch chunks (I use new potatoes and cut them into quarters)
Scant cup green olives
6 quarter-pieces preserved lemon, rinsed and patted dry

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. (If you are lucky enough to have a traditional tajine pot at your disposal, by all means – use it!) Add the garlic, tomatoes, onions, parsley, spices and salt, and stir. Cook for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. If the mixture begins sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a little water. Meanwhile, soak the potatoes in water.

When the fifteen minutes are up, drain the potatoes and add them to the pan. Pour in enough water to submerge the mixture and stir. Cover the pot and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Turn the heat down to medium-low, re-cover and simmer until the potatoes are soft, about 40 minutes. Place the green olives and preserved lemons (skin-side up) on top of the mixture and recover the pot. Cook for another 8 minutes.

Serve in bowls accompanied by bread to sop up all the lemony-tomatoey juice. Warning: Only eat the preserved lemons if you are brave! In fact, you might want to remove them from the dish before serving to avoid any accidents.

*Mariam uses 1 cup of olive oil in her tajine, but I find 2/3 cup is plenty.


Anita said...

Carolyn, another well written piece from you..just as I have come to expect.

We don't get preserved lemons here in Delhi - can I substitute fresh lemons? I could always make my own...I seem to have read or seen it somewhere.

Carolyn said...

Hi Anita,

Thanks for being a regular reader! A squeeze of fresh lemon over the final dish might work okay, but there is no real substitute for preserved lemons. Luckily, preserved lemons are super-easy to make, although they do need to sit on your shelf for a few weeks before they are ready to use. Check out this entry: Good luck!

eve said...

Thank you and thanks to Mariam - I've been trying to find a recipe for the potato tagine my host's cook in Marrakesh made for us over a year ago to make in my tagine - and here it is! And just in time too - I'm having vegetarians over for dinner this week.