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Tasting Morocco, Again and Again

By Lynn Harding –

On the middle shelf of our small kitchen bookshelf sits a squat pale blue book that has suffered years  of wear … dust jacket torn and creased, faded and scattered with stains, on the cover a plump Berber woman, dressed in her finest woolen cape and ribboned, bangled hair, holding  a giant shallow bowl of vegetable crowned couscous. She smiles out at the reader.

Published in 1973, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, by Paula Wolfert, remains  the classic guide to true Moroccan cooking. Her book was a birthday present, wishing me fond memories, from a dear friend, and fellow traveler, long gone: first edition no less. Gael Greene wrote the introduction, focusing her eye on Wolfert who appears fierce and exacting, adventurous (one had to be to write a cookbook about Morocco in the early 70’s – where did one find the signature ingredients ‘back then’?).

Once Wolfert begins her narrative there is no stopping her. She lists the “prerequisites”  for a Great Cuisine (a rich land, a variety of cultural influences, a great civilization – “great food and a great civilization go together” – and a demanding  aristocracy that encouraged its chefs) with all of which Morocco is blessed. Breads, soups, salads and vegetables, savory pastries, couscous, fish, poultry, meats and desserts – each chapter introduced by grainy black and white photography and personal vignettes, full of atmosphere and charm, of Wolfert’s sojourns in the country.

In 1973 the cook had to rely on suppliers and mail order sources which are included at the back of the book … no telephone/fax numbers, certainly no internet, and, a limited list it is (two groceries in Miami comprise the Florida listing). Also, beware, this is not ‘fast food’ but worth the time and effort.  The recipes are superb. Follow Wolfert’s instructions carefully and you will achieve an authentic exotic cooking experience and you will taste the real flavors of the Maghreb.

On the coffee table in the room adjoining our kitchen sits a magnificent picture book – 500 plus pages in large format filled with stunning color prints and recipes that elevate the soul – Paula Wolfert’s 2011 The Food of Morocco.  A quote from Edith Wharton opens this book and sets the strong literary tone.

The chapter outline mimics the original volume but Wolfert has embellished all sections and added subsections so that one is presented with another and updated ode to Moroccan cuisine complete with thoroughly researched and documented recipes, some that will challenge even the most daring cook. For example, in her 1973 book, Moroccan Yogurt (Raipe) calls for 10 coques or wild artichokes whereas the 2011 version requires 1 tablespoon dried wild cardoon thistles. Again, suppliers and sources are listed in the back. For those living on the edge she just couldn’t resist  a recipe for Majoun (Kif Candy). Also, authentic.

There are over 50 recipes for lamb and her fish and couscous sections are much expanded. The recipes seem to be as authentic as in the first book and many of the ingredients are easily found in our multicultural world (and on-line). I believe Wolfert intended the cook carry this gorgeous book into their kitchen, but, a pedestal should be used to both protect and honor the contents. This, I think, is the point – these two books, in concert, bring what Paula Wolfert considers the finest, most truthful, record of an ethnic cuisine to the modern cook. Bravo!

Berber Couscous

(adapted from “The Food of Morocco”)

“This is the kind of couscous you will find in small villages in the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains, and it is extraordinary.  It is served in spring … and it has a miraculous clean taste.”

1 1/2 pounds instant couscous

1 small chicken, preferably organic

8 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 teaspoons coarse salt

2 teaspoons ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 tablespoons saffron water (crumbled, dried and crushed saffron threads    soaked in warm water)

2 large red-ripe tomatoes, halved, peeled, seeded and grated

1 large yellow onion quartered

1 cinnamon stick

8 white baby onions, peeled

1 pound small turnips, cut in half

1 1/2 pounds small zucchini, quartered lengthwise

2 cups baby peas, peeled fava beans or lima beans

1 green or red chili (optional)

2 to 3 tablespoons Smen (or 3 Tbs. clarified butter)

2 cups half-and-half or fresh whole milk

Prepare couscous per package directions.

Prepare the broth: Trim excess fat from chicken. Melt butter in deep casserole over low heat. Add salt, pepper, turmeric, saffron water, half of the grated tomatoes, the herbs, yellow onion and cinnamon. Swirl ingredients, add chicken, cover and cook gently for 15 minutes. Add 4 cups water, cover, simmer for 30 minutes. Add white onions and turnip, cook for 15 minutes adding more water if necessary (dish can be prepared in advance up to this point). Add remaining tomato, zucchini, peas, (chili pepper) to broth, bring to boil then simmer 20 minutes. Spoon cooked couscous on to large serving dish, mix in the clarified butter thoroughly. Make a well in the center and place chicken in well. Cover with the vegetables. Add half-and-half to broth, bring to boil. Strain and add 1 1/2 cups to moisten couscous serving remaining broth at table. (serves 8 as main dish)

 

(The Food of Morocco by Paula Wolfert. HarperCollins, $45)

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