When cheaper tastes better
Much of the food in Morocco takes a bit of extra effort but it will normally last you several days. It’s also the daily food prepared by ordinary people with great care and effort. Everything is made from scratch and this takes on an extra meaning here. There’s minimum intervention between crop or slaughter and the plate. Your chicken is slaughtered in front of you and the man who caught your fish sells it to you whole. You do the degutting. Food is often sold under the sort of conditions which would have an Irish Environmental Health Officer calling for smelling salts. But how much can actually be wrong with a fish caught this afternoon and sold to me this evening, at the harbour side, by the same man who caught it? One thing the fish in Essaouira doesn’t do is make a journey to the capital and then back to the pier side. That would be mad, right? You’d need all sorts of safeguards to keep the fish fresh. Oh wait, that’s what we do in Ireland. Spanking fresh fish landed in Howth Harbour makes a journey into town and back out again before being sold to you. A day old, and for a dollar more.
The other extra effort in the cooking in Morocco is that all conveniences are missing and this comes as a sharp reminder to those of us who like to cook. Much of our ingredients are convenience too. In the recipe for Naima’s Moroccan soup she uses dried lentils, dried peas, dried broad beans and dried chickpeas. It would be tempting to replace these with tinned versions, as we often do in Ireland. We don’t plan our food consumption and soaking chickpeas and the like is too much trouble in our instant gratification world. But there’s an interesting degradation here for our convenience. For starters, the dried versions are significantly cheaper than the tinned and a Moroccan cook always has their eye on a budget. Secondly, the method of cooking means the dried pulses soak up all the flavours in a way that a water-clogged pulse just can’t. So, not only is it cheaper, it tastes better too.
Not surprisingly really, as my food guide in Essaouira Naima Lewey has dismissed leaves of mint from Marrakech in favour of other regions for their quality. I think we can rely on her when it comes to quality. Her two recipes today are a flavourful soup and dainty petits fours. A sort of mini lunch. Unless you have two bowls of the soup and 18 petites fours. (I was confirming the quality).
Naima’s Moroccan soup
This is a staple dish throughout the holy festival of Ramadan. It will keep for up to 5 days in the fridge. Probably best to make it the day before serving to allow the flavours to develop. Ideal if you are planning a dinner for a gang.
1 handful celery
1 handful coriander
2 handfuls parsley
1 onion, large
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric, heaped
1 pinch ras al hanoot, a pinch is three fingers
150g dried peas
150g dried broad beans, small, if large break bigger ones in two
150g chickpeas, dried are best, soak them overnight in cold water
2 litres water
6 tomatoes, grated with a box grater
150g dried lentils
2 tablespoons tomato puree
4 tablespoons flour, heaped
1 cube of vegetable stock
1 pinch of black pepper, or to taste
1 Finely chop the coriander, parsley and celery.
2 Chop the onion into small dice and then fry on a medium heat in 3 tablespoons of oil with half a teaspoon of salt. Cover and cook for three minutes until the onions are softened.
3 Add turmeric, stir to combine, then add the ras al hanoot, cook them down a bit.
4 Then add the dried peas, dried beans and chick peas. Stir to combine.
5 Then add the parsley, coriander and the celery. Cook for 7 minutes and then add the water. Bring it to the boil and boil for 30 minutes. Add the juiced tomato and the lentils after 30 minutes, then cook until the chickpeas are done. This will be a further 30 minutes but check the chickpeas are done. Cook for another 5 minutes if the chickpeas are not done.
6 Mix the flour with a little cold water and combine thoroughly until you have a creamy consistency.
7 Mix the tomato puree with a little water to loosen it up so it’s gloopy. Then grate a stock cube into the soup. Pour in the tomato puree and add the flour. Cook for 7 minutes and the soup is done. Serve with bread and maybe try it topped with some crème fraîche with a little harissa through it for those who like a little extra heat.
Ghriba (pronounced GH – riba)
250g strong flour or patisserie flour
150g whole almonds
7g vanilla powder or half a vanilla pod, scraped
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons strawberry jam
2 tablespoons water
Petits fours papers
1 First remove the skins from the almonds by boiling in hot water for 3 minutes. Take the almonds off the heat, drain and the skins will pop off with a little squeeze.
2 Meanwhile separate the yolks from the whites of the eggs.
3 Then add the sugar to the egg yolks along with the vanilla powder.
4 Mix and then add the butter. Combine with your hands, which will help soften the butter. Mix until creamed.
5 Then add the flour through a sieve and combine with the butter mixture. Knead well until it comes clean out of the bowl. Then knead on a clean surface into a large ball. It should be smooth and velvety.
6 Roll the dough into balls about the size of a walnut.
7 Blend the almonds until they are like breadcrumbs.
8 Preheat the oven to 150c.
9 Then dip the balls in the reserved egg yolk, cover in the almonds, rolling them in your hands a little until the almonds are gently pressed into the dough balls. Then press a small crevice in the centre of the balls, about the size of your thumb. Don’t be too timid here, it needs to be a reasonable hole to hold some jam later.
10 Place on a baking tray, making sure to leave about the same size space as the width of the balls as they will expand.
11 Place in the oven and cook for 15 to 20 minutes. After 10 minutes check them and if the holes have filled up, press them open again with the tip of a wooden spoon or your finger if made of asbestos as Naimi’s clearly were. Keep an eye throughout the cooking to make sure there is still a hole for the jam.
12 Meanwhile, reduce 4 tablespoons of strawberry jam with 2 tablespoons water and then allow to cool.
13 When the ghriba are cooked, they should be a pale golden colour, remove from the oven and place in petits fours cases.
14 Then place a drop of jam in the little hole in the centre. Serve with traditional Moroccan mint tea.
Tomorrow from Essaouira its Naima’s briwat, fragile filo pastry triangles of lightly spiced prawns, all from Naima Lewey, and ‘Sunday supplement’ roundup of a my visual gallery from Essaouira thanks to the hard work of photographer Darren Lewey of Images in the Sun.
Follow me on twitter at @goldenshots for notifications all the tasty updates this week. #Essaouira