Tell me a story, my dear…
Many years ago, a young man graduated university and stepped away from those crazy, wild college days to come face to face with adulthood and his obligations : military service. Either he could sign up to do one year traditional army training here in France or he could leave the country and find a job somewhere out in the wide, wide world where he would then be asked to stay for two years. Now our favorite son being no traditional kind of guy, “adventure” his middle name, he made the choice to head on out. So suitcase packed, off he went to discover Morocco.
Veterinary diploma in hand, he quickly found a job, and a most interesting one it was (and he will absolutely freak out when he discovers that I am telling you all this story, but it is too funny NOT to put it in here…) : he was hired to work for the King’s brother at his Ostrich Farm, and was put in charge of the incubators (the nursery, I guess you could call it).
Things went along swimmingly for the first week, 10 days, until that fateful morning when he walked in and found all the eggs cooked! Yes, indeed. Someone (who? Hmmm?) had placed their empty coffee cup on top of the incubator, right on the temperature gauge, pushing the temperature up to “bake”…. Poor little things….
So off he went to look for another job. He ended up teaching Biology at the University of Rabat for two years and enjoyed every minute of his stay, traveling, exploring, discovering. Fascinated by this country and her people, he dove in and became a part of it. He has never been one to stand apart, play the “expat”, aloof and clubby with the French community. The chance to live in another country, another culture is truly something to be grabbed and hugged close to your heart, learning the language, the customs, hanging out with the neighbors and getting to know how life works. And he was fascinated, fascinated by the openness and friendliness of the people, enamored by this family-oriented culture.
Camera in hand, he crossed the desert, strolled the markets, hung out in cafés and visited workshops. He watched the children play in the street, the workers on their donkeys, the ritual slaughtering of animals; wherever he could insinuate himself he was sure to go.
And in between, he learned to cook. He loved to hang out in the kitchens wherever he happened to be rooming, and watch the women cook. He loved the food, the tagines and the couscous, the Pastilla, the gazelle’s horns and the loukoum. He loved to cook and learned while in his mother’s kitchen, and here was a whole new world opening up in front of him.
And master this wonderful, exotic, spice-filled cuisine he did. He has been passing on his knowledge to me slowly but surely over the past 20 years, yet he is the better cook of us two. We are lucky enough to live in a country with a large North African community, which means that the spices, the preserved lemons, the choice of olives and other ingredients are only a step away. He takes the basic recipes and improvises, from lamb to chicken to fish, from olives to lemon to prunes and dates. And I am never far behind, eating it all with pleasure.
Several years ago, he took Clem on a 2-week trekking holiday across the Sahara, starting and ending the trip in Casablanca. During the trip, the cooking equipment was transported on the backs of donkeys and set up before each meal in a tent, where the Moroccan men would cook and everyone would sit in a circle on carpets and eat. Clem fell in love with this wonderful cuisine as well at the tender age of 10.
Harira is a thick, fragrant, spicy soup of chickpeas, tomato and lamb, spiced up and then flavored with lemon and fresh coriander, traditionally eaten during the month of Ramadan each night to break the day’s fast. JP explained that vendors ladle out bowls of this soup from huge vats in the marketplaces around the city. I originally found my first recipe for Harira in a wonderful little cookbook called The Book of Soups by Lorna Rhodes. It is a rather easy soup to put together, then simply simmered, lemon and coriander added just before serving. JP tasted mine and raved that it was exactly like the soup he ate in Morocco. A compliment indeed!
Moufleta is a kind of crêpe or blini from the Jewish communities of North Africa, often eaten either to end the Yom Kippour fast or at Hanukkah when we traditionally eat fried foods. I found this recipe in the book I just received from Ruth and Guy, La Cuisine de la Diaspora by Deborah Haccoun & Antoine Schneck-Rosenfeld. These are simple, plain breads, almost like Indian Naan often eaten with butter and honey (which I found delicious when I tried it!) or as we did here, dipped in a spicy Harira.
And I am sending this recipe for Moufleta off to this week’s Yeastspotting (the event of all things yeast), created and hosted by my friend Susan of Wild Yeast.
13 oz (400 g) lean lamb, shoulder or leg
1 onion, cut in half or quarters and thinly sliced
2 tsps ground coriander
½ tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cumin
8 oz (250 g) ripe tomatoes (about 3), peeled and chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 – 14 oz (440 g) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
Handful chopped fresh coriander
Cut the lamb into bite-sized cubes, removing and discarding all excess fat and all the yucky stuff.
To peel tomatoes, make a cross in the bottom of each with a sharp knife, dunk for just one minute or so in simmering water, scoop out and peel.
Measure out the spices, slice the onion, crush the garlic, drain, rinse and mash the chickpeas. Set aside.
Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large pot and add the cubed lamb. Fry very quickly over high heat until evenly browned all over. Add the sliced onions, lower the heat and continue cooking, stirring continuously, for 5 minutes until the onions are soft.
Stir in all the spices, making sure that the lamb cubes are all coated and the spices are blended in well, and cook for 1 minute.
Add the chopped tomatoes, the crushed garlic and the mashed chickpeas (as you will notice in the photo, I added the water before the chickpeas which makes it harder to blend in the chickpea mash. Stir everything together well before adding the water – which is what I normally do.) Add 2 ½ cups (625 ml) water. Bring to the boil, cover, lower heat and allow to simmer for 40 minutes. If you would like to thicken the soup up a bit, push back the lid of the pot and inch or two for the last 10 minutes of cooking.
Chop the fresh coriander and squeeze the lemon. Add the coriander and the juice to the Harira, stir, and allow to simmer for 2 minutes.
8 cups / 35 oz (1 kg) flour
1 tsp salt
2 cups (500 ml) warm water (up to ½ cup more, as needed)
0.63 oz (18 g) dry active yeast or 1 ½ oz (42 g) fresh yeast
2 Tbs (30 g) sugar
Sift or stir the flour and salt together in a large mixing bowl.
Put the sugar and the yeast in a small bowl and add a small amount of warm water, maybe 1/4 cup. Leave for 10 minutes until frothy.
Make a well in the center of the flour and pour in the yeast mixture and then the rest of the warm water. Stir with a wooden spoon until all the flour is moistened and starts to stick together and form a dough.
Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 6 – 8 minutes until you have a smooth, elastic dough.
Divide the dough into about 20 pieces (here again, I followed the recipe and divided it into 40 pieces, but I found them to be much too small).
Oil either your marble worktop or a large baking or oven sheet. Roll each piece into a ball and place on the oiled surface. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes (up to 2 hours is fine).
Have a large skillet or frying pan, preferably non-stick, ready. Using a paper towel, lightly oil the pan. Heat when ready to start.
Oil your hands.
Press one ball of dough between your palms and press and squish, rubbing your hands around in circular motions until you have flattened your dough. I made the first ones very very thin and the next a bit thicker, and I liked them both. Depends on what you want.
Fry on one side until golden brown (where the moufleta touch the pan), then turn and cook on the other side until golden brown as well.
Serve immediately, best eaten warm.
As you can see by the small amount of salt and sugar in these little breads/crêpes, they are rather bland. They are great for dipping into soups and sauces, especially spicy, flavorful North African dishes. Or serve them for breakfast or snack smeared with butter and drizzled with honey. Yummy!
(and I made plain dinner rolls, brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, with the leftover dough. They came out light and fluffy).