Exotic, crazy, colourful Marrakesh, so many intriguing cultural experiences but for the cook it’s a brave new world of tagines, cous cous, pastilla, meschoi, briouts, tangia.
At first, the experience is virtually overwhelming. The souks and medina cover an area of about 19km and are not for the faint-hearted.
Acres of stalls selling everything you can imagine and much that you can’t.
I armed myself with a map and the phone number of the manager of the riad where I was staying so they could come and rescue me if and when I got hopelessly lost.
Before you venture into the Medina, sit down with a glass of frothy mint tea and a plate of Moroccan pastries and plan your adventure. I only had five days but I was determined to make the most of every moment.
I’d chosen to stay at a beautiful chic riad owned by Jasper Conran, with just five elegant bedrooms surrounding an inner courtyard garden with orange and banana trees, a date palm and a trickling fountain in the centre – there was even a 10 metre lap pool for those who might like a refreshing dip even in winter.
The food was delicious — breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bouchra is the cook (dada) here.
The elegant dining room has tall metal windows, huge mirrors and portraits of Indian maharajah.
Billie Halliday crooned and the candles flickered as I enjoyed my first dinner at a low round table by the fireside – three little Moroccan salads, zaalouk (aubergine), taktouta (red and yellow pepper), cooked carrot and cumin and then a superb lamb tagine with artichoke hearts, fennel and cooked to melting tenderness so all the flavours melded together.
The dessert was layers of flaky warka with pastry cream and a chocolate caramel sauce. We’d hit the jackpot.
Breakfast was another little feast, four Moroccan breads and lacy beghrir, the tender Moroccan pancakes. I was determined to learn how to make at least these light lacy pancakes.
I cheekily knocked on the kitchen door; Bouchra welcomed me into her kitchen and over the next few days showed me how to make a whole range of breads.
There were many, ingenious variations on the well-known Moroccan flat bread — m’semen.
Some were cooked on the griddle others, shallow fried then drizzled with honey and sprinkled with coconut.
Some were savoury to eat with eggs or b-sara (buttara), the lentil and bean soup often eaten for breakfast.
Others were flaky and slathered with honey butter. Then there are all the tagines which take their name from the earthenware pot with the conical lid in which they are served and if you are lucky also cooked.
These can be vegetarian or made from seafood, chicken, beef, lamb or rabbit with fresh vegetables and fresh or dried fruit, olives and maybe nuts.
Moroccan Mint Tea
Heat a teapot with boiling water. Add the tea and mint to the pot.
Fill with boiling water. Allow to infuse and stand for 5 minutes.
Pour the tea from a height into Moroccan glasses edged with gold.
Add sugar to taste (remember, in Morocco tea is supposed to be very sweet).
Brother Hubbard’s Semolina Pancakes (Beghrir)
Makes about 8 pancakes
Put the milk and water into a pot set over a medium heat. Heat this for a few minutes, stirring.
You want to get it to the point that it should be just a little warmer than your body temperature.
Remove from the heat and pour into a large bowl.
Crack the eggs into the bowl, then add the yeast and salt. Whisk well. Still using the whisk, whisk in the semolina — a good energetic go will do it.
The mix will get a little thicker. Cover the bowl with cling film and set aside to rest in a warm place.
After a while, you will see the batter bubble up as the yeast works its magic.
The batter should be ready after 20–30 minutes, once it’s good and frothy with lots of bubbles.
Place a non-stick medium frying pan (ideally 15cm to 18cm diameter) on a medium-high heat and let it get fully heated.
When it’s hot, add a tiny splash of oil and swirl it around the pan, then turn the heat down to medium.
Gently stir the pancake batter with a medium ladle, then add one ladleful to the pan or enough of the batter to cover the pan with 3mm to 4mm depth of batter, swirling gently so the surface is fully covered.
Cook for 1–2 minutes.
You will see bubbles form in the batter and then it will set as the wet texture on the surface gradually disappears towards the centre of the pancake.
When it’s set, lift it up and flip it over to sear for a few moments. This side should almost be undercooked.
Give the pan a shake so the pancake moves from side to side.
Take off the heat and remove the pancake onto a plate.
Keep covered with a cloth while you cook the remaining pancakes, stacking the cooked ones together under the cloth so they stay warm.
Gluten-free Spiced Vegetable Pie
Cut the vegetables into uniform-sized cubes about 5mm.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a wide sauté pan, add the onions, potatoes, carrots, celeriac and parsnips.
Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, toss in the oil, cover the pot and sweat on a gentle heat for 4 or 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the cumin, coriander and cardamom seeds on a pan until they smell aromatic. Just a few seconds.
Crush lightly, add to the vegetables. Cook for 1- 2 minutes. Take off the heat. Sprinkle over the potato flour, turmeric and a pinch of sugar, stir well.
Put back on the heat and add the vegetable stock gradually stirring all the time.
Cover the pot and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes or until the vegetables are almost tender but not mushy.
Meanwhile, make the pastry.
Sieve together the rice flour, fine cornmeal, potato flour, xanthan gum and salt into a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.
Dice the butter, put it into the saucepan with the water and bring to the boil.
Pour the liquid all at once into the flour and mix together quickly; beat until smooth for about 5 minutes (with the gluten-free flours).
At first the pastry will be soft to handle but as it cools it may be rolled out 5mm thick, to fit the tin.
The pastry may be made into individual pies or one large pie. Keep back one third of the pastry for lids.
Fill the pastry-lined tins with the vegetable mixture which should be almost, but not quite cooked and cooled a little.
Brush the edges of the pastry with the water and egg wash and put on the pastry lids, pinching them tightly together.
Roll out the trimmings to make the pastry leaves or twirls to decorate the top of the pies; make a hole in the centre, egg-wash the lid and then egg-wash the decoration also.
Bake the pies for about 30 minutes at 230C/Gas mark 8.
Serve with a green salad.
Claudia Roden’s Preserved Lemons
There are several methods. These come from Tamarind and Saffron published by Penguin Books in 1999.
Claudia Roden’s Lemons preserved in salt and lemon juice
In this method, considered most prestigious, no water is used. 65g of salt is required for 500g of lemons.
This works out at about 75g or 4 tablespoons of salt for 4 lemons.
Wash and scrub the lemons.
The classic Moroccan way is to cut each lemon in quarters but not right through, so that the pieces are still attached at the stem end, and to stuff each with plenty of salt.
Put them into a glass jar, pressing them down so that they are squashed together, and close the jar.
Leave for 3-4 days, by which time the lemons will have released some of their juices and the skins will have softened a little.
Press them down as much as you can and add fresh lemon juice to cover them entirely.
Close the jar and leave in a cool place for at least a month, by which time the lemons should be ready.
The longer they are left the better the flavour. (If a piece of lemon is not covered it develops a white mould which is harmless and just needs to be washed off.)
Before using, rinse to get rid of salt.
Lemons boiled in brine and preserved in oil.
This is a brilliant standby recipe which yields tender preserved lemon almost immediately
With a sharp knife make 8 fine-superficial, not deep-incisions into the lemon skin from one end of the lemon to the other.
Put the lemons in a large pan with salted water (the same proportion of salt as above-for instance 8 tablespoons for 8 lemons) to cover.
Put a smaller lid on top of them to keep them down as they float, and boil for about 25 minutes or until the peels are very soft.
When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, pack the skins into a glass jar and cover with sunflower or light vegetable oil.
Tagine of Chicken with Green Olives
First prepare the marinade. Mix the garlic, saffron, ginger, cumin, paprika, salt, freshly ground pepper and the olive oil in a bowl.
Spread over the chicken, transfer the meat to a shallow dish, cover with cling-film and leave overnight to marinate in the fridge.
Next day, transfer the chicken and the marinade to a casserole. Add the onions, parsley, coriander and cinnamon stick and half cover with water.
Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes, turning the chicken pieces frequently in the liquid.
Add more water if it starts to reduce. Cook for a further 15 minutes, partly covered, until the chicken is tender and almost falls from the bone.
Add the preserved lemons and the olives and continue cooking for a further 5-6 minutes so the flavours combine.
Transfer the chicken pieces, lemon and olives to a serving dish and cover to keep warm.
Remove and discard the cinnamon stick. Boil the sauce uncovered until it is about 250ml (9fl oz/generous 1 cup).
Add the lemon juice and season to taste with more salt and freshly ground pepper.
Pour the sauce over the chicken and serve immediately with lots of fresh coriander and couscous.
For Moroccan ingredients and lots of other good things seek out Mr Bell’s stall in the English Market.
Telephone: 021 431 8655
Slow Food East Cork Event Fair Trade Nicaraguan Chocolate: Heydi Mairena from Jinotega in Nicaragua will share the story of her fair trade artisan Quetzalcoatl chocolate on March 1 at 7pm at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
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