Cooking in Morocco!

Mar 2014: For years, Jessica, Heidi, and I have been talking about learning to cook in Morocco; and finally, we went in January this year! It was a very special trip! Altogether there were seven of us – all women and all lovers of good food--who met in Paris for a couple of nights and then spent five days at a private villa outside Marrakesh. Even though it was the off-season and rather chilly, we had tons of fun seeing the countryside; going to the markets; and learning to cook in people’s homes. Here, for you are some of the things I learned.

Although Marrakesh seems to be quite the destination for fashionable Europeans, we were able to see more of the local color.  It appears that most of the cooking in the homes is still done by women.  We understand that for the most part, they make bread every day—usually half wheat flour and half semolina–and, they may even take it to the neighborhood baker who bakes it in a large wood-fired oven, to be picked up later.  They also are likely to shop for fresh ingredients daily.  Even though there may be an electric range in the kitchen, there is still a tendency to cook over a hard-wood or charcoal fire on a small burner—or even over a propane canister.  Often, the meat with aromatics, spices, and vegetables are cooked in a clay pot with an unglazed bottom and a conical top, called a “tagine”.   Wood may be added during the cooking, and also water to the dish.  Essentially, the meat or poultry cooks it its own juices.

From what I understand, when guests come into the house, they are always offered a very sweet mint tea to start.  Dinner may start with a couple of cold salads, usually cooked, which are left on the table throughout the meal.  There may be one or two main dishes, and fresh fruit for dessert, such as a sliced orange salad with orange flower water.  The food is healthful and delicious.  Couscous is the usual Friday evening dinner and is always served for celebrations. It is usual to eat with your hand using bread to help scoop the food.  Food is a very important part of the Moroccan lifestyle, and no one is turned away from the table.  Hospitality is very important here; and indeed, everyone we met was very hospitable!

So, what about the cooking?  Besides usually cooking over an open fire, in a small amount of liquid; the fish, chicken, lamb or beef is usually seasoned with paprika, turmeric, and black pepper.  Onions and other vegetables add aromatic flavors.  Not much wine is used in the cooking.  Because saffron is expensive they may use an imitation called “food coloring”.  Also, it is clear that no edible food is thrown away; whatever we didn’t eat for breakfast in our private villa was definitely eaten by the staff.  There was plenty of good food at every meal!

A highlight for me was going to the local market in the morning to see the man making what they call “filo” to order–over what looked like an inverted pot over a gas flame.  What he did was put a sticky dough of flour and water in his left hand and spread it very thinly around the metal.  Then, he lifted it quickly and added it to the pile which was given to us in a plastic bag.   What they call filo is more like a commercial product cooks buy here called “brick”.  I also loved seeing the local women making thin folded pastries in the morning that we ate with butter and jam.  These were done in a wide open casserole type dish (called a gaseria).   These breakfast breads are called M’semmenn.  Here for you is a little video of a local woman making them in the villa.

Watching a woman lovingly mound a large dish of couscous and place over it large pieces of cooked vegetables and cover that with two whole cooked chickens was amazing.  It was served to us in the middle of a table out in the courtyard where we were expected to help ourselves, preferably with our hands. During our week we also were served delicious tagines of lamb one day and goat another.

An unforgettable experience for me was being bathed (and scrubbed) all over by a woman in a ritual called a “haman”.  It is a ritual where the female members — or separately the males — wash each other in a public heated room once a week

Thank you Heidi, Jessica, Erin, Katie, Nancy and Lynne for such a good time.  Thank you Rafik for all your kindness and patience.  Thank you to Fatima and Fatna for such delicious food, and such fun, and the most amazing baths we have ever had.  And, above all thank you the men and women of Marrakesh who invited us into your homes to show us your native cooking!

What Heidi Krahling – the Chef/Owner of Insalata’s and Marinitas in San Anselmo has done is develop a recipe for us all for Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Green Olives.  Here for you is her recipe.  You could serve a tomato salad for starters in the summer and sliced fresh oranges for  dessert.  Remember, have fun cooking!  And, do check out all the new classes and courses for the spring on!