02 July 2010

From Morocco with love

Over six years ago now, I was lucky enough to receive a Fulbright fellowship after graduating from college, and I spent the ensuing year living in Fès, Morocco.

While I may no longer be studying political science and nationalist movements, rarely a day goes by that the sights, smells, and flavors of Morocco don't invade my memories. A rarely-seen moped; the diesel belch of a semi truck; the sound of meat hitting a hot grill - countless moments, sometimes not at all remembered, take me back, and what I miss most, and find most difficult to replace, is the food.

Authentic Moroccan food is hard to find in the United States. I see countless restaurants serving couscous, or calling any old stew a tajine, or mixing meat with dried fruit and thinking that it makes a meal "Moroccan". I'm no expert, I'm sure, but adding dates or couscous doesn't make a meal Moroccan any more than beans & rice make a dish Mexican. The flavors of Morocco are about the spice, the herbs, and the fresh, seasonal vegetables brought into market every day. The quintessential Moroccan dishes, to me, were the salads available at nearly any major meal.

Moroccan salads are similar to meze or tapas: served warm or cold, usually at least three or four at a table. A normal selection would include puréed spiced vegetables; lentils or beans (sometimes puréed); and some sort of vegetable, often starchy, in a Moroccan vinaigrette. The salads are scooped up and gobbled with a warm flatbread called "khubz" (just "bread"), although most of them are just fine with fingers or a spoon.

My favorite salad, and the dish that I most often crave now, is Zaalouq. Zaalouq is a puréed, spiced blend of eggplant and tomato, perfect for scooping up with bread of any kind. It also goes well with many things; I can see it fitting in nicely with an Indian meal, and we served it yesterday with simple sautéed zucchini with salt, pepper, and garlic, and oven-warmed naan for scooping.

The key to this dish is the herb-and-spice trifecta of Moroccan cuisine: cumin, parsley, and cilantro.

When I went to the marché, my veggie man (as I called him) would always throw in parsley, cilantro, and a couple lemons for free. Every time, I'd say I just needed a bit - and I would get a giant bunch of each herb. In Fès, nearly every dish contains or is topped with a mixture of the two herbs, and the concept of eating meals without them is kind of bizarre. Because they always came together, I became completely incapable of remembering the Arabic words for them, as well - I always mixed them up, and he would re-teach me every single time:

"Hada al-ma'adnous" (This is Parsley)

"W'hada al-kasbour" (And this is cilantro)

The next time I came by he would hold up a bunch of parsley.

"Shnou hada?" (What is this?)

"Um... kasbour?"

And on and on... for a year. Half a decade later, I've finally sorted them out.



1 lb eggplant
1 lb fresh tomatoes
4 t salt, divided
5 cloves garlic
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
olive oil
1 T ground cumin
1/2 t paprika
pinch cayenne
1/4 t ground pepper
2 t lemon juice

Peel eggplant, if desired (I usually peel half), cut into about 1" cubes and toss with 1 T salt in a large colander. Set aside for 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil and blanch the tomatoes. Peel, chop, and set aside with their juices. Peel and chop the garlic and set aside.

Heat a pot or large skillet on medium high heat and pour in a glug of olive oil. Drain the eggplant and press out excess moisture. Cook for a few minutes in the skillet until hot, then add 1/4 C water, cover, and cook until just softened, about 10 minutes. Uncover and add the garlic, tomatoes, cumin, paprika, cayenne, pepper, half of each of the herbs, and the remaining salt.

Cook uncovered, mashing from time to time, until it's soft and looks kind of like camp cafeteria food, 10-15 minutes. A couple minutes before it's done, taste and adjust salt level as needed, and add remaining herbs if desired. Add the lemon juice to taste.

Serve hot, warm, room temperature, or cold, with bread for dipping - I like it best just barely warm.
Serves 3-6, depending on what else is on your table

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