Saturday, April 22, 2017

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Morocco

Every culture has its proverbs, but, when it comes to the Moroccans, a lot of those proverbs relate to food.  For example, "you can count the number of apples in one tree, but you can't count the number of trees in one apple."  Or how about, "[w]hat you have put into your kettle comes out into your spoon."  Or, perhaps my favorite, "feed your guests, even if you are starving." 

As interesting as these food proverbs may be, words cannot fill a belly.  So, for this challenge, I decided that I would make a main course based upon the cuisine of the country of Morocco.  The starting point for a discussion of Moroccan cuisine is the same as for many other cuisines: it is a melange of influences, including Arabic, Anadalusian, and Mediterranean ones.  Moroccan cuisine has also been influenced by another source: the Berber culture.  

The Berbers are an ethnic group that are unique to Northern Africa.  At one time, they inhabited an area stretching from Morocco to Egypt, and from Algeria to Niger.  Today, the Berbers are principally (but not entirely) located in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.  The Berbers have a variety of societies and ancestry, united together by a common identity and language.

The Berber influence on Moroccan cuisine is evident in the use of couscous, as well as the tangine.  When the Arabs came to the region, they brought spices (such as cinnamon, cumin, ginger and saffron), dates, dried fruits and nuts, which were incorporated into those dishes.    The Arabs also brought olives and olive oil, which became ingredients useful in Moroccan cooking.  Then, there was the French, who left their imprint on Moroccan food and cuisine, particularly with respect to pastries.

But it was the Berber influence was never extinguished, and it continues to shine in many dishes, including the one that I selected for my challenge: Mechoui.  


Mechoui (or as the Berbers would call it, "Meshwi") is the Moroccan equivalent of barbecue.  It is the roasting of a whole lamb or goat over a pit fire.  The roasting is usually done as part of a celebration or an event.  The lamb or goat is prepared with a spice rub with melted butter (as opposed to a dry rub or one using oil).  Once the rub is applied to the meat, it is then placed over the fire and roasted.  As it cooks, the celebration unfolds and, once it is ready, the hungry guests are in for a treat.  

There are a wide variety of Mechoui recipes on the Internet, which involve different proteins (chicken, beef, lamb, goat, etc.) and different spice rubs.  For this challenge, I borrowed from three or four different recipes, using the common techniques while keeping an eye on the interesting twists from one to another.  Ultimately, it was a recipe from New York Times Cooking that was the principal recipe I used.  The end result was incredible!

Recipe adapted from several sources, including this
one from the New York Times Cooking
Serves 8-10

5 pounds of boneless leg of lamb
3 ounces of butter, softened
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, slightly toasted and grounded
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, grounded
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon pimenton
6 garlic cloves, smashed into a paste with a little salt

1.  Prepare the lamb.  Trim the lamb of any extraneous fat, but leave a thin layer of fat covering the meat.  Use a sharp paring knife, cut slits all over the lamb.  Lightly salt the meat on both sides and place in a large roasting pan.  Mix together butter, cumin, coriander, paprika, pimenton and garlic.  Smear butter mixture over the surface of the meat.  Allow the meat to come to room temperature.  Heat the oven to 450 degrees.

2. Roast the lamb.    Roast the lamb uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes, until it shows signs of beginning to brown.  Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.  Continue roasting for 1.5 to 2 hours, basting generously every 15 minutes or so with buttery pan juices, until meat is soft and tender.  If the surface seems to be browning too quickly, tent loosely with foil and reduce heat slightly.  In this case, remove loosely with foil and baste the lamb.

3.  Finish the dish.  Transfer lamb to a large platter or cutting board and serve hot. 


My personal culinary challenge usually, but not always, includes side dishes, appetizers, or even drinks.  For this particular challenge, I decided to make a side dish based upon a recipe that I found on the New York Times Cooking website.  The recipe is for Chickpeas with Mint, Scallions and Cilantro, and, it was included as a Moroccan recipe.

The recipe calls for rehydrating chickpeas, but that is not required.  An alternative is to use canned chickpeas, as I did.  In that case, the instructions are a little different.  Rather than cooking the rehydrated chickpeas for 45 minutes, I boiled the water for about 15 minutes, to infuse the water with the onion and cloves, and then cooked the chickpeas for about 10 to 15 minutes in the boiling water.  This will warm the chickpeas and infuse them with the flavors without turning them into mush.  Then I would continue with step 2, incorporating the chickpeas into the olive oil and other ingredients.  Once the side is completed, it is a perfect complement to the Mechoui or Meshwi.  

Serves 4

1 pound chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
1 onion halved, with each half stuck with 2 cloves
2 bay leaves 
1 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon turmeric or small pinch of saffron
2 tablespoons chopped mint
1/4 cup chopped scallions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems

1.  Prepare the chickpeas.  Pour soaked chickpeas into a colander to drain and put in a medium-size soup pot.  Add water to cover by 1 inch and bring to a boil.  Add onion, bay leaves, cinnamon and 2 teaspoons salt.  Skim off and discard any rising foam.  Lower heat and simmer gently for about 45 minutes.  

2.  Continue cooking chickpeas.  Drain hot chickpeas (reserve both for another purpose such as soup) and discard the onion and aromatics.  Return chickpeas to pot and add olive oil and turmeric or saffron, stirring to distribute.  Taste for salt and adjust.

3.  Finish the dish.  Transfer to a warm serving bowl.  Mix mint, scallions and cilantro together and sprinkle over top.  Serve warm.

*     *     *

In the end, this was another successful challenge.  The Mechoui (or Meshwi) turned out a perfect medium rare, and the spices on the rub came through as you eat the lamb.  As I noted above, the chickpeas were the perfect side for this dish, with additional levels of flavor coming from the turmeric, mint and cilantro.  Yet, as successful as this challenge was, I did not have a whole lamb and I did not roast that lamb over a fire in a pit.  The challenge was a success given my limitations     Now, if I could only find a whole lamb goat and, if my beautiful Angel would let me dig a pit in our backyard, I could recreate the entire Berber/Moroccan Meshwi/Mechoui experience.  Until that happens ...


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