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 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 ...


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Roasted Green Beans, Mushrooms, and Onions with Parmesan Breadcrumbs

A while back, our family had a fruit and vegetable CSA allotment. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, which is a program where you purchase the produce directly from a local farm.   The CSA provided me with an opportunity cook more vegetables.  I created a "CSA Challenge," which pushed my culinary abilities by cooking dishes that included beets, turnips and sweet potatoes.

For this challenge, I had green beans.  My typical side dish for green beans is to blanche them for a couple of minutes to preserve their color, and then saute them with a little butter, salt, pepper and lemon juice.  Occasionally, I add some slivered almonds.  While this side dish does the trick, especially when you do not have a lot of time to cook a meal, I wanted to try something different. I wanted to prepare the beans with ingredients that I would not typically think of when I am pondering green bean recipes.

I came across a recipe that included, among other things, mushrooms and "parmesan breadcrumbs."  Neither ingredient is one that, at least for me, I would generally associate with green beans.  So, I decided to make this recipe.  The result is a rather colorful dish, with the different colored green beans, the red onions and the brownish mushrooms.  The parmesan breadcrumbs add a "crunchy-ish" kind of texture that gives a hint of parmesan cheese, which helps to make this dish work.  

Recipe adapted from Delish
Serves 6

1 1/2 pounds of green beans, trimmed
1 medium red or yellow onion, sliced into rings
8 ounces of cremini mushrooms, sliced
8 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, divided
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoons of dried oregano
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Juice from 1 lemon.

1. Prepare the vegetables and mushrooms.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  On two rimmed baked sheets, arrange green beans, onions and mushrooms.  Toss each with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Roast until deeply browned, about 30 to 35 minutes.  

2.  Toast the breadcrumbs.  In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add breadcrumbs and oregano and cook, stirring constantly until breadcrumbs are golden brown, about 3 minutes.  Remove from heat, stir in Parmesan.

3.  Finish the dish.  Squeeze lemon juice over roasted vegetables and top with Parmesan breadcrumbs.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Oyster Shooters with Tomato, Lime and Chiles

This is the best recipe ever invented. Period.

No, seriously.  This recipe of Oyster Shooters with Tomato, Lime and Chiles makes me rethink why I have made the nearly one hundred recipes that are already in the index to this blog.  After having one of these oyster shooters, I began thinking, "why in the world did I spend all that time making" this recipe or that recipe.  I could just spend every night making this recipe.  Some dicing and slicing.  Some mixing.  A little waiting.   A little more work.  And, the best recipe ever invented.

I have to say, my hats off to the person who thought: "what if I combined tomatoes, citrus and chiles with tomatoes?  And then added raw oysters."  You deserve a James Beard Award or three. Quite coincidentally, that is where I found this recipe ... on the James Beard Foundation's website. 

Now, for you to agree, you have to love eating raw oysters.   Atlantic oysters, Pacific oysters. Malpeques, Miyagis, Blue Points, Wellfleets, Rappahanocks, Olde Salts, Chincoteaques, Chop Tanks, Kumamotos.  You name it, you have to be willing to eat it.  And, if you eat raw oysters, then buckle up, because you are in for what is truly a gastronomic roller-coaster ride.

The ride begins with the acidity from the tomatoes and citrus.  As the tomato, lime and orange hit the tongue, it is followed by the oyster, which, depending upon the type used, can add a little brininess.  As you finish the shooter, you get the spring onion and cilantro, as well as some of the heat from the serrano pepper.  It is the embodiment of the perfect combination of complementary and contrasting flavors.

I have actually made this recipe a few times before posting it.  I have to admit that, each time, I cheated.   The recipe calls for a dozen oysters, shucked.  The process of shucking oysters, which I have done countless times in the past, can take some time to complete.  My beautiful Angel, Clare, found a very convenient workaround: buying a container of pre-shucked oysters from North Carolina.  Although I cannot remember the specific type of oyster, it is most likely Crassostrea Virginica, the common Atlantic oyster, which is prevalent in the waters around North Carolina.  The pre-shucked oysters reduce the prep work, making this a very easy recipe to enjoy after a long day at work. 

Recipe by Andrew Hebert
Serves 2-4 (or 1 Chef Bolek)

1 cup tomato juice
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 serrano chile, seeds removed, minced
Juice and zest of 1 lime
Juice and zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 lemon 
1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon of finely grated garlic
Pinch of salt
12 oysters, shucked
1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the tomato juice, ketchup, serrano chile, all of the citrus juice and zest, ginger, garlic and salt.  Mix well and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.  When ready to serve, pour about 2 tablespoons of the tomato mixture into each shot glass.  Add a shucked oyster to each glass.  Garnish with a pinch of scallions and cilantro.  Finish with a drizzle of olive oil.  Serve very cold. 


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Barrel Aged Butcher and Brewer

It has been more than a year since I did a beer or wine review.  The reason is simple.  I was posting fewer and fewer recipes due to the lack of time that I had to write the posts.  I was also cooking less for a period of time, but I was still having a beer or a glass of wine.  I did not want Chef Bolek to become a beer or wine blog.  So, I decided to hold off on any further beer or wine reviews until I started cooking more and started posting more.  

Well, I am cooking more, but not posting more.  Nevertheless, I realized that a total hiatus of beer and wine reviews may not be a good thing.  This is particularly true when it comes to beers or wines I may never find again. i come across some beers and wine by happenstance.  One of those beers was the Big Belgo Bourbon Stout from Butcher and Brewer.

I was in Cleveland for a while about a year ago when I was in a local grocery store that just happens to have a large beer selection.  While I was perusing the beers, I came across one bottle of one beer that stuck out.  It was sandwiched between multiple selections from other breweries.  Just one beer.  For one brewer.  And it was a brewer that I had never heard of before. 

For those who know me, the name is something that naturally caught my attention.  Butcher and Brewer.  It is a local restaurant, market and brewery located in downtown Cleveland.  Its menu offers a range of cured meats and cheeses, along with small and big plates.  As for the beers, the Cleveland Brewing Company provides the brews, which run the gamut of styles.

The Big Belgo Bourbon Stout is a "Belgian-Russian" Imperial Stout that is aged in bourbon barrels.  I am not quite sure what is a "Belgian-Russian" Imperial Stout.  While the Belgians brew a variety of dark strong ales, I am not sure there is a history of Belgians brewing Russian Imperial Stouts (as that style originated in England). 

Nevertheless, this Belgo Bourbon Stout makes one forget about history and classification.The beer pours a pitch black, as one would expect a Russian Imperial Stout.  A thin foam builds up and quickly recedes to reveal the beautiful blackness beneath.  The aromatic elements of the beer feature the bourbon up front.  The mellow tones of the bourbon greet the nostrils, followed by a slight oak of the barrels and a little of the yeast.  As for the taste, it is first and foremost bourbon whisky.  The bourbon is such the star that it shines over the other elements, such as the yeast and malts.  Those back-up elements are there.  A slight note of coffee or chocolate lingers in the background.   I would have liked to have tasted a little more of the malt, but it could not make its way out of the bourbon.  

Overall, this is a very good beer. As it turns out, this is not the first Belgo-Russian Imperial Stout that I have tried.  (I previously reviewed an offering from Stone.)  While I have grown to like the taste of bourbon in a stout, the strong bourbon presence makes this a definite sipping beer.  One that can be enjoyed while writing a review about it.  The beer definitely makes me want to return to Cleveland, and, check out the Butcher and Brewer in person.  If the beer is this good, I can only think of how good the charcuterie could be....