Back in May, I transported us from our subdued Brussels neighborhood in its final days of lock-down to the chaotic, twisting alleys of the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech while embarking on a Quarantine Kitchen menu inspired by Morocco. During our October 2019 visit to Morocco, we couldn’t get enough of the delicious food and abundant hospitality. Memories of which are effortlessly recalled on a hot day when cravings for a fresh orange juice materialize or I spot mint tea on a menu and wonder how many bubbles would be poured into my cup (more being a sign of hospitality extended by the host to their guest).
I can still taste the savory soups, fresh salads, succulent tangia, simple but sweet pastries, and refreshing smoothies we sampled on our Secret Food Tour in Marrakech. Our guide, Warda, was open and sincere as we discussed Moroccan and American cultures over the several hours and courses together. I won’t soon forget our final dinner of chicken pastilla and lamb tagine in Casablanca. I ended the meal by practicing the proper pouring of mint tea, pot held above my head to create as many bubbles as possible, so I could master this act of welcoming guests. It’s these recollections and others of vibrant colors, unfamiliar smells, and infinite commotion that I find are interwoven with the sentiments of tradition, community, and generosity experienced when people come together to share in a meal in Morocco.
Back in Brussels seven months later, I was preparing to embark on a Moroccan Quarantine Kitchen, but a bit concerned that an apt menu might be too challenging or foreign to me to successfully carry out. Did I really need to learn how to create a “complex” Moroccan dish if I could dine out at a Moroccan restaurant and thus save myself the trouble of trying and potentially failing. Could I make a meal that I would feel comfortable sharing with guests, as meals are intended to be enjoyed in this welcoming culture.
It didn’t take long for me to recognize that my excuses, rooted in doing what is comfortable and familiar to me, were barely justifiable given the wealth of free recipes and resources provided by helpful chefs – amateur and pro – who are more than willing to share their knowledge with those “brave” enough to browse the internet in search of inspiration. Recreating the immersive cultural experiences from our time in Marrakech and Casablanca would be a near impossible task, but I am pleased to report that learning to cook lamb tagine and bake briouat pastries is not!
It was hard to deny fate when the very day I committed to making a Moroccan meal I came across a recipe for tagine in a “What to Cook This Week” email from the NYT Cooking newsletter I had been subscribed to by my mom in the midst of lock down. Having never cooked a tagine and still struggling to recall the difference between tagine and tangia, I consulted the comments section of the recipe, grateful for the encouraging notes and useful suggestions. For my dessert, I found generous help and a passion for making Moroccan cuisine accessible from Nargisse and her blog, My Moroccan Food.
A tagine or tajine (French) is a North African Maghreb dish; it refers to both the pot with its cone-shaped lid and the stew cooked inside it. The particular shape of the clay cookware makes it suitable for trapping steam and in turn creating a tender meat while it’s cooked over a fire or in an oven. Tagine can in fact be made with or without meat, but should include vegetables, spices, oil, and stock or water cooked in/over heat for a few hours. It’s a versatile dish, and fortunately for me, I was assured by fellow cooks that my cast iron skillet was a capable replacement for the traditional tool.
Dried apricots, onions, ginger, cinnamon, and a whole host of other spices were simmered with the lamb meat before it was cooked in the oven for almost three hours. I topped mine with cinnamon seasoned and toasted almond slices, adding coriander on top before serving with flat bread. The result was so much better than I expected from my inexperienced hands and I savored each bite of the tender lamb meat and rich sauce while reminiscing on my final meal of lamb tagine in Casablanca.
But what’s a Moroccan meal without dessert! As Warda explained to Dan and me, traditional Moroccan desserts are those that anyone can make at home with ordinary ingredients. This distinguishes them from some of the more intricate delicacies you would find in a Parisian patisserie or Budapestian cukrászda (pastry shop). It was time to put this assertion and my pastry skills to the test with my creation of a sweet and sticky treat.
Made with filo dough, triangular or cylindrical shaped briouat pastries can be made with a savory or sweet filling. I was especially drawn to the combination of sweet and nutty suggested in Nargisse’s recipe for Pistachio and Hazelnut Briouates. As such, the filling of my briouates consisted of nuts, spices, and sugar all blended together in a food processor and then mixed with softened butter. For quality control purposes, I sampled the mixture before assembly and debated simply eating the luscious nut paste by the spoonful rather than wrapping dollops of it in the filo pastry.
Having folded the filo dough to form triangles, I eagerly watched as the pastries turned golden and crunchy in the oven. Immediately upon removal, I carefully immersed each in a pot of simmering honey before setting them aside to impatiently await their cooling. The recipe called for orange blossom water to be mixed with the honey, but as I couldn’t locate this, I mixed a little Moroccan orange juice into the honey instead. I can attest that this did in no way detract from the deliciousness of these desserts. My desire to devour them as fast as possible was only stymied by the hot filling that burned my mouth upon my first bite and the sticky honey that covered my teeth. I’ll be adding these to the category of desserts I will most definitely be making again!
Concluding another successful Quarantine Kitchen menu, I reflect on having learned, and hopefully conveyed herein, that foreign cuisine does not have to be so foreign. Having now made both Moroccan tagine and French coq au vin, I identified surprising similarities between the two dishes, which is actually not all that surprising given the countries’ shared history resulting from French colonial rule in Morocco. This intertwining of cultures in the food we enjoy is of course found across the world and is evidence that cooking reflects how we evolve as a society, incorporating new ideas with traditions to adapt and innovate.