Writing my post a week ago about Moroccan Meatballs and remembering my first visit to Marrakesh got me in the mood for more Moroccan food and so tonight’s supper was all about the taste and flavours and wonderful memories of that exciting country. I was last in Marrakesh in 2008 staying in a beautiful riad in the heart of the medina, only a short walk from Place Jemaa el-Fna, a huge square and now UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the hub of Marrakesh life: the enticing smells of spices and food being cooked in small open-air restaurants huddled together in one part of the square; snake charmers and other entertainers trying to encourage you to part with a few dirhams; and in the distance, the majestic snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
From the square you can follow alleyways into the souks, often walking behind people wearing their long jellabas and leading donkeys carrying loads – the only form of transport that can make its way through the narrow streets. It’s rather biblical and immediately you know you are in a completely different world: the sounds, the smells, the earthy colours, the crowds and the individual stalls selling spices, jewellery, leather goods, scarves and many things; and of course at set times of the day the calling to prayer that sounds loudly across the city – a sound I love even though I’m not Muslim. The souks are divided into areas by what they sell, so you head for the ‘spice souk’ or the ‘carpet souk’. It’s a maze and easy to get lost. On our first day, Tina and I had to pay a boy to lead us back to the Jemaa el-Fna so that we could find our own way back to our hotel.
On one of our days we’d arranged a cookery lesson with Mohammed Nahir via La Maison Arabe. Mohammed in an English Professor at Marrakesh University but is passionate about food so also teaches cookery. We had a great morning preparing food that we would later eat as lunch and learning lots about Moroccan food and cooking. Mohammed also told us the best place to buy spices and we had quite an adventure the next day seeking out the right stall. Shopping in the souks is about negotiation; everything you buy has to be haggled over. It can be wearing to those of us accustomed to never having to question a price in the local supermarket – or even in the local farmers’ market. But it’s also fun and by the end of our stay I’d learned how to do it; what price to expect to pay for certain things and thus got better prices than those I’d paid on the first day. As we made our way through the spice souk, it seemed everyone wanted to convince us they were the man we were looking for. But eventually we found Ben Ali Tidraine and watched as he collected together all the ingredients for Ras El Hanout – a kind of Moroccan Garam Masala – to grind it freshly for us; a wonderful way of bringing some taste of Morocco back home.
Tonight I made a Tomato & Sweet Pepper Salad for a starter, a Beef Tagine with Prunes & Almonds and finally some Poached Pears with Marsala & Cinnamon, which aren’t really Moroccan but nevertheless made a very nice ending to the meal. When I made the salad with Mohammed, we cooked the tomato down into almost a paste but I fancied something fresher today so skinned the tomatoes but didn’t cook them – which is also a Moroccan way of doing this popular salad. I pretty much followed Mohammed’s recipe for the tagine.
Tomato & Sweet Pepper Salad
Take a couple of sweet peppers – I had one red and one yellow – and (very carefully!) char over a flame on the hob till blackening; put in a plastic freezer bag and leave for a few minutes, then the skin should easily peel off the peppers. (If you don’t have a gas hob, you can grill them.) Slice and lay on a plate. Skin about 4 medium tomatoes and slice; add to the peppers. Thinly slice some red onion and add. Make a dressing from olive oil, lemon juice, ground cumin and salt and pepper. Dress the salad just before serving and scatter over a little freshly chopped coriander.
Beef Tagine with Prunes & Almonds
I asked Matt in the butcher’s for a pound and a half of stewing steak – I still can’t think metric when I’m buying meat in this way. But he was very obliging and asked me if I was planning to cook it slowly for a long time and what size pieces I’d like him to cut it into. This is about the right amount for 4 people – Jonathan was coming to supper but I fancied being able to also freeze a couple of portions.
Put the following spices into a bowl: 1 level teaspoon salt, 1 level teaspoon ground black pepper, 1 level teaspoon ground ginger, 1 heaped teaspoon turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon Ras El Hanout (now available in most supermarkets), 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon powder, 1 small piece cinnamon stick, pinch of saffron, a tied bouquet of fresh parsley and coriander. Mix all round; add the meat pieces and coat well. Then leave to marinate in the spices – preferably for a few hours or overnight, but at least an hour or two.
Add the meat and spices to a tagine if you have one. The tagine is actually the cooking pot (photo above) but if you don’t have one, a shallow pan with a lid will do nicely. Sprinkle a finely chopped small red onion over the meat, add 4 tablespoons of olive oil, 4 tablespoon of water, and then turn on the heat and gently seal the meat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. (In Moroccan cooking you don’t seal the meat over a high heat to caramelise it as you do for European meat dishes; it should all be very gentle.) Then, pour in enough water to cover the meat and leave to simmer very gently for an hour an a half or two hours – until the meat is very tender. About half an hour before the end, add 12 soft prunes and stir. Then, when the meat is ready, add a little sugar, honey or maple syrup to caramelise and bring out the sweet flavour of the meat and cook for just another 5 minutes (I added a couple of tablespoons of maple syrup – but add to your own taste; add a little, taste, and a little more if you want). Just before serving, brown some whole blanched almonds in a little butter in a frying pan. Scatter over the tagine with a little parsley just before serving. Serve with buttery couscous and a green salad.
Poached Pears with Marsala & Cinnamon
While this is really an Italian recipe, I thought it went well with the rest of this Moroccan meal, especially with the cinnamon stick flavouring the syrup.
Carefully peel a couple of ripe pears – though not too ripe as you don’t want them to fall apart. Put 100g caster sugar in a pan with 125ml Marsala wine, 125ml water, 1 stick cinnamon and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then turn down to a simmer and add the pears. Pop a lid on the saucepan and leave them to cook gently for about half an hour (till cooked through), turning them about halfway through as they probably won’t be completely covered in the syrup. Serve with some Greek yogurt for a nice sharp but creamy contrast to the sweet pears. The syrup has a lovely pear flavour and this is a delightful but easy dessert.