Review: Morocco: A Culinary Journey

Editor’s note: Linda Avery returns with a review about the cuisine of Morocco from an author who spent 10 years traversing the country  in search of dishes beyond the classics. 

Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes from the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora

by Jeff Koehler
photos by Jeff Koehler

Facts: Chronicle Books, 224 pages, $29.95 (or Amazon $19.77)
Photos: 125
Recipes: 79
Give To: cooks with deep spice pantries; travel-loving foodies; cookbook collectors

Moroccan flavor combinations appeal to me – it’s the sweet and savory combo that we love. Consider herbs and spices of cinnamon, fenugreek, cumin, zaâtar, laurel, cilantro, marjoram; meats combined with dried fruits; couscous, and dates. I never met a tagine I didn’t like.

I’ve had a dream for years about going to cooking school in Morocco. Marrakech sounds the most exotic, but then I read Fès has the most sophisticated cooking and ingredients are abundant.

Jeff Koehler traveled throughout Morocco for ten years while writing his book Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes from the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora in a quest for “getting beyond the classic dishes.”

He had this to say about Marrakech:

“…character and appetite emerge as dusk falls and hundreds of stalls assemble on Djemaa el Fna among snake charmers, acrobats, and drummers, storytellers, henna painters, and healers from the Sahara hawking ancient aphrodisiac concoctions.”

How can Marrakech be missed? (But I’m still looking at Fès for the local cooking school).

The book opens with the country’s culinary history noting the influences of the Berbers, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, and Europeans. He then devotes 14 pages to the Moroccan Pantry giving extensive explanations of ingredients including flavor profile, where it is found, how it is used, different varieties and if it is locally known by another name. For example Couscous = Moroccan kuskus and Berber sksou.

Recipes I’d like to try: Layered Berber Flatbread, and (savory) phyllo pastries, Harira, (rich tomato soup), all of the recipes in the Street Food chapter like Grilled Spicy Kefta Brochettes and Potato Fritters. Salad recipes are both fresh and cooked: Cucumbers in Sweet Marinade with Oregano, Spicy Eggplant with Tomato and Garlic.

Moving on… tagines are numerous and they aren’t difficult: chicken, veal, kefta meatball, monkfish, lamb (okay, you may have a problem finding kid legs for the dish from the Rif Mountains). Preserved lemons (introduced to most of us by Paula Wolfert) are present in a chicken tagine with olives. Koehler explains why a tagine is important but allows for substituting a Dutch oven or flameproof casserole dish.

With so many sweet components in their meals, it’s no surprise that Moroccans love dessert from Sweet Couscous to Walnut Cookies to Stewed Sweet Spiced Pears and exotic drinks.

Koehler introduces us to the Moroccan expression “ainek misanek” which all experienced cooks know, no matter what the language. It translates to “your eye will be your measure”. It is the answer to “how much” “how long” or “how many”. It allows for differences in spice potency, stovetop heat, absorption of water by different flours, etc. Of course, ainek misanek!

Remember that you can look inside the book at Amazon. (Here’s the Kindle version).

It’s hard to believe that we’re facing fall and winter squash but this salad will provide for a pleasant transition while you’re still grilling outdoors.

Chilled Sweet Butternut Squash Salad with Cinnamon

Serves 4

Photo © Jeff Koehler

This chilled, cooked salad goes particularly well with grilled meats, especially Grilled Spicy Kefta Brochettes and Grilled Marinated Chicken Brochettes. When cleaning the squash, be sure to scrape away all the stringy fibers and, when cutting, try to keep the cubes about the same size to ensure even cooking.

2 pounds (910 g) butternut squash, acorn squash, pumpkin, or another firm-fleshed, hardskinned squash
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup (60 g) sugar
2 pinches salt
1/2 teaspoon orange flower water or rose water
Ground cinnamon for dusting
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
4 thin orange slices, halved, for garnishing

1. Cut the rind from the squash with a heavy, sharp knife, and scoop out the seeds. Cut the flesh into 1/2- to 3/4-inch (12-mm to 2-cm) cubes.

2. In a large skillet or sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the squash, sugar, and salt and cook, stirring from time to time, for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the orange flower water, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the squash is tender but not mushy, about 10 minutes.

3. Transfer to a serving bowl and let cool. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

4. Just before serving, lightly dust with cinnamon, sprinkle with the sesame seeds, and garnish with the orange slices.

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