If life is a quest for something, my search is, temporarily, at rest. My insatiable sweet tooth found nirvana recently in a much anticipated two-week hiking trip to Morocco. There, I savored the enticing union of sweet, sour and savory. I was hooked.
Dishes were enriched with caramelized onion. Pairings included lamb with prunes, squash and candied carrots, fish smothered in onion jam. One stew appealing to my love of citrus featured chicken, dates and yams braised in orange juice and onion. The sweet and fragrant intensity of Morocco's beverage of hospitality, mint tea, can make teeth ache.
Moroccan food traces its roots in Berber, Moorish and Arabic cuisines. And Persia (now Iran) takes kudos for the sweet/savory matchmaking. Meals enjoyed in Casablanca, Rabat, Fes and Marrakech included picnics, hotel breakfasts and hostel lunches. I snacked on meatball sandwiches, juicy skewers of lamb and hard-boiled eggs dipped in a blend of cumin and salt. My hankering for sweets was satisfied with dates, figs, clementines and sesame-covered, honey-roasted peanuts.
The sweet-savory connection in Moroccan food appeals to me because of my upbringing. No meal in our Detroit kitchen was complete without dessert. Mint jelly accompanied anything lamb, and corn syrup disguised as applesauce rode side-saddle with pork. Mom's favorite food group was sugar.
My introduction to North Africa's aromatic spices and sweet-savory alchemy came in the late '70s when, as a food writer for a Detroit newspaper, I was assigned to cover a Moroccan food class in Ann Arbor, Mich. Esteemed Moroccan food specialist Paula Wolfert held us captive with unheard of (well, to me) combinations of ingredients such as lamb with raisins and almonds, beef with grilled peppers and tomato jam, and a chicken pie that had nothing in common with Betty Crocker's.
Called basteeya, it was composed of shredded, cooked chicken, curdled eggs, ground nuts and spices sandwiched between layers of phyllo, then crowned with a dusting of cinnamon, powdered sugar and almonds. That mind-bending union — sweet, sour, savory — rattled my brain. I drove home in a blizzard, then spent twilight hours pricing round-trip fares from Detroit to Marrakech. That travel wish finally was realized this year.
This cuisine canonizes warm spices, nuts and seeds. Protein competes with the abundance of fruits and vegetables. Vegetarians have no fear of starving. Dozens of condiments, including stewed fruits, savory jams, vegetable relishes and confits, enhance most meals, even breakfast. I never missed one.
Fresh fruits, juices and omelets were staples at our campsites, in hostels and hotel restaurants. An addictive pancake, the spongy baghrir, greedily absorbed (pick one or more) honey, butter, citron-banana jam, fig confit, date relish, and a paste of ground almonds moistened with olive oil and orange zest.
The couscous meals I anticipated before my trip were in the minority. Savory stews, called tagines, were the entree of choice. (The term also refers to the two-piece earthenware vessel with a conical top that cooks use for braising and serving).
The tagine's arrival begs attention. In the lounge of a Berber hostel, a trio of cooks presented chicken tagines to the diners, and raised the conical lids with the swiftness and aplomb of a symphony conductor wielding a baton. I was knocked out by the aromas.
The memory of Wolfert's basteeya tasted decades ago propelled my fascination with Morocco. It appeared at my final meal in Marrakech. But it was a dessert version, called milk basteeya. Layers of phyllo sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon, rose water and powdered sugar arrived on a tray, intact, until a waiter poured warm milk over the assembly, then crushed it with a blow from a wooden spoon. My jaw dropped, but I did manage two helpings.
Morocco teased and taunted my brain and sweet tooth. That country is now reinstated on my travel bucket list. Sorry, Tasmania.
Tagine of kefta with lemons and spices
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 35 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
A memorable lunch at Restaurant Laanibra in Fes featured lamb kefta (meatballs) poached in a lemon broth, and served with mountains of chewy bread. Such simplicity is easily reproduced at home in this recipe by British food writer Ghillie Basan from her "Recipes From a Moroccan Kitchen" (Aquamarine, $14.99). If you don't own a tagine, use a heavy skillet with a lid.
1 pound ground lamb
3 onions, grated
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
1 ounce fresh ginger, peeled, finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
1 hot chili, seeded, finely chopped
Pinch of saffron threads
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 1/4 cups water
1 lemon, quartered
1. Knead ground lamb with 1 cup of the grated onion and the parsley, cinnamon, cumin and cayenne pepper. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste; mix until well blended. Shape mixture into individual balls, the size of walnuts. (It will yield about 24 pieces.)
2. Melt butter in a heavy lidded skillet; add remaining grated onion and the ginger, chili and saffron. Cook, stirring frequently, until onion turns color; add cilantro and lemon juice.
3. Add water; season with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste; heat to a boil. Add meatballs; reduce heat to a simmer and cover pan. Poach, turning meatballs occasionally, 20 minutes.
4. Add lemon quarters; cook, uncovered, to reduce liquid, 10 minutes. Serve hot.
Nutrition information per serving: 357 calories, 24 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 98 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 22 g protein, 680 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Meatballs (or kefta) are beloved by Moroccans. Gussied up in long-simmered braises or threaded on skewers and grilled for a fast bite, kefta defies categories.
These hand-shaped patties or cigar shapes or balls consist of seasoned ground meat (usually lamb, beef or a combination) that can be poached, pan-fried or grilled. Hawked as snacks, find them wrapped in chewy flatbreads (called kersa), or partnered with grapes, peppers or tomatoes. Waiters serve them, braised, in earthenware pots, called tagines. Stuff them with salad and olives into minibaguettes for a lunch on the run.
Casablanca-born chef and restaurateur Mourad Lahlou, of Aziza Restaurant in San Francisco, insists kefta is a "must have" in the culinary repertoire of any bachelor. They're a snap to make and welcome improvisation. The basic meat mixture can also be used as stuffing for baked vegetables. One of his kefta tagine recipes uses a cumin-scented tomato sauce as a braising medium.
I drool over the memory of a lunch in Rabat that featured a kefta tagine with quince. The cinnamon-scented ground meat mixture was stuffed into quince halves, then poached in a stock with preserved lemons, glazed onions, carrots and raisins. The sour of citrus cut the onions' sweetness.
Tagine, the stew, is usually served as the midday meal. It is always preceded by an array of salads, raw and cooked. Copious amounts of breads, used as utensils and sauce sponges, are passed throughout. The arrival of mint tea and platters of fresh and dried fruits announce the meal's finale.
If you don't own a tagine, use a heavy skillet with a lid. Additions to this recipe include caramelized onions, plumped raisins, chopped dates (or any dried fruit). Garnishes range from toasted sesame seeds, pine nuts, and almonds to quarters of hard-cooked eggs.