EVENT: The Rents Woke Up One Day and Decided to be Social
VENUE: Phoebe’s Parents’ Apartment, Upper West Side
PARTY SIZE: 8
TYPE: Sunday Supper, Moroccan Feast
MENU: Carrot Salad with Orange Flower Water; Fish Tagine with Chermoula, Preserved Lemon, and Mint; Haricot Vert; Couscous; Assorted Tarts
The summer after my senior year of college, my mother’s graduation gift brought me to Morocco. She was returning to the country for the first time in 15 years—30 since she lived in Marrakech during her period of quarter-life adventures. Though she knew the country and customs better than the guidebooks, I was a little wary of the two weeks we’d be traveling together. For one, she planned the trip start to finish, which, for a (paradoxically) fly by-the-seat-of-your-pants control freak like myself, was difficult to cope with. During my four years away from the nest, I did my fair share of solo traveling, and it made me realize more that I’d rather experience a country by eating $1 dollar street meat than by starting off my days in a plush hotel dining room.
Luckily, my mother was more or less on the same page—though we began the trip in a gorgeous Riad in Fez (where I spent most of my time battling food poisoning), we stayed with her friend’s in Tangier and rented a small apartment in Essouira, where we attempted to make a Moroccan-spiced bouillabaisse with the local seafood. We took a cooking class, wandered through the souks, and though I was able to buy four poufs for my living room at half price (after an epic haggle with a deaf-mute vendor), my mother’s Moroccan Arabic, complete with expressions for “get away from me, you pig,” was a vital asset to our tall blonde tag team.
More importantly, there was a lot of eating, and during these meals, a lot of stories.
Back in 1979, I learned, Morocco wasn’t as hospitable to women living or traveling alone. When my mother arrived, she acquired a Fatima (house-keeper), a young divorced woman who had been shunned by her family in their small village. As her feminist tale goes, my mother saved Naima from the provincial, repressive values of her mining town and brought her to the big city of Marrakech, an initial experience that was likened to walking through Times Square for the first time.
The two women became more than employer-employee; a special ceremony was performed to make them blood sisters (the details of which are a whole other story), so they looked out for one another. I’m not sure what this entailed for my mother, but I do know that for Naima this meant tracking down decent seafood to cook for her Fishatarian friend in a more or less landlocked city, lined with freshly slaughtered lamb and goat carcasses. Though her own frustration and cravings mounted (as mine occasionally do when I spend too much time in Cara’s veggie kitchen), Fatima was able to come up with innovative solutions in the small kitchen they shared, and with the help of nothing more than a hot plate and a dull knife, whipped up some of my mother’s favorites to this day: sardine kefta (meatballs), and fish chermoula tagine.
Though she looked no heavier in pictures, my mother claims that she was never better fed than the one year she spent in Marrakech. I can guess this was partially due to the large portions of these main dishes (easily feeding ten), and the lack of refrigerator in which to store the leftovers. But it also can be attributed to the robust spice combinations and flavors that made me plow through bread basket after bread basket, soaking up every last drop of rich sauce on my plate.
A few weeks back, my parents got a new dining room table and decided to start things off on the right foot by actually using it. The news was shocking enough to warrant my attendance. To feed their eight friends, my mother decided to reinvent Naima’s fish tagine. Though there was not a pescaterian amongst them, the rich tomato stew won over the crowd, leaving hardly any leftovers to store in the luxury of our modern refrigerator.
Though the evening’s stories mostly took place on this continent, and didn’t involve the details of how one becomes “blood sisters,” when I recreate the memories of Morocco in my kitchen (with or without meat), I can’t help but sit on my pouf and tell the tales of our trip, the gift we experienced together.
From my kitchen, where you can experience a meatless Morocco, to yours,
Phoebe, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Carrot Salad with Orange Flower Water
Makes 8 amuse-bouche servings
1 lb carrots, peeled and finely grated on a microplane
1 lemon, juice only
4 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tbsp orange flower water
1 tbsp white vinegar
Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, then leave to marinate for at least 45 minutes in the refrigerator.
Taste and adjust seasoning as desired, then serve either chilled or at room temperature.
Fish Tagine with Chermoula, Preserved Lemon, and Mint
Makes 8-10 servings
My mother used our teacher Lahcen’s technique of grating the onions so they thicken the sauce. If you want to cut some additional corners with this recipe, use a prepared chermoula spice blend from the same place where I order preserved lemons: http://www.zamourispices.com/
4 lb flaky white fish, such as cod, haddock, or Mahi Mahi
2 large Vidalia onion, grated
2 preserved lemons, finely chopped
1 28 oz can diced plum tomatoes with their juice
1 ½ cups fish stock or water
1 ½ cups dry white wine
2 cups mint leaves, finely chopped
1 cup green olives
For the marinade, “Chermoula:”
5 garlic cloves
2 cups cilantro
4 tsp ground cumin
1/3 – 1/2 cup olive oil
2 lemons, juiced
1 tbsp salt
Pinch saffron threads (optional)
1 small red chile pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
In a small food processor, combine all ingredients for the chermoula. Reserve ¼ cup of the mixture, and combine the rest with the fish fillets in a mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 -2 hours.
my mother, slaving away in her best not-so-Moroccan couture
Meanwhile, heat 3 or so tablespoons (enough to coat the bottom of the pot) in a large Dutch oven or casserole dish over a medium flame. Sauté the onion and carrots until softened. Add the reserved chermoula, preserved lemon, and tomatoes. Gently simmer for ten minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add the stock, wine, and olives, and bring the mixture to a boil. Cover the tagine, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for an additional 10-15 minutes.
When the fish has finished marinating, add it to the pot, and cook covered for 6-8 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Stir in half the mint, and garnish with the remaining leaves.
Serve with couscous, haricot vert, and lots of crusty bread.