October 29, 2010

Moroccan Food Beyond Couscous: Sweet But Not a Dessert

When Mehdi announced that his mother and a friend of hers are visiting from Morocco my first thought was - woohoo, I am going to cook with the ladies! After my trip to Morocco  earlier this year I can't stop thinking of the delicate flavors I've religiously indulged and elaborate cooking I've witnessed in the country. A chance to experience both this time coming to me was not to be missed.

Cooking Moroccan

My first trip to Morocco was conceived as an outcome of a beautiful dinner at a Moroccan restaurant in Moscow that could not be spoiled even by the lousy date. I can hardly remember the guy and all the nonsense he was pouring on me but I will never forget the tender aubergines married with spices in such a delicate way that the flavor unleashed onto my palate slowly, revealing its facets one by one. Before that dinner I thought of oriental spices in the Indian terms of reference - hot and sharp they jump on you and with the first bite you know the taste that will stay with you throughout the meal. However the use of spices in the Moroccan cuisine is different: they are subtle, luring, sometimes even deceiving. Your first bite may offer a savory hint of turmeric but your next one will bring the sweetness of cinnamon and will leave you wondering and wanting more to find out what exactly you are eating. But you should not try very hard to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's when it comes to Moroccan cuisine - leave some room for a puzzle and then you can get to appreciate that, for instance, Moroccan sweet dishes can be served as a main course or that cinnamon is not a strictly dessert spice.  

I believe there is more to the flavors of the Moroccan dishes than just marring the ingredients and spices though. The action in a Moroccan kitchen is truly elaborate and it is the attention, care and even a sacrifice involved in the cooking that produce the ultimate taste. Think of the energy that people pass with the food they make: there must be a remarkable difference between an adventurous take on the instant couscous we do in the West and the couscous that has been nursed for a good few hours at a Moroccan kitchen. Mehdi is recalling the times when he was a kid and their mothers used to get together to cook and turn one tasty dish after another. I think this tradition is rather impressive. In the age of useless spending and consuming it should be very useful to remind ourselves that, on the contrary to what the glossies and TV commercials tell us, women can derive pleasure not only from pouring money on something that will be thrown away next season but also from producing something.. something as delicious and eternal as those aromas and tastes. I found cooking side by side with Moroccan women very important to get the feel of the real Moroccan cuisine and food culture. Moreover, as they hardly use any measures in their cooking and rather rely on textures, looks and smells  of the food you need to be there to observe, comprehend and well ... record some recipes if you aspire to reproduce those culinary miracles on your own later on.

Seffa Recipe
This modest sweet vermicelli dish combines the merits of a satiating main dish, exciting dessert and a festive treat.
Ingredients (6 servings):
500 g vermicelli
2 tbsp olive oil
200 g almonds, peeled and fried
cinnamon, as needed
sugar powder, as needed

  1. Prepare the almonds. Put the almonds into the boiling water for a few minutes, drain and then keep under the cold running water to cool. Remove the skin by holding an almond between thumb and forefinger - as you will squeeze the almond the skin will slide off. Once they are peeled fry almonds without oil for a few minutes and then ground to powder in a food processor.
  2. Steam the vermicelli: Prepare the couscoussier; as an alternative you may use a cooking pot and a metal colander that will be placed on top of it and covered with a lid.  Seal the joint between the two parts of the couscoussier (or a cooking pot and colander) with a piece of aluminum foil or a cotton cloth dipped into the mixture of flour and water. Put water in the lower bowl and put  vermicelli in the upper part; cover with the lid and steam for 10-15 minutes. Take the  couscoussier off the heat: transfer the vermicelli into the lower bowl and immediately drain - this trick speeds up the steaming. Transfer the vermicelli into a large bowl, add a glass of lukewarm water and use your hands to gently go through the vermicelli to separate them - continue for a few minutes till the vermicelli are crumbly. Change the water in the bottom part of the couscousier and steam the vermicelli for another 20-25 minutes.
  3. Prepare to serve: Put the vermicelli in a large bowl and flatten on the top. Make the cinnamon net: drizzle the cinnamon  in such a way to make parallel lines 4-5 sm apart, then make another set of  parallel lines crossing the first ones. Put some sugar powder in the middle of the resulting diamonds and then put a generous serving of ground almonds over the sugar powder. Traditionally seffa is served with a glass of milk and eaten with a fork from a common dish.
Cooking Moroccan

Briouats with Rice and Sesame Recipe
Deep-dried pastries with rice and sesame seeds are a wonderful tea-time snack and a side dish to your meal.

Cooking Moroccan
Ingredients (6 servings):
500 g rice
3 tbsp butter
7 tbsp sugar
salt to taste
2 tbsp cinnamon
2 tbsp flour
150 g sesame seeds
philo dough (check out here how to make it from the scratch)
vegetable oil for deep frying
cinnamon and sugar powder for serving

  1. Boil the rice: Put rice in the boiling water and let it intensely boil uncovered for 15 minutes. Drain the rice and put it back on fire. Add butter, sugar, cinnamon and salt and keep stirring until the butter melts and all the ingredients mix in well. Cover and set aside.
  2. Prepare the sesame seeds: Fry sesame seeds for 5-7 minutes without oil continuously stirring until 1/3 of the seeds gets brown. Pour them out on a tray, spread out and ground to powder in a food processor. Mix into the rice mixture.
  3. Cooking Moroccan
  4.  Make the little parcels: Mix flour with water until the drinking yogurt-like texture.  This will be the sealing liquid for the pastries. Cut the filo dough into the 5x25 sm stripes. Take one stripe and put 1 tbsp of rice mixture to the end closer to you.  Fold in about 1 sm of the dough from the both long sides. Now start wrapping by pulling the right corner of the dough stripe over  the rice - you will get your first triangle. Now with the fingers of your right hand slightly press the the upper side of your triangle. With the pointing finger of your left hand slightly press the apex of the triangle and using your thumbs bend the dough so that the base of your triangle gets exactly over the right side of the dough stripe. Continue in this fashion to the top of the dough stripe and seal the last bend with the mixture of the flour and water. 
  5. Fry the pastries: Deep fry in vegetable oil; place the fried pastries on a  plate with a paper towel to remove the excess grease.
  6. Final touch: Serve hot drizzled with a mix of cinnamon and sugar powder.

5 Responses to Moroccan Food Beyond Couscous: Sweet But Not a Dessert:

daphne said...

it's interesting. The presentation looks good YUM! you make me hungry. Your recipe looks good, so inviting(drool)

Unknown said...

These both look delicious. I will definitely be trying them.

Olga Tikhonova said...

thank you so very much, ladies.

Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets said...

What a completely new and fascinating treat to me. Love the lovely pattern of the cinnamon.

Olga Tikhonova said...

Xiaolu,thanks! In fact you can go really wild with styling this vermicelli dish - you can pile it in a small hill and make stars, swirls and what now with the ground cinnamon)

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