El Ras Hanout, A Caravan of Spices

Ras El Hanout

Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and cloves
Coriander, cumin, cardamom and turmeric

Ginger ground to a fine powder
Peppers, both black and cayenne

Paprika of the sweet or smoked variety
And the ubiquitous sugar and salt

Collected hither and yon
A Moroccan offering to delight your palette

1 New Recipe a Week: Week 7 (aka Painted Fish)

Fresh seafood was a staple on our dining table as I was growing up in Hawaii.  On weekend mornings, we’d go to the beach, catch fish and gather limu (seaweed) and, if we were lucky, find an octopus or two or some panapana (sea urchin in Ilocano).  These items would be simply prepared, sometimes steamed with ginger, sometimes fried to a wonderful crispiness, many variations of seafood stews, or sometimes eaten raw (like the sea urchin) and limu. 

I like my fish unadulterated. I want to taste the ocean that they breathed and the seaweed that nurtured them. Whenever I go back to Hawaii, I eat poke, a popular raw fish dish in Hawaii that has a variety of preparation methods.  Ingredients might include fish, shrimp and octopus, and might be flavored with seaweed, green onions, kukui nut, sea salt, chili water, even kimchee seasoning.  The main thing is that the fish flavor is enhanced, not smothered.

The few glazed fish dishes I have eaten in restaurants were either over-cooked or over-sauced.  It was as if someone covered dark, rich koa or cherry wood with a thick paint.  Quite disrespectful!

In the interest of trying a new recipe, however, I set out to look for a glaze that might help me be more open-minded.  I found a wonderfully simple recipe from America’s Test Kitchen (yet again!) that had only three ingredients to add to the salmon.  Now that is simple.

In fact, it was too simple, so I decided I needed to stretch a little and bake a peach  cobbler from a recipe I found in an August 2005 Martha Stewart’s Living magazine. The peach filling is tasty with just a touch of ginger, but it is the taste and texture of the topping that renders this dessert a lavish end to a simple meal.


The preparation time for this meal was 40 minutes, which is the time it takes to cook basmati rice in a rice cooker.  The actual time for the preparation of the maple-soy glazed salmon was about 2 0minutes, including the gathering of ingredients and cutting a side of salmon into fillets.

I simmered a 1/2 cup of maple syrup and 1/4 cup soy sauce for a few minutes until the mixture was the texture of syrup.  I baked six salmon fillets, skin side down, at 450 degrees for about three minutes then basted each piece with the glaze.  I baked it about three more minutes adding a little more glaze at the end.

I then sprinkled chopped up green onions and toasted sesame seeds on the top and the dish was ready.  It was served with rice and a mixed green salad with ginger tofu dressing. 


p.s.  In my quest for a balanced meal, I rounded off this healthy fare with . . .


1 New Recipe a Week: Week 6 (aka Chicken Canzanese)

When I was five years old, I accompanied Papa (my grandpa) to the open market on Maunakea Street in Honolulu.  These were special trips, and we ignored bins of fresh vegetables, meat hanging on hooks and colorful fish piled on ice on our way to a small shop lined with cages.    I was entertained by live chickens, brown and white birds, proudly clucking and strutting.  Grandpa examined each cage and eventually picked two or three.  The shopkeeper tied the chicken’s feet and wrapped each bird tightly in white butcher paper. I was allowed to sit in the back seat to watch them as they lay still on their sides, heads sticking out, eyes blinking and occasionally a cluck.

At home, Mama placed a large metal bucket about two feet wide and one foot high on the kitchen floor.  As she poured boiling water into the bucket, Papa deftly broke the chickens’ necks, cut off their heads, and we proceeded to remove feathers after the chickens were placed in the water.  On those weekends, our extended family had fried chicken and various chicken soups and stews.  Every part of the chicken, including the necks, feet and some of the innards, were used. 

Because I was willing (eager actually) to help in the process, especially in the pulling of the feathers, I was allowed first pick at the chicken pieces.  Inevitably, I selected pieces with the most skin.  The wings, drumsticks and thighs were mine for the asking.  Today I still choose dark meat pieces – on Thanksgiving, in a KFC bucket, at a potluck.  I often replace chicken thighs for breasts when I cook. 

I was therefore delighted to find a recipe on americastestkitchen.com specifically designed to optimize dark meat attributes.  The host of America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), Christopher Kimball, explained that the collagen in dark meat turns into gel and absorbs a lot of liquid.  The tendency of white meat, on the other hand, is to lose water and dry out during the cooking process.


This is an Italian braised dish that uses common pantry items.  I dried and  peppered nine pieces of chicken thighs and set that aside while I prepared the braising sauce. 

To oil that was shimmering hot, I added about three ounces of prosciutto that was cut about 1/2 inch thick and diced into 1/4 inch cubes.  After cooking this until it was lightly browned, I added four garlic cloves that were sliced lengthwise. As I set it aside, I wanted to make sure that it would be okay, and tasted a couple of pieces of prosciutto.  It was “okay” (excellent!).

Next, I upped the temperature, added a little more olive oil and set the chicken in, skin side down. Although the written recipe called for skinning the thighs, the video noted that the crisping of the skin is part of the tastiness of this dish. Of course I kept the skin on!

I removed the chicken after about five minutes on each side, then reduced the oil to a couple of tablespoons.  I added two cups of Mondavi chardonnay and a cup of chicken broth and while it simmered that for a few minutes, I scraped the chicken crusted at the bottom to get every bit into the sauce.  I added four cloves, two bay leaves, twelve sage leaves and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes.  I stripped a four-inch stem of rosemary of its leaves, added the stem to the sauce and chopped up the leaves to use at the end.  I then nestled the chicken, skin side up, into this liquid and stuck the pan into the 325 degree oven.  

I prepared two simple side dishes that would complement the strong flavors of chicken canzanese. Al dente gemilli pasta sprinkled with fresh parsley and topped with chopped fresh tomatoes was light and perfect for soaking up the sauce. Steamed fresh asparagus rounded off the palate with its distinct flavor.

After about an hour and 15 minutes, I removed the pan from the oven and placed the chicken in its serving dish.  I discarded all the leaves, simmered the sauce until it reduced to a little over a cup,  and added the chopped up rosemary leaves, a tablespoon of lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of butter.  I poured the sauce over the chicken and it was ready to serve.


Note: Many thanks to America’s Test Kitchen for their videos.  While their written recipes are clear and instructional, their videos bring the cooking process to life and even someone like me can replicate their dishes.

1 New Recipe a Week: Week 5 (aka Morrocan Cornucopia of Spices)

The exotic engages our senses while evoking images. For some, the exotic might be the wispy scent of jasmine tea being poured by a procelain-skinned woman wearing a kimono.  For others, it might be floating in warm Pacific waters as the tropical sun descends towards the horizon and fronds of tall coconut trees flutter in aloha. It doesn’t matter whether these exotic images actually exist. What matters is that these distant lands and cultures beckon us and allow us to dream, to hope, to imagine, to appreciate. 

For me, the exotic is the fragrance of spices in temporary tents around an isolated oasis or in a cacophonous bazaar where one can haggle for roasted chicken on a spit or the coveted mace and saffron.  Far off places like Marrakech, Casablanca, Fez  – where travelers in caravans pause for a night of lamb stew, rest, and perhaps a tale or two. 

For Week 5, I harkened back to this exotic scene and found recipes at morrocanfood.about.com that promised to arouse these images – if only for a night.


Ras El Hanout is a mixture of several ground spices that are staple in many Moroccan dishes.  Its literal translation from Arabic is “head of the shop,” implying that it is the best.    

I used a recipe that combined 13 spices. Most were in my pantry, though some rarely used. I bought a few in bulk at Central Market, the most intriguing of which was mace, which sold at $45.95 a pound. Mace is the bright red, lacy covering of the nutmeg seed shell. While its sweet fragrance is similar to nutmeg, its bouquet is stronger, more intense. I bought the exact two teaspoons I needed for the mixture.

I poured the following into a large glass jar and shook it well:

  • 2 teaspoons each of ground ginger, ground cardamom and ground mace
  • 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, ground allspice, ground coriander seeds, ground nutmeg and turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of ground black pepper, ground white pepper, ground cayenne pepper and ground anise seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves

As I transferred the Ras El Hanout into a spice jar, I was as careful as if I were handling gold dust.


Just saying this is exotic.  M’rouzia is a lamb dish with raisins, almond and honey.  It is traditionally prepared in the days following Eid Al Adha, or “Festival of Sacrifice,” a major Islāmic holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to obey God when he envisioned that he was to sacrifice his son.

I used three pieces of lamb shank, which yielded about three pounds of meat.  The Central Market butcher was kind to remove the bone and cut the meat into stew-sized pieces (I later boiled the bones for our dogs and kept its broth for uses I have yet to figure out).  The meat was rich in color and texture, plump, interwoven with fat, sinew and tendon.

I soaked a 1/2 cup of golden raisins in water.  In my favorite Le Creuset pot, I mixed the meat with grated onions, pressed garlic, two cinnamon sticks, two tablespoons each of Ras El Hanout and ground ginger,  a 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, salt, ground pepper, 2 cinnamon sticks, crumbled saffron and 1/2 cup butter.  I cooked this on medium high heat for about 15 minutes. 

I added water to cover the meat and simmered this wonderfully fragrant brew for a couple of hours.  I then added the raisins, honey, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a 1/2 cup of blanched slivered almonds.  This simmered for an additional 30 minutes, as the liquid became thick and syrupy.  The meat became tender chunks that came apart when prodded with a fork.


I prepared a Moroccan rice dish that featured saffron, the fragile stigma of the saffron crocus plant.  In addition to adding a golden color to dishes, it imparts a woody and slightly bitter taste. 

I’m accustomed to preparing rice in a rice cooker.  This dish was cooked in a large skillet.  While I heated four cups of chicken broth in a saucepan, I mixed white long grain rice with two tablespoons each of butter and olive oil, a chopped onion, two finely chopped garlic cloves, and two cinnamon sticks.  To this I added 1/2 teaspoon each of ground ginger, white pepper, cumin and turmeric.  For vegetables, I used a yellow bell pepper and a zucchini, both chopped into small chunks, and a handful of cilantro. 

This rice mixture was cooked on medium heat for 10 minutes, during which I had to stir frequently to keep everything from sticking.  I then added the heated broth and some saffron, stirred it once, and let it simmer for about 25 minutes.


By the time the cooking was done, I imagined our house smelled like a Marrakech souk (traditional marketplace).   

Of course, this meal would not be complete without the company of fellow sojourners, and we were fortunate to have dear friends, originally from England, dine with us.  We shared stories over m’rouzia and rice pilaf, finishing off iced mint tea at almost midnight. 

Our friends left amid promises of more meals and tales to share.  Our paths shall cross again soon.

1 New Recipe A Week: Week 4 (aka Viva la Salpicón!)

Until I lived in Texas, my experience with Mexican food was very limited.  I ate a lot of bean burritos (no onions) from Taco Bell across the street from my office.  The only Mexican food I made at home was tacos using McCormick dry mix, prepared corn tortillas and bottled picante sauce.  Not proud of this; just stating the facts.

I’ve had great Mexican food in Texas, and two are my favorite.  One is the brisket taco from Mi Cocina; it goes great with a marguerita on the rocks.  The other is any food from a taquería.  Taquerías remind me of lunch wagons back in Hawaii.  The food is home-cooked, authentic and basic, plus it always hits the spot.

The 2009 Texas issue of Saveur Magazine quoted the owner of Casa Jurado restaurant saying, “We don’t eat Tex-Mex here. . . No combo plates.”  The article intrigued me and I decided that new recipe #4 is that of this El Paso restaurant owner – salpicón, a shredded beef salad with lime and avocado.  It was described as “pure, fresh-tasting food.” I hoped it was also easy.


Sangria ala Ricardo

As I was planning the meal, Richard offered to concoct a sangria, a new addition to our drink menu.  He researched various recipes and came up his own original recipe:

  • a bottle of dry Spanish red wine  
  • 1/2 cup cointreau
  • 1 1/2 cups of fresh squeezed orange juice
  • 3 tablespoons of powdered sugar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1/4 cup of Roses lime juice
  • 1 lime thinly sliced
  • 1 lemon thinly sliced
  • 2 fresh peaches cut in 1/2 inch cubes

He refrigerated it in the morning and its fragrance was quite heady whenever I opened the fridge.  I was tempted to take a sip before dinner . . . but didn’t even stick in my pinkie for a tiny taste (applause).


The recipe called for two pounds of beef brisket, which is from the breast or lower chest of the cow. This is a very muscular cut; it has a lot of connective tissue  because it supports 60 percent of the weight of a standing or moving cow.  Thus, it needs a long cooking time to tenderize. 

I simmered the meat with two smashed garlic cloves, two bay leaves and a large sliced onion.  At about 2.5 hours, I was concerned that the beef didn’t seem to be getting any softer.  I prodded it a lot.  At about three hours, it started to come apart, and I let it simmer for 15 more minutes for good measure.

After it cooled, I shredded the meat and prepared the additional ingredients that included cubed Jack cheese, three Roma tomatoes that were cored and seeded, chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice, scallions,  and chopped chipotle chiles en adobo. 

The latter is a new addition to our pantry.  In my Filipino culture, adobo is a term we use for chicken and pork that’s been cooked in various ingredients, the primary of which is vinegar.  Spanish adobo is different.  It refers to the immersion of raw food, in this case, chipotle chiles, in stock and spices.  It was originally used as a process to preserve without refrigeration and enhance flavors.  The chipotle chile en adobo has a wonderfully smokey flavor and I added more than the tablespoon called for in the recipe.

The result is a dish that truly tantalizes the palette.  The different flavors complement each other, and because of the chunkiness of the ingredients, one is obligated to take several bites to savor the fullness of flavors.

We served this on warm corn tortillas and the sweet headiness of the sangria ala ricardo rounded off the meal quite impressively. 




p.s.  The peaches in the sangria must be eaten!