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
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.
RICE PILAF WITH SAFFRON
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.