The centerpiece of Moroccan cooking

She cooks up a Moroccan spread for a lucky Squirrel Hill couple -- and the rest of us


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Do you ever wonder what you are worth? I found out last month. When my friend Susan asked me to make a donation to the annual combined fundraiser for The Pittsburgh Camerata and the Renaissance and Baroque Society, I said, "Sure thing." But instead of writing a check, I donated my expertise as a culinary coach. At the fundraiser, I was auctioned off in a bidding war.

I'm worth $200.

The menu

Spiced Labneh, Pickled Vegetables, Hummus, Torn Pita Bread

"Tangier-ine" Orange Salad with

Radicchio and Olives

Lamb and Apricot Tagine with Couscous

or Chicken Tagine with Sweet Potatoes

and Prunes

French Baguette

Sweet Mint Tea

Mediterranean Sweets, Sesame Cookies, Baklava, Turkish Delight

When the winners, Tony and Marge DeArdo of Squirrel Hill, contacted me to set up a time and date, I explained the deal. "This is a coaching/cooking session," I said. "The idea is for you to learn something new and challenging and to employ it by hosting a dinner for four or six. We'll meet at your place in advance, talk about preferences and decide on a menu. As a follow-up, I'll send you recipes and a shopping list. Later, I will come to your kitchen and coach/demonstrate the skills you'll need for the dishes. But you will do the actual chopping, cooking, plating and serving. My role? Sit on a stool, coach and make wisecracks."

"Marge wants to make a tagine," Tony said.

A tagine? That's too easy. It's a North African braised dish, Moroccan with French over- and undertones. Even so, I've never been to Morocco. I have no Moroccan friends or connections. I have zero authenticity to bring to the party. I stalled and countered:

"Would you consider instead a bread lesson, or a pastry lesson, or maybe you'd like to learn to make pasta instead as the centerpiece of your dinner?"

"Marge wants to make a tagine," Tony repeated.

Settles that.

Dang, I thought. I'll have to go to school on this one. And to pull it off, I'll have to go heavy on smoke, mirrors and tongue-in-cheek. To get into the mood, I cued up "Casablanca" on Netflix. The script delivers a lode of familiar one-liners.

Tagine

A tagine is the centerpiece of Moroccan cooking. It is an intensely-flavored stew that is cooked in a vessel of the same name. To put a finer point on it, any combination of ingredients, however disparate, is called a tagine if cooked in a tagine. Finer still, it's just a braise.

Where to shop

Salem's Market and Grill: 2923 Penn Ave., Strip District

412-235-7828

Najat's Cuisine: Pittsburgh Public Market, 2401 Penn Ave., Strip District or

1500 Electric Ave., North Braddock

najatscuisine.webs.com; 412-823-2214

The bottom half of a tagine is a shallow earthenware casserole dish. The top half, a tall conical lid, functions to capture moisture from the slowly cooking food, where it condenses and falls back in, keeping the food moist while forming a flavorful sauce.

North Africa's indigenous ingredients marry beautifully to make this style of cooking distinctive. Lamb is the iconic meat, although chicken, turkey, seafood or all vegetables can be used. The stews blend savory and sweet flavors, and most tagines are thick with figs, raisins, apricots or dates, along with plenty of sweet stewed onions. The hallmarks of the cuisine are exotic fragrance and flavor, most often from cinnamon, saffron, garlic, honey and cumin. Preserved lemons are frequently used, and almonds and sometimes walnuts add crunch and contrast.

Couscous is the co-star in any Moroccan meal, and it also has a double meaning. In keeping with its deja vu syllables, couscous is both the name of many finished dishes and the grains that are their basic common ingredient. The tiny grains usually are pellets of wheat or semolina (though they may be corn, barley or groats) that are moistened with water and oil, dried and then steamed. Couscous can be eaten alone, like pasta, or sweetened and served as dessert, but usually it is served with lots of other ingredients piled on. It is the perfect base for any tagine, the soft grains sopping up the wonderful flavors of the sauce. Gluten-free substitutions for couscous would be rice (basmati or jasmine) or quinoa.

The rest of a Moroccan meal might be made up of broad strokes with strong French accents. Appetizers could include bowls of pickled vegetables, seasoned yogurt and hummus and torn pita bread. A modern take on a classic Moroccan salad combines sweet citrus pinwheels of oranges, clementines, tangerines and blood oranges with cured black olives, shaved red onion, maroon radicchio chiffonade and crunchy fried rosemary.

Most Moroccan pastries are based on honey and almonds, and for dessert, no fewer than five kinds might be presented on a tray -- sweet almond cookies, pistachio pastries and iconic baklava. Tea, liberally sweetened with sugar and flavored with mint, is North Africa's most popular drink. It is usually served in narrow glasses, but anyone with good aim might try the Moroccan approach: A practiced server raises his teapot above the shoulder and pours an arc of tea into glasses at waist level. Confidence and showmanship contribute to success. Practice in the bathtub, and all will be fine ("Knock on wood").

Let's get practical

Here's how we planned, shopped and prepared to stage the DeArdo's Moroccan-themed dinner party for six, which is to happen this Saturday. I think "it's the start of a beautiful friendship."

No, you do not need to own a tagine to make a tagine. Diehards and sticklers for detail can buy a genuine terra-cotta beauty online or at Salem's Market and Grill on Penn Avenue in the Strip District for about $25. The design is dramatic and beautiful. But a certain husband of mine reminds me that our townhouse has no storage to accommodate such an odd shape and size. I don't own one.

Yes, you can substitute an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven for the tagine. "You must remember this," we're just dealing with a braised dish. A Dutch oven works fine.

No, don't plan to eat the meal with the fingers and torn bread as is customary in Morocco. To that, your guests might say, "I'm shocked! Shocked!" This is Pittsburgh, and rather than hear "Ouch, eeuww, oops," use flatware and pass the pita or baguette.

Yes, invite adventurous pals. Just "round up the usual suspects."

No, we won't eat at low tables, leaning against embroidered pillows, even though that's customary, too. Guests will amass arthritic joints and need body replacements. The dining room table, please.

Yes, you can serve alcohol. Morocco is a "dry country," but non-Muslim ex-pats wouldn't think of doing without a cocktail and wine. Post-Gazette wine writer Elizabeth Downer was in Paris ("We'll always have Paris") when I queried her, but she emailed suggestions. "Wine is easy. It's hard to make a mistake with a tagine, so it is more a question of price and availability," she said. "I suggest a Douro red from Portugal, which I like with apricots, or a cru Beaujolais from Louis Jadot (although a gamay grape has a strong resemblance to Burgundy) with either a lamb or chicken tagine. With the latter, I can see an off-dry Riesling. Beaume de Venice would be nice with cookies and baklava."

Back of the house

First, hit the markets.

At Salem's Market and Grill in the Strip, buy halal local lamb and chickens, Turkish delight candies, medjool dates and bags of cinnamon sticks. Look for Moroccan olive oil and boxes of mint tea. On the restaurant side of the building, buy a variety of cookies and desserts including baklava. And while you're there, sample the authentic savory stews and other dishes as take-out or eat-in.

At the Pittsburgh Public Market farther down on Penn Avenue, visit Najat's Cuisine stall. Najat and her husband, Henry, make superb hummus in lots of varieties, along with baba ghanouj, meat- and spinach pies and very good pita bread. Her sesame cookies, pistachio and other pastries are superb.

Couscous is sold by the four-serving-size box in most grocery stores, and prep time is a mere five minutes. For best results, buy plain, or original, couscous and reconstitute it with chicken broth.

Almost everything but the orange salad can, and should, be made in advance. "As time goes by," you'll see how easy this dinner is to pull together.

Front of the house

Now comes the smoke-and-mirrors part of the dinner. No way will this Pittsburgh party ever be authentic. But you can stay in character.

The TV: Cue up "Casablanca" with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The dialogue is memorable.

The soundtrack: Find authentic Moroccan music and play, maybe, "Berber" Streisand. Even La Marseillaise.

The library: Sign out a copy of "The Arabian Nights." Display prominently. If you have an atlas, open it to a map of North Africa. You'll use it more than you might think.

Snacks: Set out bowls of medjool dates and almonds for snacking. Fill a basket with oversize cinnamon sticks for aroma.

The table: A Mediterranean-blue cloth would be the perfect hue. Before dinner, scatter red rose petals down the center. For props, use North African decorative tiles, brass trays or handcrafted boxes.

Attire: The hostess might wear a caftan with sandals. The host should at least answer the door wearing a trench coat and a Bogart black-felt fedora. Chesterfield dangling from lip, optional.

The toast: What else? "Here's looking at you, Kid."

Lamb and Apricot Tagine

Like most braised dishes, this is a good keeper. You can make it a day or two ahead, and, when it's cool, cover it well and keep it in the fridge. Be sure to add the toasted almonds when you reheat the tagine for serving. Same for the last dusting of cilantro. I used expensive, but superb, whole Spanish Valencia almonds instead of California sliced almonds.

The recipe comes from Francoise Maloberti, a home cook much respected by cookbook author Dorie Greenspan, who says, "Like many Moroccan tagines, this one is aigre-doux or sour-sweet and studded with fruit -- here, plumped dried apricots."

2 cups chicken broth, homemade or Progresso brand, preferred

1/4 pound moist, plump dried apricots, Turkish preferred

About 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

About 2½ pounds boneless lamb shoulder, fat removed, cut into 11/2 inch cubes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

4 medium onions, coarsely chopped

4 large garlic cloves, split, germ removed, and finely chopped

14½-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained

1 to 2 small dried chile peppers

1 tablespoon coriander seeds, cracked

2 pinches of saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

About 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

Couscous or rice, optional

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Bring chicken broth to a boil, then pour it into a bowl. Add the apricots to the bowl and let them soak and plump while you prepare the rest of the tagine.

Put the base of a tagine, a high-sided heavy skillet or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat and pour in 3 tablespoons of the oil. Pat the pieces of lamb dry between paper towels, then drop them into the hot oil (don't crowd the pan; work in batches if necessary) and brown on all sides, about 4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, lift the meat out of the pan and onto a plate. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Pour out the fat in the pan, leaving whatever bits may have stuck.

Return the pan to the stove, reduce the heat to low, and add 2 more tablespoons olive oil. When the oil is warm, stir in the onions and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, just to get them started on the road to softening. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes, adding a little more oil if needed.

Drain the apricots and add the chicken broth to the pan, along with the chile(s), coriander, saffron (crush it with between your fingers as you sprinkle it in), ginger, cumin, cinnamon and 2 tablespoons of the cilantro. Stir to mix and dissolve the spices, then season with salt and pepper. Spoon the meat and any juices on the plate over the vegetables and top with the apricots. Cover the pan with aluminum foil to seal, clap on the lid, and slide it into the oven.

Bake the tagine for 1 hour. Carefully lift the lid and foil and scatter the almonds over the meat. Re-cover the pan and bake the tagine for 15 minutes more. As an alternate move, save the almonds to sprinkle over the tagine at serving time.

If you cooked the braise in a tagine, sprinkle the remaining 2 tablespoons cilantro over the meat, bring the tagine to the table, and serve directly from the pan. If you used a skillet or Dutch oven, transfer the tagine to a warm, large serving platter and dust with cilantro. Serve with couscous or rice, if you like. Makes 4 servings, depending on the menu.

-- "Around My French Table" by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, $40)

Spiced Yogurt Dip

As part of an appetizer presentation that includes hummus and baba ghanouj, this amount will be enough for 4 to 6 servings.

Whisk 1 cup labneh (Lebanese strained yogurt), 11/2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper and 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice in a medium bowl to combine; season with salt and black pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and top with more Aleppo pepper. Makes 1 cup.

-- Bon Appetit Magazine

Lazy Bones Tagine for Two

Solo diners can play this game, too. Buy a package of Moroccan Tagine Simmer Sauce. I found mine at Whole Foods Market for $2.29. Likely other supermarkets will carry a similar product.

Olive oil

2 whole chicken legs

Salt and pepper

1 large onion, sliced

6 prunes or apricots

1 package Moroccan Tagine Simmer Sauce

Heat a little olive oil in a heavy skillet or smallest stove-top-safe casserole dish. Add the chicken legs and brown on both sides. Remove them to a plate. Season on both sides with salt and pepper. Add onions to the pan and stir to coat with oil. Then add 1/4 cup water to the onions, bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and allow the onions to stew for 15 minutes or so. Top the soft onions with the chicken and their juices, toss in the dry fruit. Add as much of the simmer sauce as you like (you may not need it all). Add a lid and simmer, covered for about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve with couscous and a salad.

Serves 2.

-- Marlene Parrish

Chicken Tagine with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes

Because of the sweet potatoes, you really don't have to serve anything else with the tagine -- it's a real one-pot meal. But then there's all that good juice. I served this once with plain couscous, another time with quinoa, as sides. I used the 12 prunes called for as well as some dried cherries and a handful of jarred chestnuts aging in the fridge since the holidays; both were good additions. The dish comes together so quickly, you can easily make it for a weekday meal.

About 1/4 cup olive oil.

2 large white onions, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon water

Salt

8 chicken thighs with skin, patted dry, at room temperature

Freshly ground pepper

2 large pinches of saffron threads

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of cayenne

1 star anise point, optional

1 small bay leaf

2 tablespoons honey

1 cup chicken broth

12 pitted prunes

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into even wedges

Toasted chopped walnuts, for serving

Pour 2 tablespoons of the oil into the base of a large tagine or a Dutch oven and warm over low heat. Add the onions, stirring to coat them with oil, then mix in 1 tablespoon of the water, season with salt, and cover the pot. Cook the onions gently for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft but not colored.

Meanwhile, brown the chicken. Heat a tablespoon or two of oil in a large skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Slip the chicken into the pan, skin side down. Don't crowd the pan -- if it isn't large enough, work in batches. Cook the chicken for about 4 minutes on a side, or until golden. Transfer the chicken to a plate and season with salt and pepper.

When the onions are softened, add the saffron, crushing it between your fingers as you sprinkle it in, the rest of the spices, the bay leaf, honey, broth and the remaining 1/2 cup of water, and stir to blend. Scatter the prunes over the mixture, then top with the chicken pieces, skin side up. Strew the potato pieces over the chicken and bring the liquid to a boil. Adjust the heat so that the broth simmers gently but steadily, cover and cook for a bout 45 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes are tender. Wait until you hit the 45-minute mark before lifting the lid -- the tagine should burble away undisturbed.

Taste the pan juices, and if you'd like to concentrate the flavors, remove the chicken and vegetables to a serving bowl, cover and keep warm. Boil the liquid for a few minutes, keeping in mind that this is really a jus, not a sauce, and it's meant to be thin. If you removed the chicken and accompaniments, pour the jus over them; if everything is still in the tagine or casserole, you can leave them there for serving.

In either case, taste for salt and pepper, scatter over the chopped walnuts and serve. The dish reheats well the next day. Makes 4 to 6 servings, depending on the menu.

-- "Around my French Table" by Dorie Greenspan ( (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, $40)

"Tangier-ine" Orange Salad

Paula Wolfert devotes an entire section to orange salads in her book "Couscous and Other Good Food from Moroccco." She writes, "Oranges and olives are one of those miracle combinations, like lamb and garlic." My pal Virginia Phillips served this gorgeous salad to a chorus of oooos and ahhhs. Serve on a large platter to show off the polka dot pattern of the chilled citrus pinwheels. Chiffonade of maroon radicchio leaves and fried rosemary add to the colorful drama.

3 tangerines

3 naval oranges

3 blood oranges

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

5 or 6 radicchio leaves, thinly sliced crosswise (chiffonade)

12 seedless cured black olives (dry, not brined)

Olive oil, Moroccan preferred

Freshly cracked pepper

Fried rosemary branches, optional

Remove the peel and slice the citrus crosswise into pinwheels. Arrange on a large platter. Scatter sliced red onion, radicchio and black olives over the top. At serving time, drizzle with olive oil, and a few grinds of black pepper. Garnish with several whole radicchio leaves and a few branches of fried rosemary. Makes enough for 6 servings.

To make fried rosemary: Pour vegetable oil into a very small skillet or saucepan to a depth of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Heat the oil to 350 degrees, although I usually just guess. Add a few branches of dry rosemary to the oil and fry until crisp and bright green, about 15 seconds. Transfer to a paper-towel lined plate, and season lightly with kosher salt. Crumble some of the leaves over the salad, reserve a few branches to garnish the salad.

-- Bon Appetit Magazine

 


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