Tagine de Vivre

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 I was first introduced to Moroccan food at the age of twenty-two at the Paris Mosque; the enormous mosque on the left bank of the Seine, across the street from the Jardin Des Plantes. Built in the twenties, in gratitude to the colonial Muslim Tiraillers, or skirmishers, who fought and died for France during World War I. You can drink mint tea in its courtyard while looking up at its tall white minaret, or go inside for chicken pastilla or a very decent lamb tagine.

In later years, cooking my way through Claudia Roden and reading Tahir Shah’s excellent The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca, Moroccan food became one of my cooking obsessions. Its distinct sense of place, its ability to sensually transport you, its vibrant colors and heady cooking aromas, all conspire to make it one of my all time favorites. And no food better encapsulates the vivid tang of North Africa’s finest cuisine than the preserved lemon.

Now, in Eden, before the fall of man, all lemons were preserved lemons. It seems a shame to chop them up and toss them into wilted spinach; their bright yellow peels look more suited to draping the bare shoulders of goddesses in baroque paintings. But that’s the secret to Moroccan food: it brings ambrosia down from Olympus and mixes it with more mortal victuals. Saffron, preserved lemon, orange blossom water, or the aphrodisiacal ras el hanout, lie down on the earth beside bread, meat, vegetables, and grains

The recipes below are inspired by or adapted from Claudia Roden’s The New Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Moorish Lamb Loins

2 lamb loins

¼ cup olive oil

1 tablespoon Andalusian sweet paprika.

1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint.

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper (about seven turns of the pepper grinder)

1 teaspoon cooking fat

1 small zip lock bag

1. Combine olive oil, fresh mint, paprika, cinnamon, allspice, salt, and pepper in a bowl and mix. Put these ingredients into your zip lock, along with the lamb loins. Shake the bag, making sure the lamb is completely coated, and place it in the refrigerator for two hours.

2.) Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat your cooking fat in a cast iron skillet. Just before it begins to sizzle, put in your meat. Cook a few minutes on all sides, creating a good sear. When finished, pop your skillet in the oven for five to ten minutes, until a meat thermometer inserted reads 130 degrees.

Aromatic Couscous

1 cup couscous

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Seeds from 2 cardamom pods, crushed in a mortar and pestle

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons raw unsalted pistachios

1 tablespoon raisins

1. Bring 1-cup water and salt to a boil, remove from heat, add oil and couscous and stir. Let sit five to ten minutes so the couscous can expand.

2. While couscous is expanding, place raisins in water and allow them to plump.

3. Add butter, nuts, cardamom seeds, and raisins to couscous, fluff with a fork and serve.

Sautéed Spinach with Preserved Lemon

1 lb spinach

½ preserved lemon

½ teaspoon ground chili pepper

Salt and pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons salt

  1. In a large pan, like a wok, sauté the garlic over medium heat until golden. Add spinach and cook over low heat until the spinach is a wilted mass.
  2. Add other ingredients and continue cooking a few minutes before serving.

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Preserved Lemons

4 organic lemons, well scrubbed, with thick skins

4 tablespoons salt

Juice of ten lemons

  1. Cut lemons into quarter. Don’t cut them straight through, leave them attached at their stems. Rub salt into lemons, place in a sterilized jar and press them down with your fist until they are a sloppy yellow mess. Cover the jar and leave for three days.
  2. After three days add enough lemon juice to totally cover the lemons. Uncovered lemons grow a mold and it’s definitely not the delicious kind. Seriously add lots and lots of lemon juice.
  3. Leave the jar tightly covered in a cool, dark place for one month.
  4. When ready to serve rinse off the salt and scrape out the pulp.

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Photo credit: dbtelford / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA\

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