24 April 2014

Harira in the Style of Oran

Hello from America, dear readers! I confess, I have been traveling like crazy these days, and while I want to write a long post about our Morocco adventures or give you all a great spring recipe with cardoons, I've been stuck on planes and trains and airports. (Speaking of travelogues, I want to do a site redesign over the summer when I have a bit of time off, and I want to start including some travel guides or write-ups with a Middle Eastern bent to them. Would that be of interest to you readers? Where to find good amlou in Morocco or fresh anchovies in Istanbul? Let me know in the comments.) In the meantime, today we're going to talk harira!

Harira is the traditional soup served in North Africa to break the fast during Ramadan. It is also just a stand-by soup, a delicious, reliable, and cheap option for dining in Morocco and Algeria. Traditionally, harira is a tomato-based soup, with a little bit of meat and some onions, legumes, and herbs. Harira is a soup that is very much about the broth, richly flavored from the bones used to make the soup.

I'd read on several Algerian cooking blogs (great resources for my culinary research, not to mention linguistic FrArabic oddities), about the harira from Oran. Oran (wahran, in the Arabic spelling), Algeria's second largest city, is on the coast close to Morocco. It was home to Camus and often pops up in American tales about WWII, as a base of the North African front.

Anyway, harira in the style of Oran is unique for its golden color, imparted by luxurious saffron. The sunny hue also comes from the vegetables used (usually carrots, sometimes pumpkin) as well as tomato paste. You see the Moroccan influence in the spices of the soup, warm with ginger, cumin, and paprika.
 In researching the harira, I found several recipes that called for thickening the harira soup with levain (bread starter), a very old technique for thickening a soup. Other recipes called for thickening the soup with dchicha, a generic term for grits, like wheat, barley or freekah grits. Several versions called for a bit of lentils to thicken the soup, which I liked the best. The red lentils also preserve the color of the soup.

This soup is made the way most hariras are made, cooking the vegetable-broth mixture and pureeing it, then adding back in the chickpeas, herbs, and meat. This version is vegetarian (in all honesty, most harira has so little meat it's practically vegetarian anyway). The soup is brothy, cheerful in color, and you always brighten it at the end with some good doses of lemon juice.

About harira spoons: I got these harira spoons from the kindest old man in the souq in Marrakech. Harira spoons are carved by hand from a single piece of lemon tree wood. When the lemon tree branches become old and stop producing fruit, they are trimmed and used for spoons and small spice servers. They cost about 50 cents a piece in the souq.
Harira in the Style of Oran (Harira Wahrani)
You can play around with different orange-colored vegetables here, try substituting squash for the carrots and turnips. I originally thought about including a yellow bell pepper (pictured above) but changed my mind at the last minute, though I imagine its sweetness would go nicely with the ginger. 

1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 medium-sized carrots, chopped
2 small turnips, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons red lentils
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon ras al hanout spice mix (if available)
salt, black pepper
saffron, if available
1 bouquet of cilantro
a few pieces of parsley
6 cups rich chicken or beef broth, plus more for thinning the soup
2 cups cooked chickpeas
3 lemons

1. Heat some olive oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, translucent, and starting to caramelize in places. Add in the garlic and ginger and let cook a few minutes, until fragrant. Add in the tomato paste and let toast for a minute. Stir in the carrots and turnips and stir everything around the coat. Add in 1 teaspoon of salt, the cumin, paprika, ras al hanout, a few cracks of black pepper, and a few threads of saffron, crumbled. Stir everything around to coat and let cook a few minutes, until the spice are fragrant.
2. Add in the broth. The liquid should just cover the vegetables. If it doesn't, add water until you have enough liquid. Cover the pot and let simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, chop your bouquet of cilantro and the parsley. Set aside several pinches of cilantro to use as garnish. Juice two of the lemons. Chop the 3rd lemon into wedges and set aside to serve with the soup.
4. Puree the soup. If you don't have an immersion blender, don't forget to let the soup cool before blending. The soup should be brothy and not too thick (it's soup, not potage or puree). Adjust the thickness of the soup with any reserved broth or water.
5. Return the soup pot to the heat and add the cilantro/parsley, the chickpeas, and another large pinch of salt. Let the soup simmer for another 10-15 minutes. Add the lemon juice, stir to combine and taste for seasoning.
6. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish with the cilantro and, if available, a few crushed saffron threads. Serve with the lemon wedges and good bread.

18 April 2014

Artichokes with Oranges and Preserved Lemon

Like fennel and oranges, artichokes and oranges are one of the traditional North African pairings that is so classic you've probably come across it before (even if you didn't know its provenance). I've written about it before, and I find it is one of those pairings I turn to again and again. It bridges the funny pre-spring, post-winter season, the last of the oranges, the first of the artichokes.

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I learned this particular recipe in Fez, and quickly recreated it when we got home, obviously a good indicator of how much we enjoyed it the first time. Originally it was done with sweet large navel oranges, but this time I used some blood oranges intended for juicing. (Algerians take their oranges seriously, there are those for juicing, those for eating, those for cooking, etc.)

The orange here is quite sweet, but I find the bit of preserved lemon gives it just enough sharpness to prevent it from being cloying. I was trying to do a bit of research regarding the origins of this salad, if it was from a particular part of Morocco, but it seems to be rather ubiquitous. And now that you know how to prep artichokes, maybe it can be ubiquitous in your home too!
Artichokes with Oranges and Preserved Lemon

1 tablespoon butter
1 small sweet white onion, diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
5 large artichokes (or 8-10 small artichokes), prepped
4 navel oranges or 6-8 blood oranges
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 a preserved lemon, rind sliced

1. Slice one navel orange or 2 blood oranges into slices and set aside. Juice the remaining oranges until you have 1 generous cup of juice. Stir in the sugar to the juice and set aside.
2. In a pot melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add in the garlic and stir to combine. Place the artichokes in the pot, turn the heat to low and cover the pot. Let the artichokes steam in the pot for 5 minutes.
3. Add in the juice and the lemon rind. Place the orange slices over top. Cover the pot again and cook for another 15 minutes, checking the pot once or twice, until the artichokes are tender when pierced with a knife.
4. Turn the mixture into a serving dish, arranging the orange slices on top. Serve warm.

15 April 2014

How to Prep an Artichoke

1. Prepare a bowl of acidulated water, this will prevent the artichokes from discoloring.
2. Peel away the lower leaves with your hands until the whole base of the choke is exposed. (Save the leaves, you can steam them and serve them with dip, or use them to make a vegetable stock.)

3. Cut off and discard the top of the artichoke, You want to cut right along where the top of the fleshy choke is, which is usually lower than where you think it is. Knowing where to cut takes a bit of practice, but you'll get the hang of it.

4. Also trim the base stem. If you plan to stuff the artichoke bottoms, you should discard the whole stem. For other artichoke dishes or you can leave about 1-2 inches of the stem on, it is tender and edible.

5. Use your knife to trim away any green spots from the base (underside) of the artichoke bottom. Also peel the outer layer of the stem, if you left the stem on. It doesn't have to be perfect or smooth, but you want to get rid of the green bits some they will be tough.

6. Now, with your knife or a sharp-edged spoon, trim away the inner fuzzy choke. I like to do this part last since it discolors quickly. Again, it doesn't have to be perfect, just trim away the sharp and fuzzy parts of the choke.

7. Place the artichoke in the water and repeat with remaining. 

Artichoke recipes: Artichokes with Meat and Tahini Sauce, Artichokes with Peas and Favas, Artichokes with Oranges, Saffron, Almonds and Olives

01 April 2014

Turkish Tahini Flatbread

We have just returned from two amazing weeks traveling through the Moroccan countryside, and I have SO MANY exciting food things to share with you (and other adventures, like driving through river beds in a crappy rental Peugeot)! But before I can get all my thoughts and pictures organized, we have to talk about this tahini bread that I made before we left.

As you can imagine, and I hope many of you readers share this obsession with me, the phrase "tahini bread" is music to my little ears. I still love this flaky tahini bread I made many years ago. Naturally, when I wanted to make one of the breads from Classical Turkish Cooking, of course I settled on the tahinli recipe. I read over the recipe, where I learned this was not the traditional flaky rolls (tahinli ekmek or tahinli corek) but a tahini flatbread (tahinli katmer).


I am a really strong believer that, when making a recipe you've never made before, you should always read the recipe through thoroughly, preferably twice. But, we don't all always follow our own rules now, do we?? (I certainly hope not, life would be so boring if we did.) So in this case, reading the recipe through meant sort of skimming the one page of dense text. "Yeah, yeah, roll, layer dough with tahini filling, roll, fold, roll. That's it," I thought.

Fast forward to me in my kitchen, staring at the recipe in disbelief, thinking, "wait I have to fold AGAIN?" ... "the dough has to rest AGAIN??" ... and the sudden realization that I had endeavored upon making an item that was akin to making PUFF PASTRY. Now making puff pastry is all fine and good when you actually plan to be making puff pastry. Realizing you're unintentionally half way through making puff pastry on a weekday night when you just wanted to get dinner on the table is another matter altogether. (As my friend says, I need to know if we're going to do the hard workouts at least one day in advance, gotta psyche myself up!)

However, the upside to all this is that the idea of making puff pastry with tahini is pretty darn cool right?! It's not a true puff pastry, but I like the idea of a flaky tahini-embedded dough to use as a crust for a savory pie or tart. It's something I'd like to play with in the future, provided I have some time to psyche myself up for it. In the meantime, these breads are delicious, nutty and rich with tahini. If you plan some extra time to make these, they are quite rewarding.

P.S. Culinary nerd note: In making these I couldn't help notice a similarity in the technique between the Turkish katmer bread and the North African msemmen bread. Perhaps an old Ottoman influence? Then again, layered flaky flatbreads are traditional in many ancient cuisines.


Turkish Tahini Flatbread
The original recipe actually had one additional fold before rolling and cooking the breads, but I've eliminated it because I felt the final fold smooshed out the tahini too much. (Yes, smooshed is a technical term). You want to handle the dough both gently and firmly, like good parenting, to preserve the individual tahini layers.

2 cups all purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold and cut into small pieces
3/4 cup milk

1/2 cup tahini
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
oil or clarified butter for cooking the breads

1. Combine flour and salt in a medium sized bowl. Add in the butter pieces and rub with your fingertips until the butter is distributed like small pebbles in the dough. Make a well in the center of the dough and pour in the milk. Mix in the milk to form a dough, knead the dough for five minutes until it is very smooth. Place the dough in a buttered bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 1 hour.
2. Meanwhile, mix together the tahini and butter, pressing with the back of a spoon until well mixed.
3. Divide the dough into 8 balls and cover with a damp towel, let rest 20 minutes.
4. On a floured work surface, roll out one ball of dough to a 7 or 8 inch circle. Spread some of the tahini-butter mixture over the dough circle and set aside. Roll out another dough circle, place that circle over the first circle, and spread with more tahini mixture. Continue rolling and stacking the dough circles, coating each layer with the tahini mixture, until you have 4 dough lyers stacked (do not coat the fourth dough layer with the tahini mixture). Crimp the edges of the 4-layer dough/tahini stack to seal. Repeat with the next four balls of dough. You will not use up all the tahini mixture. Cover your two stacks with the damp towel and let rest 15-20 minutes.
5. Again working on a floured work surface, take the first dough stack and, working gently at first, roll it out into a wide circle. The dough should be about 1/4 inch thick. Spread with some more tahini mixture and roll up like a jelly roll. Repeat with the second dough round. Cover the two jelly rolls with a damp towel and let rest 15 minutes.
6. Cut each jelly roll into 4 sections, and pinch the edges of each section to seal in the tahini.  On a lightly floured work surface, roll out each section gently until just flat, you should have a medium sized (about 6 inch) square or rectangle.
7. Heat some oil or clarified butter in a skillet or griddle until hot. Cook the breads, about 1 minute each side, until brown blisters appear on the bread and the dough is cooked. Regulate the heat as you work so that the pan is not too hot or too cool. Serve the breads warm.

28 March 2014

Making Oatmeal Cocoa Nib Muffins

I may have a .gif problem. Someone help.

Making the batter for leftover oatmeal muffins:

Find the recipe over at Orangette. I used cocoa nibs and a leftover batch of oat bran cereal -- we prefer oat bran to rolled oats, it's one of our favorite breakfasts. (I know, this house is just FULL of crazy fun! Gettin wild with the oat bran, people. Hold on to your hats!)

Time for muffins!

24 March 2014

Local Ingredient Spotlight

It's time for another edition of local ingredient spotlight! Today, our survey of North African ingredients includes two of my favorites: barley couscous and hmis, a green chile sauce.

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Barley couscous comes in several different varieties, they differ slightly in color (darker or lighter) and size. Barley cuscous is slightly trickier than regular couscous to prepare, as it can quickly turn to mush if you add too much water during the moistening and steaming process, and alternately it can be too crunchy if you don't add enough water.

I actually prefer this couscous to regular couscous, it has an earthier nutty flavor, and is great as a base for a salad with roast vegetables and some herbs and cheese. Lots of the barley couscous packages in Algeria have funny advertisements that say "good for colon health" which is basically a way of saying this stuff has your daily dose of fiber.

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Hmis is basically the green version of harissa, made from green chile peppers. I prefer to buy hmis from one of the olive and harissa vendors, but most Algerians rely on the canned stuff. It is extremely spicy! The classic way to serve hmis is to mix it with a lot (a lot!) of good olive oil, and lots of green olives, and then serve it as a dip. We like to put it on our morning omelets also.

Every time I see some avant-garde recipe for "green harissa," usually filled with anomalies like cilantro, mint and dill (ugh), I sigh and think about how the recipe author would be much better off if they just knew about hmis!

Past Ingredient Spotlights: Rechta noodles, shirsh el-halweh, breads of Algeria, garantita, desert truffles and meshwiyya.

17 March 2014

Persian Sweet and Sour Soup


I used to really love getting cookbooks from the library, and there were some volumes that I would take out and renew over and over again. Najmieh Batmaglij's "Food of Life" was one of those books that kept returning to my coffee table, though that was many years ago. Getting books from the library was long ago a family tradition, we went every Sunday to check-out new books, and even though it was an ugly florescent-lit space, it is still a good memory for me, the excitement of finding something new to read.

In college, I worked on Sundays in the library as a work-study (funny how traditions repeat themselves), and that is where my cookbook reading began in earnest. On my lunch break I would go up to the cookbook floor and find the books I would take home for that week. Sometimes I would cart home a heavy bagful of them back to my apartment, my arms aching by the time I got to my front door. I rarely cooked from them, but I read from them each night before I went to bed, de-stressing at the end of a long day of dancing and studying by contemplating the ratios of a chocolate mousse recipe (Pierre Herme was a favorite at the time). To this day, when my husband marvels at why I know this or that about cooking, it is almost always because of all the cookbooks I read in those days.


When I saw Batmanglij's book was re-issued recently with new photos, I remembered my old dog-eared library copy, and ordered my very own edition. Before it even arrived, I found myself craving those uniquely Persian flavors, the sour limes and crispy rice dishes. Persian soups, almost more stew-like in consistency, are amazingly complex in both taste and ingredients. They often involve adding ingredients slowly over many hours, layering flavor over flavor. There are often miles and miles of herbs and greens melted into the stew, lots of onions, a touch of meat, legumes, and flavor builders like sour grape juice (verjus) and sizzled garlic.


In this sweet and sour Persian soup, there is a lot going on -- meatballs, herbs, lentils, dried fruit and nuts, not to mention the sweet and sour elements from vinegar and molasses. It's the kind of dish you should make on a quiet weekend afternoon and then eat all week long, where you'll find the soup is almost certainly better on the second and even third day. It is also a forgiving recipe - I couldn't find any yellow lentils, so I used orange lentils, if you don't have beet leaves you could use spinach or turnip greens. Grape molasses (available in Middle Eastern in shops) can be substituted with honey for the sweet element. Like the library, there's something communal in a big extended recipe like this, the ideas shared, the flavors layered together, the sort of thing you cook together and eat with family or friends around the table, passing some extra sizzled garlic to share.

Persian Sweet and Sour Soup (Osh-e miveh)
This complex soup takes time to make, but other than chopping some herbs and making some very basic meatballs, the preparation is simple and the whole endeavor is quite easy going. I made this recipe while also making some bread to serve along side it. Adapted from Najmieh Batmanglij.

Soup base:
2 onions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup yellow split peas or orange lentils
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
5 cups broth, 5 cups water (or 10 cups water)
1 cup chopped parsley
1 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup chopped beet leaves (or spinach)
1 cup chopped cilantro

1 small onion
1 lb ground lamb, veal, or chicken
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each pepper, turmeric, cinnamon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Finishing the soup:
1 cup pitted prunes
1 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup rice
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup grape molasses, date molasses, or honey
1/4 cup red wine vinegar, sour orange juice, or lemon juice

2 tablespoons butter
5  cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons crushed dried mint flakes

1. Prepare the meatballs by mixing together all the ingredients with your hands. Form into small meatballs, place on a tray, and refrigerate.
2. Heat some olive oil in the bottom of a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onions and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the onions soften and caramelize, about 20-30 minutes. Add in the turmeric and split peas or lentils, and stir everything around until it is fragrant, about a minute.
3. Add in the broth/water combination and season well with salt. Let the mixture simmer for about 30 minutes if using split peas, and only 10 minutes if using orange lentils. Add in all the greens and let simmer for another 15 minutes, until wilted.
4. Add in the meatballs, prunes, and apricots, season again with salt, and simmer for 20 minutes.
5. Add the rice and walnuts. Let simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, stir together your sweet and sour elements in a bowl (the vinegar and molasses, or whatever you are using). Taste the sweet-sour mixture for balance. After 30 minutes, stir in the the sweet-sour mixture and stir everything together to combine. Taste the soup for seasoning. Remove the soup from the heat and let rest while you prepare the garnish.
6. Before serving, prepare the garnish. Melt the butter in a small skillet Add the garlic, turmeric, and dried mint until sizzling. Ladle the warm soup into bowl and top each bowl with a bit of the butter/garlic mixture. Serve.