The glorious food of Morocco

  • Moroccan Orange Salad. (Ryan Michalesko/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
  • Couscous with carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, zucchini, cabbage and acorn squash. (Ryan Michalesko/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Morocco travelogues of the 1940s and 1950s were inevitably titled “Morocco: Land of Mystery” or “The Riddle of Morocco.”

But surely you can learn all you need to know about any country just by cooking and eating its food.

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Much Moroccan food is cooked slowly, methodically — even thoughtfully. The flavors have a long time to build and meld and blend together until they become a singular taste; you can no longer distinguish the individual ingredients.

There is an art to making many of the classic Moroccan dishes, almost a ritual. Couscous — the tiny pasta that acts like a grain — is perhaps the defining dish of the country, where it is eaten every day. It is prepared with much effort in a special pot called a couscoussier and is steamed three times before serving.

One taste is all you need to know why Moroccan food is considered one of the most popular cuisines in the world.

Moroccan Lamb with Apricots, Almonds and Mint

Yield: 4 servings

1 pound lean lamb, cubed

Salt and black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, crushed

3 cups chicken stock

Grated zest and juice of 1 orange

1 cinnamon stick

1 teaspoon honey

6 ounces dried apricots

3 tablespoons chopped fresh mint, divided

1 ounce ground almonds or almond butter

1 ounce sliced almonds, toasted

Steamed broccoli and couscous for serving

1. Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the lamb and cook over medium-high heat for 3 to 4 minutes until evenly browned, stirring often. Transfer lamb to a plate using a slotted spoon.

2. Stir the onion and garlic into the pot and cook 5 minutes until softened. Return the lamb to the pot. Add the stock, zest and juice, cinnamon and honey, and season with more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for 1 hour.

3. Add the apricots and 2 tablespoons of the mint and cook for 30 minutes until the lamb is tender. Stir in the ground almonds or almond butter to thicken the sauce. Scatter the remaining 1 tablespoon mint and toasted sliced almonds over the top and serve with couscous and broccoli.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

Yield: 8 servings

1 tomato

1/2 bunch parsley

1/2 bunch cilantro

1/4 cup olive oil

1 pound lamb or beef, cut into 11/2- to 2-inch pieces

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground ginger

Large pinch of saffron threads

1 teaspoon salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper, to taste

1 onion, chopped

1 (15.5-ounce) can chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

3 carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and halved, and each half cut into quarters

2 to 3 turnips, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces

2 zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 of a small cabbage, cored and cut into bite-sized pieces

3/4 of an acorn squash or 3/4 pound of another squash, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 red chile pepper

1 pound dry, 5-minute couscous

Note: Feel free to substitute vegetables such as potatoes, celery root, fava beans or any others of your choice.

1. Slice tomato in half and grate the pulpy flesh on the large holes of a grater; discard the skin. Set aside. Tie the parsley and cilantro together with kitchen twine.

2. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot, and add the meat, turmeric, ginger, saffron, salt and pepper. Add the chopped onion, and mix. Brown the meat for a few minutes, stirring frequently.

3. Add the grated tomato and bundle of parsley and cilantro. Cover with water. Add the chickpeas. Cover the pot and simmer 30 minutes.

4. Add the carrots, sweet potatoes and turnips. Return to a simmer, cover and simmer 15 minutes.

5. Add zucchini, cabbage, squash and chile pepper. Return to a simmer, cover and simmer 10 minutes.

6. Test the vegetables (you only need to test one of each type). If any are not thoroughly tender, remove the cooked vegetables to a bowl and leave the ones that need more time in the pot. Cover and simmer until the vegetables and meat are all done.

7. Make the couscous according to the package directions, using 1 cup of the broth in the pot along with water to make it.

8. Return the vegetables and meat to the pot to warm them and serve over the couscous, with the red pepper on top for a visual flourish.

Moroccan Orange Salad

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

4 large, juicy oranges (or grapefruits or tangerines)

2 teaspoons granulated sugar or honey

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 to 3 tablespoons orange blossom water, or zest from 1 orange

6 fresh mint leaves

3 tablespoons pistachios, roughly chopped

1. Slice off the very top and bottom of each orange, just enough to expose the flesh. Remove all of the peel and pith by strips, top to bottom, using the blade of your knife to cut away as little of the juicy flesh as possible. Trim any small bits of pith you missed, and pour the juices that collect on the cutting board into a small saucepan.

2. Cut the oranges horizontally to form thin slices, about 1/4-inch thick. Arrange in an overlapping pattern on a serving platter.

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3. Add the sugar and cinnamon to the pan. If using orange zest instead of orange blossom water, add it to the pan, along with 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Stir in the orange blossom water, if using, and pour over the orange slices. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

4. Stack the mint leaves together, roll tightly and thinly slice crosswise. Scatter the mint and pistachios over the oranges, and serve.