Saturday, October 14, 2017

MOROCCO--THE DATE CONNECTION

World's largest palm oasis, in the valley of the River Ziz.
Morocco continually surprises. We drove through miles and miles of desolate, arid, rocky landscape, then, suddenly, pulled over to overlook a lush, green palm oasis. A river of green trees, where small, walled settlements—casbahs—follow the valley, flows in the bottomland of the River Ziz.

Dates, almost ready for harvest.

The palm oasis—possibly the world’s largest—is also the source of Morocco’s date harvest. Right now (mid-October) is harvest season. I was there a few weeks earlier, when huge bunches of dates were still ripening at the tops of the palms.

Date palms laden with ripening fruit, near Erfoud, Morocco.



We dropped down to the valley floor, zig-zagging through palm trees and gardens to arrive at Maison Zouala, an old Berber home that has been turned into a guest house. Our host, Mhamed (Hami) Oukhouya, served us a marvellous cous cous and an orange and date salad.

Hami, of Maison Zouala, tells us about dates and the philosophy of inshallah.




Tafilatet dates are incredibly sweet.


The dates of the Tafilalet region, Hami said, are the Medjool variety, although they differ from California Medjools. Over centuries, the Moroccan date palms have adapted to local climate and soil conditions. They are incredibly soft and sweet.

Interestingly, Arab and Berber settlers carried palm trees to Spain in the 10th  Century AD. They were planted in the area of Elche (Alicante, eastern Mediterranean Spain). Using the same methods as in North Africa, palms were placed along boundaries of irrigated plots to maximize water retention. Elche has Europe’s largest date palm plantation, although because its climate is marginal, fruit doesn’t properly ripen.

And, then, Spanish colonizers established the date palm on California missions in the 17th century. The Morocco connection.

Date palms reflected in the waters of a natural spring. Dates need their "feet in the water, their head in the fire," meaning groundwater for the roots and hot desert, low humidity, for the foliage and fruit ripening.

A roadside stand selling unripe yellow dates.

At the foot of date palms.

Cous Cous with Seven Vegetables and Dates
Cus Cus con Verduras y Dátiles

Sweet dates stud fluffy grains of cous cous with chicken and seven vegetables.

This cous cous recipe is based on one found on a web page about Moroccan food products, (Page 22  http://www.agriculture.gov.ma/sites/default/files/terroirs-of-morocco.pdf. According to that site, it takes six women (of a cooperative) eight hours to prepare 50 kilos of cous cous.

My initiation into preparing cous cous came from Paula Wolfert’s original Moroccan cookbook—Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, (Harper and Row, 1987.)

Paula details how to dampen the grain, then steam it twice over the pot of simmering stew. Her very important note: “If the stew in the bottom of the cous cous pot is fully cooked and well seasoned prior to the final steaming of cous cous grains, you should transfer the stew to a separate saucepan, keeping it warm, and perform the final steaming over boiling water.” While it’s ok to cook the chicken until falling off the bones, try not to cook the vegetables until they disintegrate.

Seven is a “lucky” number, but not fixed. Vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage, sweet potatoes, fava beans and artichokes can be added to the stew. Beef or lamb, cut in chunks, can be used instead of chicken.

Most cous cous recipes call for salted butter as well as oil to prepare the cous cous. I've used only olive oil. 

Steamer has perforated bottom.

I'm using a cous cous steamer I bought in Morocco 50 years ago! It has a perforated bottom. It should fit tightly over the big stew pot (this one is not the original). If you don't have a cous cous steamer, use a heat-proof colander. Tie a dampened cloth around the join between steamer and pot so no steam escapes around the sides.

Serves 6 to 8. You may need to serve the cous cous, chicken and vegetables on two platters.

 






For the chicken and vegetable stew:

Seven vegetables, give or take a few.
6 chicken pieces (legs and thighs)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions
5 plum tomatoes, halved
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon hot water
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
Bouquet of parsley and cilantro
10 cups water
4-6 carrots
2 turnips, quartered
1 pound cous cous (procedure follows)
12 dates
2 zucchini, cut in half lengthwise
½ butternut squash, peeled and cut in pieces
1 red bell pepper, seeds removed and cut in wide strips
12 almonds, blanched and peeled


Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and pepper.

Chicken, vegetables, spices and herbs go in the pot raw.


Place 3 tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a large stew pot. Cut 1 onion into wedges and place in the bottom of the pot. Place the chicken pieces on top. Cut the second onion into quarters and tuck them in with the chicken pieces. Add the halved tomatoes.

Crush the saffron in a mortar. Place it in a small bowl and add 1 tablespoon of hot water. Let it infuse 10 minutes.

Add 1 tablespoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of black pepper and the ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and herbal bouquet to the pot with the chicken. Drizzle with 3 tablespoons more of oil. Place the pot on a medium heat and cook, covered, 10 minutes. Add the 10 cups of water and the saffron water. Bring the liquid to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 45 minutes.

Peel carrots and, if they are large, cut them in half lengthwise. Add carrots and turnips to the pot with the chicken. 

Prepare cous cous for cooking according to following procedure. Steam cous cous over the chicken-vegetable stew for 15 minutes.

Add zucchini, butternut squash and red bell pepper to the stew. Place cous cous over the stew to steam with the dates for 20 minutes.

To serve: mound cous cous on a large platter. Use a slotted spoon to remove chicken pieces from the big pot. (If chicken is falling off the bone, discard bones.) Place chicken around the cous cous. Discard herbal bouquet, cinnamon sticks and any loose tomato skins. Place vegetables on top of cous cous. Garnish with the dates and almonds.

Ladle some of the cooking liquid into a bowl and serve it alongside the platter of cous cous, chicken and vegetables.




Use wooden fork to break up lumps in dampened cous cous.
To prepare the cous cous:
1 pound cous cous (about 2 ¾ cups)
Water
12 dates
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil


Place cous cous in a shallow pan and add 2 cups of water. Sluice the water through the grain, then pour into a fine sieve to drain off excess water. Return the cous cous grain to the pan and let it dry 20 minutes. Rake it through with a wooden fork or fingers to break up lumps.

Ladle the cous cous into a cous cous steamer or heat-proof colander that fits over the big stew pot. Bring the contents of the pot to a boil, place the steamer on top, uncovered, then reduce the heat so the stew just bubbles and steam gradually rises through the cous cous. Steam the cous cous 15 minutes.

Turn the cous cous out into the shallow pan. Spread it to dry for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with ¼ cup cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the dates to the cous cous. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of oil. Use the hands to spread the oil through the cous cous, breaking up clumps of the grains.

Return the cous cous to the steamer and place it over the stew. Steam for 20 minutes.

To serve: mound the cous cous on a large platter. Place the chicken and vegetables on top of it. Stud the cous cous with the steamed dates. 

Serve cous cous with chicken, vegetables and dates. Serve harissa chile sauce on the side.



Date Bars
Barras con Dátiles


A holiday treat, date bars.

For me, dates signify a special occasion because, when I was growing up, dates were a treat for holidays, when my mother made her famous Date Bars, chewy squares, chock full of nuts and sweet dates.

My mother’s recipe for Date Bars, from The Settlement Cook Book (by Mrs. Simon Kander; around 1942), called for melted butter and one cup of sugar. I have substituted olive oil for the butter and eliminated the sugar completely. Dates are so incredibly sweet that I don’t think you’ll miss the sugar. 

Makes 16 bars.

¾ cup flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cardamom or cinnamon
2 large eggs
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 cup chopped dates (about 7 ounces pitted dates)
1 cup chopped nuts
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)

Sift together the flour, baking powder, soda, salt and cardamom.


In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs. Beat in the oil, water and lemon zest. Stir in the dry ingredients to make a smooth batter. Fold in the dates and nuts.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Oil a rectangular baking pan (7X12 inches). Spread the batter in the pan. Bake until top is springy when pressed, about 20 minutes.

Cut into bars while still warm. Dust with confections’ sugar, if desired.

Chewy date bars are chock full of sweet dates and nuts.


Moroccan dessert: sliced oranges with orange blossom water, cinnamon, dates. Usually with almonds, but I've added seasonal pomegranate seeds instead.

The Moroccan date festival and trade fair, Salon International des Dattes au Maroc, takes place from 26 to 29 of October in the town of Erfoud. http://sidattes.ma/

Sunday, October 8, 2017

MOROCCO--THE SALAD TOUR

On our first night in Morocco, at a guest house in the medina of Azrou, a town south of Fes in the Middle Atlas, Fatima placed a salad of chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumber on a tiled table on a rooftop dining area. Lightly dressed with oil, the salad was accompanied by tiny bowls of salt and ground cumin for additional seasoning. A variation of this fresh salad, shlada, appeared as a starter before many Moroccan meals.


Moroccan salad of chopped tomatoes, onions and cucumbers--much like Andalusian pipirrana.

I was part of a photography landscape tour to Morocco. But, really, I was on a salad tour. My photography skills improved a little (thanks to Antonio Martín). My salad appreciation grew hugely as I sampled many variations, from the northern port of Tangier, almost touching Spain, to the distant desert of Merzouga, on the southeastern border of Morocco.


The River Ziz cuts a valley through an arid, desolate landscape of the Middle Atlas.

We drove through the Atlas Cedar Biosphere Reserve, home of majestic cedar trees, Barbary macaques and vendors peddling cedar bowls. Through desolate, arid, rocky landscapes. Where it seemed nothing could thrive, there would appear a herd of sheep, a lone donkey (much smaller species than the burro-taxi of Mijas), a pair of veiled women standing beside the road (bus stop?), a solitary tree.

Then, down from the rocky slopes into the Ziz Valley palm oasis, for lunch at Maison Zouala, an old Berber house, where our host, Hami, offered cold water and dates in welcome. Lunch began with a huge “presentation” salad—potatoes, tomatoes, roasted peppers, carrots, zucchini and green beans arranged on a platter and garnished with quartered egg, olives and sliced oranges.



A typical salad with raw and cooked vegetables arranged around a mound of rice, all beautifully garnished. Bread and olives always accompany salads. Clockwise from the top are marinated zucchini, green beans, potatoes, roasted peppers, chopped tomatoes and carrots. (Recipes below.)


By evening we reached our destination, Hotel Les Dunes d’Or (the “golden dunes”), an oasis on the edge of the desert near Merzouga, on the Algerian border of Morocco. On the terrace near the pool, a slight breeze was a welcome respite after the 100ºF+ temperatures during the day. Another chopped tomato salad refreshed the spirits.

After a morning haggling for scarves, shirts, necklaces, pantaloons and the like in the souk of Rissani (and joking about buying a tender kid-goat at the livestock market), we headed for lunch at the upstairs dining room of the Restaurante Panorama, overlooking the bustling market square. The classic chopped tomato salad here had corn kernels as a garnish. The salad was the perfect accompaniment to chicken brochettes with a side of fries with Arabic ketchup and mustard!

Olives in the souk of Rissani. Black Moroccan olives are intensely salty and oily. Pale green ones are somewhat like commercial Manzanilla olives. Purple olives in red paste are fiery-hot from harissa chile.

On the return trip from the desert of the south to the ferry port of Tangier, we stopped in the holy city of Moulay Idriss in order to visit nearby Roman ruins of Volubilis. There Romans were producing olive oil in the 2nd century AD.


The town of Moulay Idriss rises on the hills above the Roman ruins of Volubilis. This was olive-producing land in the 2nd century AD.


At the Dar Zerhoune guest house in the medina, dinner began with an assortment of salads served in separate bowls, much like Spanish tapas. I especially liked the eggplant salad, called zeilouk, sort of a cross between baba ghanoush and caponata.

Salad ingredients at the souk in Moulay Idriss.


A corner bread seller in the medina of Moulay Idriss. Bread accompanies every meal.


Chopped Tomato Salad
Ensaladilla de Tomatoes



This salad is almost identical to Andalusian pipirrana. It’s good served as a starter or as a side with grilled kebabs or fried fish.

The Moroccan salad may have chopped fresh cilantro instead of parsley and might have cumin or spicy-hot harissa chile paste added to it. Unlike the Spanish version, it does not have raw garlic. 
Harissa chile paste, optional.


1 cup chopped red onion
Salt
4 cups diced tomatoes
1 cup peeled and diced cucumber
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon cumin (optional)
Harissa chile paste (optional)
¼ cup chopped parsley or cilantro
Black olives

Place the chopped onion in a bowl and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt. Add water to cover. Soak the onions 30 minutes. Drain.

Place the onions in a bowl with the tomatoes and cucumber. Add the oil, 1 teaspoon salt and the cumin and harissa, if desired.

Immediately before serving, stir in the chopped parsley or cilantro. If the salad has been prepared in advance, the tomatoes and cucumbers will release a lot of liquid. Use a slotted spoon to serve the salad onto a platter or individual bowls. Garnish with olives.

The Big Salad
La Gran Ensalada

This is Salad II. Clockwise from the top are cabbage, grated raw carrots, sliced cucumbers, sliced tomatoes, cabbage, beets. (Recipes below.)

This grand presentation salad includes five or more vegetables, raw and cooked, arranged on a platter around a mound of rice and nicely garnished with sliced egg and two or more sorts of olives. Here are two versions I enjoyed in Morocco.

For salad I:
These ingredients make enough for two platters of salad, serving 8 to 10.

Cooked rice
Potato salad
Roasted green and red peppers
Diced carrot salad
Chopped tomato salad
Marinated zucchini
Green bean salad
Sliced orange
Black and green olives
Hard-cooked egg, quartered
Salt
Extra virgin olive oil


Mound rice in the center of a two large platters. Working clockwise from 12:00, arrange zucchini, green beans, potatoes, roast peppers, chopped tomato salad and carrots. Repeat. Garnish the platter with orange slices. Scatter olives over all. Place quartered egg on top. Sprinkle with salt and drizzle oil on top. Once assembled, serve the salad immediately.

For salad II.

Cooked rice
Sliced plum tomatoes
Cabbage salad
Beet salad
Grated carrot salad
Sliced cucumbers
2 tablespoons olive oil or additional dressing
Pomegranate seeds
Chopped mint


Mound rice in center of a large platter. Working clockwise from 12:00, arrange sliced tomatoes, cabbage, beets, grated carrots and sliced cucumber in sections. Repeat. Drizzle oil or dressing on top. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.and chopped mint.



For salad dressing I:
Salads in Morocco are lightly dressed with oil and lemon juice. In the south, a light vegetable oil such as sunflower seems prevalent. (I did not sample any salads with argan oil.) Around Meknes and  Moulay Idris, good olive oil is produced.

Vinegar is not used in Moroccan salads. Use lemon or sour orange juice to add tanginess. Salt is an essential seasoning. Cumin sometimes is added to salads or served alongside for each person to add to taste.

Salt in dressing draws liquid out of ingredients. If preparing salads in advance, use a slotted spoon to lift the vegetables out of accumulated juices. The citric acid of lemon juice dulls bright green colors. Add the juice to green beans immediately before serving.

Fresh herbs can be added to the dressing or, to preserve freshness and color, tossed with the dressed vegetables immediately before serving.

Use 2 to 3 tablespoons of the dressing for each of the vegetable salads. Extra dressing keeps, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

3 cloves garlic, unpeeled
½ cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pimentón (paprika), not smoked
1 teaspoon cumin
½ cup extra virgin olive oil


Cook the garlic in a little water until soft, 15 minutes. (It can be cooked with any of the vegetables.) Peel the garlic and crush it in a bowl. Stir in the lemon juice, salt, pimentón and cumin. Whisk in the oil.

For salad dressing II:
Makes enough dressing for grated carrot salad and beet salad.

3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon honey
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon orange blossom water (agua de azahar)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil


Combine the lemon juice, honey, salt and orange blossom water. Whisk in the oil.

Rice for Salads
Arroz para Ensaladas


Use long-grained or basmati rice for Moroccan salads. One salad I sampled in Morocco had a heap of shell pasta in the center of the vegetables instead of rice. Why not?

4 cups water
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup long-grain rice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil


Bring the water to a boil with the salt. Add the rice, reduce heat and cover the pan. Cook until the rice is al dente, about 12 minutes. Drain the rice thoroughly. Return the hot rice to the pan. Stir in the oil and cover the pan.

When rice is cool, refrigerate until ready to use.

Marinated vegetables are arranged around rice.

Potato Salad
Patatas Aliñadas

Sweet potatoes cut in dice can be prepared in the same manner.

3 cups potatoes cut in ¾-inch dice
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons Salad Dressing I
Chopped parsley


Put potatoes and salt in pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are tender, about 6 minutes. Drain well. Stir in the salad dressing.

Let the potatoes marinate in the dressing at least 1 hour or, covered and refrigerated, up to 24 hours. Stir in chopped parsley immediately before serving.

Marinated Zucchini
Calabacín en Aliño


1 small (8-ounce) zucchini
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt
1 tablespoon Salad Dressing I
Chopped parsley


Slice the zucchini thinly crosswise. Place it on a microwave-safe plate and drizzle with oil. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. Place zucchini and juices in a bowl and add 1 teaspoon salt and the salad dressing. Marinate 1 hour or, refrigerated, up to 24 hours.

To serve, lift the zucchini out of the marinade with a slotted spoon. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Green Bean Salad
Ensalada de Judías Verdes


Cook beans in boiling salted water until crisp-tender. Drain and refresh in cold water. Dress with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Beans can be prepared in advance and refrigerated until serving time.

Immediately before serving, stir in Salad Dressing I and chopped parsley.

Carrot Salad
Ensalada de Zanahorias


Butternut squash can be prepared in the same manner as carrots.

2 cups carrots cut in ½-inch dice
Salt
2 tablespoons Salad Dressing I


Cook the carrots in salted boiling water until just tender, 4 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Add the dressing to the carrots and marinate at least 1 hour or, refrigerated, up to 24 hours.

Roasted Pepper Salad
Ensalada de Pimientos Asados


Green and/or red peppers
Salad Dressing I


Preheat oven to 500ºF. Cut peppers in half lengthwise, remove stem and seeds and place them, skin side up on a baking sheet. Roast until skins are blistered and somewhat blackened, about 10 minutes.

Cool the peppers. Remove skins and pull the flesh into strips. Combine with salad dressing and marinate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Orange blossom water adds an exotic hint to this salad.
Grated Carrot Salad
Ensalada de Zanahorias Ralladas


2 cups grated carrots (3 large carrots)
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons Salad Dressing II
Chopped mint

Mix the carrots with salt and salad dressing. Allow to marinate 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Beet Salad
Ensalada de Remolacha


2 medium beets (12-14 ounces)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Salad Dressing II
Chopped mint


Cook the whole, unpeeled beets in boiling water until they are tender when pierced with a skewer, about 15 minutes. Drain.

When beets are cool enough to handle, slip off the skins. Cut the beets into ½-inch dice and place in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Stir in the salad dressing. Marinate at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Stir in chopped mint right before serving.

These salads are served in individual bowls instead of on a single platter. Clockwise from top left are chopped zucchini salad, black olives, eggplant salad, coleslaw with pomegranates and cauliflower with preserved lemon and green olives.

Coleslaw with Pomegranate
Ensaladilla de Coles con Granada


3 cups thinly sliced cabbage (about 8 ounces)
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons Salad Dressing I
Pomegranate Seeds
Chopped parsley or mint


Bring a pan of salted water to a boil. Add the cabbage. Return the water to a full boil, then remove from heat and drain the cabbage. Refresh it under cold water. Place in a bowl and season with 1 teaspoon salt and pepper. Add the salad dressing. Let the cabbage marinate at least 1 hour or, refrigerated, up to 24 hours.

Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds and chopped mint immediately before serving.

Eggplant Salad (Zeilouk)
Ensalada de Berenjena  


Serve this salad as a dip or spread. Use a potato masher to smash the softened eggplant and tomatoes. It should be mushy, not pureed. The mixture turns very dark as it cools.

2 large eggplant (1 ½  pounds)
½ cup olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups peeled and chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sweet pimentón (paprika)
½ teaspoon hot pimentón or pinch cayenne
2 teaspoons cumin
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Lemon juice, if desired
Bread to accompany


Peel the eggplant in stripes, leaving some of the peel. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and slice them crosswise.

Heat half the oil in a heavy skillet. Brown half the eggplant slices on both sides. Remove them from heat. Add remaining oil and eggplant to skillet and brown. Remove the eggplant slices.

Add the chopped garlic and tomatoes to the skillet. Return all of the eggplant to the skillet. Season with salt, pimentón, hot pimentón and cumin. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until eggplant is very soft, about 20 minutes.


Mash the eggplant and tomatoes with a potato masher. Return to heat and cook, uncovered, until the mixture is thick and no liquid remains.

Remove from heat. Let eggplant cool, then stir in parsley and lemon juice if desired. Serve room temperature with bread to accompany. 

Cauliflower Salad with Olives
Ensalada de Coliflor con Aceitunas


Salty preserved lemons and olives give cauliflower some character.
4 cups florets of cauliflower (about 1 pound)
Salt
3 tablespoons Salad Dressing I
1 tablespoon chopped preserved lemon
2 tablespoons sliced green olives
Chopped parsley


Cook the cauliflower in boiling salted water until crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and refresh in cold water. Place in a bowl and add ½ teaspoon salt, the salad dressing and chopped preserved lemon. Marinate at least 1 hour or, refrigerated, up to 24 hours.

To serve, scatter sliced olives and parsley on the cauliflower. 

Chopped Zucchini Salad
Ensaladilla de Calabacín






This simple salad packs a lot of flavor. The trick is to keep the diced zucchini crisp. This salad does not need marinating time. Serve it freshly made.

Salt
6 cups water
2 cups diced zucchini (about ¾ pound)
2 tablespoons Salad Dressing I
Chopped onion (optional)
Chopped mint


Combine 2 teaspoons salt with the water. Bring to a boil and add the diced zucchini. Cook 2 minutes. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop the cooking.

Place the zucchini in a bowl and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt. Add the salad dressing and chopped onion, if using. Immediately before serving, stir in chopped mint.

(Note: All of the salads pictured here were prepared and photographed in my kitchen in Spain.
©Janet Mendel)



More Moroccan recipes:

Andalusia's twin to Moroccan salad: Pipirrana.


Chopped tomato salad is the perfect accompaniment to grilled chicken brochettes served with Moroccan bread. Salt, cumin and harissa are on the side.  The skewers with cedar-wood handles I bought in Morocco 50 years ago.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

COOK LIKE A BERBER

Is dinner just over this dune?



A good spot to set up a cookfire, in the shade of a tamarisk tree in the sandy desert.

Your caravan of dromedaries comes over the golden dunes. You set up the jaimas. In the shade of a tamarisk tree, you start a fire in a sand pit with palm fronds and dry brush. Pat out the bread dough. Spread with filling, top with more dough. Set the filled pie in the hot sand. Push coals over the top. And wait while the bread bakes.


Brush off all the sand, slice and serve to your nomadic Berber family. Berber “pizza,” it’s called, although it’s more like Spanish empanada, with thick, bready crusts. I first tasted it at Café Nora at the desert village of Khamlia in Morocco. There owner Hassan and his family prepared and served the pizza in an air-conditioned dining room carpeted in colorful rugs. At Café Nora, the filled bread is baked is a pizza oven fueled by bottled gas.

We returned another day at sundown to see how nomadic tribes prepare the bread in the desert sands.



Hassan starts the fire in a shallow sand pit.



Hassan pats out the bread dough on a clean cloth.

He spreads the dough with filling, tops it with another round of dough and crimps the dough to enclose the filling.


Hassan brushes away the coals and sets the filled bread on the hot sand. Coals are pushed on top of the bread, completely enclosing it.

Daughter Amine kneads dough for her own pizza.


Hassan uncovers the bread to test for doneness. It's ready when it "sounds like a drum" when tapped with a stick. Parts of the bread are not fully cooked,

 
so, he adds more twigs to the fire to finish the baking and sets a teapot to heat in the coals. No repast is complete without mint tea.

Moha, our guide, pours tea.

When the pizza is done, Hassan removes it from the coals and carefully brushes away any sand clinging to the crust.

Now Amine's small breads can bake in the hot sand.


The pizza smells divine--smoky bread, spicy meat filling. A desert feast.

The recipe, from my kitchen in Spain, where it was baked in an electric oven.


All photos, text and recipes ©Janet Mendel.


 Berber Pizza
Empanada Berebere

The filling can be made with chicken, beef or lamb. For a vegetarian version, increase the quantity of onions to 3 cups and use three carrots instead of two.

Ras el hanout is a spice blend that flavors the filling mixture. If you don’t have the real thing, mix 1 teaspoon ground cumin, ½ teaspoon ground coriander, and ¼ teaspoon each of grated nutmeg, ground ginger powder, cardamom, cinnamon, chile powder, black pepper, allspice and 1/8 teaspoon turmeric. Use 1 teaspoon of the mixed spices for the filling.

The recipe for the pizza dough is the same as for Moroccan bread, which is baked in flattened round loaves. Bread may have anise seed or sesame seed kneaded into it.

Makes 10 slices.

For the filling
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 carrots, grated (1 cup)
1 teaspoon ras el hanout spice
¼ cup chopped parsley
½ cup water
1 hard-cooked egg, chopped
1 tablespoon torn mint leaves


Use a sharp knife to chop the chicken into small dice. Place in a bowl and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a skillet and add the chopped onion and garlic. Sauté until onion just begins to brown. Add the carrots and cook 5 minutes more. Add the minced chicken, stirring until it loses its pink color. Chicken does not need to brown. Sprinkle with the spice and 1 teaspoon salt. Add the parsley and water. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until chicken is tender and liquid reduced, about 20 minutes. If a lot of liquid remains, uncover the pan and cook off the excess liquid.

Filling may be prepared in advance and refrigerated until ready to bake the pizza. Bring it to room temperature and stir in the fresh mint before filling the pizza.

For the pizza
6 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 tablespoons olive oil + additional for bowl and brushing on pizza
1 ¾ - 2 cups warm water
Fine semolina for dusting baking sheet
Filling for pizza, room temperature


Place the flour in a large bowl. Add the salt and dry yeast and mix. Make a well in the center of the flour. Add 2 tablespoons oil and 1 ½ cups warm water. Use a large wooden spoon to mix the liquids into the flour. Add enough additional water to make a soft dough that can be easily gathered into a ball.

Turn the dough out on a board and knead it until glossy, smooth and stretchy, about 10 minutes. (Dough can be kneaded with dough hook of an electric mixer.) Gather the dough into a ball.

Clean out the bowl and oil it lightly. Place the ball of dough in the bowl, turning to coat it on all sides with oil. Cover with a dampened cloth and put in a warm, draft-free place to rise for 2 hours.

(If dough is to be used to make Moroccan bread, after kneading, divide it into two equal balls. Pat or roll them into circles each about 10 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheets sprinkled with semolina. Cover with cloth and allow to rise 2 hours. Bake the breads in preheated oven.)

Separate about one-third of the dough (a piece of approximately 13 ounces). Roll it into a ball and set aside. Gather the remaining dough into a ball. Place it on a clean kitchen cloth. Pat it into a circle. Roll, pat or stretch to make a large disc, about 14 inches in diameter.

Spread the filling on top of the disc. Roll the smaller ball of dough to make a 9-inch disk. Place it in the center of the filling. Wet the edges of the bottom disc with water. Fold them up to meet the top disc and crimp to enclose the filling. 

Invert the filled pizza onto a baker’s peel or a rimless baking sheet sprinkled with semolina, so that the crimped dough is underneath. Pat it to flatten slightly. Prick holes in the top with a knife or skewer. Let the pizza rest, covered with a damp cloth, 15 minutes while heating the oven.

Preheat oven to 400ºF. If using a pizza stone or earthenware slab, preheat it in the oven.

Slide the pizza onto preheated stone or place the baking sheet in the oven. Bake until crust sounds hollow when tapped, about 25 minutes. If desired, finish the pizza under the broiler to brown the top, 5 minutes.

Remove the pizza and brush the crust with oil. Cover with a cloth let set 10 minutes. Slice and serve the pizza. It's good hot or room temperature.





An oven in the desert, where bread is baked daily.





A desert family serves us fresh bread and mint tea.