Out With the Old: Mourad New Moroccan
I consider myself a traditionalist in most things, and could even claim to be ‘old-fashioned’ when it comes to topics like music and art—and food. I was aware of my innate prejudices when I opened Mourad New Moroccan, a collection of recipes by Mourad Lahlou, owner of the restaurant Aziza San Francisco. “What about ‘old Moroccan’ ?” I asked myself.
I’ve been a fan of Paula Woffert, the ‘Julia Child’ of Moroccan and Mediterranean cooking for decades. Paula’s Cous cous and Other Good Food from Morocco (a new expanded version also was published recently - The Food of Morocco) introduced the English speaking world to a mostly unknown but highly sophisticated cuisine about the same time that Diana Kennedy was promoting Mexican food as more than just tacos and enchiladas. My original copy of her book is grease and turmeric splattered. Like Kennedy’s books, Wolfert’s is uncompromising. Not all the recipes can be made outside the country itself because some ingredients are impossible to find or substitute. I like that in a cookbook. These books become more than just big recipe files—they really dig deep into the cultural meanings of food. Woffert’s and Kennedy’s works stay close to their respective country’s traditions.
Mourad’s does not, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. His is a personal cuisine. He was born in Casablanca, and, as his informally written introduction relates, he learned to love food within his family. He is steeped in tradition, long and slow like good Moroccan lamb stock. He knows his stuff.
He later relocated to California, the land of re-invention and abbreviated history. On all levels, his food is created, invented, turned inside out and, as he says “evolved”. While this chef knows his history, most of the rest of us, Ms. Woffert aside, are not as well schooled. Why? Because, as far as I know, there isn’t yet a great Moroccan restaurant in the United States. And it’s hard to find the real thing in Morocco itself. I’ve been there multiple times, and eaten exquisitely. But mostly at markets, stalls and holes-in-the-wall. The complex dishes and flavors that Woffert and Mourad describe remain elusive. I’ve eaten more sophisticated North African cuisine in France, where Moroccan restaurants have been common since colonial days, i.e. the ‘50’s.
Mourad wants to update tradition, bring life to the clichés—even though most Americans are not likely to be familiar with the well-trodden path he valiantly wants to avoid. My library is full of Moroccan cookbooks in French and Spanish that tweak tradition. That’s because Europeans know this cuisine and are ready for a little variety. This is hardly true this side of the ocean.
This is a handsomely designed book, well illustrated with black and white photos. The writing is informal, at times a bit cloying – case in point, the cringe-making title ‘Dude: preserved lemons’. It’s divided into three sections: Seven Things is a ‘prelude’, which defines spices, sauces, condiments - Moroccan ingredients are explained. Make your own ras al hanout (the spice mixture), harissa (the hot sauce), or the essential preserved lemons.
Section two is Recipes, divided into ‘Bites to begin’, ‘The dance of the seven salads’, ‘Fish Story’ etc. Great pains are taken to explain the culture and laborious preparation of cous cous, well documented with step by step pictures.
And section three, Basics, delineates, as the name indicates, such kitchen staples as stocks, clarified butter, and garlic puree, and explains how to make them.
I took the book into the kitchen, tempted by many recipes, as elaborate as they were.
I started with the chef’s take on the classic beet salad, normally a simple toss of roasted diced beets in olive oil and lemon juice, perhaps with a dash of cumin. Here it has morphed into beets, avocado puree, pumpkin seed crumble. Roasted beets are dusted with crunchy ground pumpkin seeds and cloaked with a light verdant, fluffy puree of avocado. The recipe’s format is explicit. The recipe’s well written, easy to follow. The final product was beautiful to look at, the flavors subtly balanced between sweet, tart, chewy and creamy.
But already I was bothered by what I discovered to be a running theme: too many elements. Multi-colored, tiny beets are called for. Regular red ones work just fine. Crème fraiche is added to the avocado, already a rich, creamy element. Pink grapefruit garnishes the already sweet/sour plate red/green plate. Lilies are gilded. While successful, I thought a little simplification was in order.
I found this to be true in the rather elaborate chickpea spread. Two chili powders and two kinds of pepper trump the pinch of expensive saffron.
The charred eggplant purée was simpler, an un-altered classic, easy to make. From his main dishes I chose the roasted whole black bass, red charmoula. A fish, smothered in an herby, spicy, tomatoey sauce is oven-baked over a bed of vegetables. As I suspected, the fish was done long before the vegetables and so had to be removed and set aside. I would have blanched them first. Once again there are too many ingredients--the artichoke heart called for is lost in the shuffle. The end result was spectacular nonetheless; subtle yet hearty and evocative of many essentially North African flavors.
The Roast chicken with preserved lemons and root vegetables is also homey and fairly traditional, although it’s explained that chickens aren’t usually prepared whole in Morocco. Here my caveat is the preparation of a rather complex brine for the poultry, in which green olives are tossed – a waste of expensive ingredients.
Ultimately, I was impressed with this book. Recipes are inspired and intriguing but could be simplified intelligently without compromising complexity of flavor or presentation. It’s for the experienced cook, novices might be overwhelmed by the complexity. Nothing here fits the ‘quick and easy’ format. For anyone wishing to expand his or her knowledge of North African cooking, I recommend this book, but not without Paula Woffert’s work in tow.