Monday, August 10, 2009

Between Morocco and a Hard Place

Photos by Cynthia

My typical approach to prepare for a meal is to stop at the store, find what looks good/interesting/new/fresh/on sale, mentally run through the home pantry, sketch out the menu, fill in the blanks, make the purchase, rush home, pull out every pot and pan in the house, turn every burner up to high, sear, flip, caramelize, reduce, pour, plate, serve, eat, leave the kitchen looking like the fire-bombing of Dresden, and start wondering what to eat next.

Slow cooking is Cynthia's territory.

We both love the savory phenomenon that can only be achieved after hours of meticulous planning and execution of a multi-layered and transforming low-and-slow cooking technique.

Cynthia has a natural affinity for it, for nurturing the dish through its revealing steps, and the patience to let the dish decide when it's ready.

Last November I gave her a beautiful terra cotta tagine from Morocco. She rewarded me with a beautiful citrus chicken tagine perfumed with hand-blended spices. We looked forward to many tasty Moroccan treats.

Some days later, cruising the Google, we found some postings warning about high lead content in most of the glazed terra cotta tagines made in Morocco. There had been no warnings or details about the glazed finish of Cynthia's tagine and the website offered no information, so we emailed the company asking about lead content in their tagines.

No reply.

After a series of unanswered emails, I sent a not-so-veiled threat that further unresponsiveness on their part would cause me to unleash my internet fury, denouncing their company on any appropriate websites.

In less than 24 hours we got this email:

Our tagines are inspected at the port of arrival by the FDA and US Customs. If lead is found in the tagines, I believe their policy is that the tagines are destroyed and not allowed to be released. We have since changed companies from which we purchase tagines. Our newest shipment (due to arrive soon) comes with certification from the manufacturer that it is lead-free. This is a large, reputable manufacturer and we believe it is of the best quality to be found in Morocco. This allows both ourselves and our customers worry-free transactions with our tagines. If you are worried about the lead content from our old manufacturer, we welcome your returned tagine (please drop a note with your name so that we may trace the order) and we will ship you a new one.

We have our spam filters set to high to remove the thousands of pieces of junk email that we receive daily - in order that we may respond to our customers in a more efficient, speedy manner. Sometimes real emails inadvertently get caught in the filter and are deleted without our response. If that has been the case of your earlier emails, we apologize for the inconvenience and unnecessary worry this has caused you.

[Our Company] guarantees our products. If ever you have questions, please don’t hesitate to call us directly. Our toll-free number is ***-***-****.

Warm regards,

Funny how their spam filter let my threatening email through...

Anyway, all is forgiven; we're boxing up the old one and looking forward to the shiny, new, certified-lead-free replacement to arrive.

While were waiting, I decided to try a non-tagine dish from the beautiful cookbook Moroccan Modern by Hassan M'souli. The dish doesn't really require slow cooking (the fowl simmers for only 30 minutes) but with the preparations, the marinade, the accompanying risotto and sauce, the meal took over four hours from start to finish.

I uncharacteristically followed the recipe somewhat faithfully. The original recipe is for squab, but not being under the elevated train with a .22, we opted for chicken thighs. I was also fresh out of orange blossom water, and while Cynthia makes beautiful preserved lemons, she is overdue for making a new batch, which takes at least 2 weeks.

I substituted a pinch of sugar with slices of 1/2 of a lemon. The dish, however, really needs the preserved lemon.

Charmoula Marinade:
  • 1 tbsp dried chili
  • 1 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp chopped ginger
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 2 diced onions 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp toasted cumin seeds, ground
  • 4 diced garlic cloves
  • small handful each of chopped parsley and cilantro
  • 1/2 preserved lemon
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • sat and pepper
Mix all ingredients and let set for half an hour. Add the chicken and marinate for at least two hours.

To cook the chicken, heat peanut oil in a large pot. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and brown on both sides. Add about two cups of water, a cinnamon stick, and 4 whole cloves. Simmer for about a half hour.

When the chicken is cooked, remove it and keep in a warm oven. Strain the cooking liquid into a saucepan containing three tablespoons of butter, 1 to 2 tablespoons of toasted poppy seeds, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon, 1/2 cup of sugar and 8 - 10 oz of dried apricots.. Heat to bubbly and reduce until syrupy.

The chicken is served over saffron risotto cakes. For our meal tonite, I didn't take the time to chill and set the risotto, so I couldn't cut it into cakes. I served it as a conventional mound with the chicken piled unceremoniously on top.

To make the risotto cakes, add 1 1/2 cups of arborio rice to a pot containing one grated onion and 8 cloves of crushed garlic that have been sauteed with two seeded and diced tomatoes. Pour in 1/2 of 4 cups of chicken broth, add 1 tsp of saffron and stir constantly until the rice is sticky (about 15 - 20 minutes).

Add the remaining stock with a cup of chopped mushrooms and some lime zest. Stir another 5 or ten minutes until creamy.

Add about 3oz of grated parmigiano-reggiano and 5 tbsp butter. Stir until well combined. Pour into a pan about 1 1/2" deep and chill thoroughly.

Before serving, cut into squares and sear in a hot pan until crispy on both sides.

After chilling overnight, the risotto was firmly set and I could cut and sear the cakes. It's worth the time.

1 comment:

  1. Your posts and pictures are delicious. I'm sure not as delicious as the meals themselves, but not bad either. I'm a disaster in the kitchen so reading your blog is as close as I may get to some of your amazing dishes! Thanks from an inspired reader.