Moroccan food: simply delicious

Preparation: Ethnic dishes such as couscous, tagine and mint tea can be made with just a few cooking implements.

January 06, 1999|By Kitty Morse | Kitty Morse,los angeles times syndicate

Moroccan cooks rely on relatively few implements to create their exquisite dishes. Most women use a simple canoun (small charcoal brazier) as their only source of heat to boil water for mint tea or to slow-cook a savory tagine.

They also have at their disposal an assortment of earthenware platters with distinctive conical lids, called tagine slaoui, for making tagines, as well as several aluminum colander-capped soup pots called keskess, for making couscous. For grinding spices, they have a brass mehraz, or mortar and pestle. A shallow wooden or earthenware platter called a ga'saa is used for kneading dough or rolling the semolina for couscous. Bread, as well as larger dishes like mechoui, or roast lamb, are taken to the public ovens for baking.

Wealthier households maintain two kitchens: one to prepare

traditional dishes for special occasions, and another, more modern one, for everyday use. My friend Ahlam Lemseffer, a busy career woman in Casablanca, insists on cooking tagines and couscous on her charcoal canoun when she entertains. For her more mundane culinary activities, however, she prefers the convenience of a modern gas stove.

You don't have to own traditional implements to prepare good Moroccan food. An enameled casserole with a lid, a small Dutch oven or a crockpot is a perfectly acceptable substitute for the traditional tagine slaoui. If a keskess, or couscoussiere, for making couscous is not available, use a large stockpot or steamer topped with a tight-fitting colander or sieve. Line the bottom of the colander with a clean, fine muslin dishcloth to prevent the couscous granules from slipping through the holes.

Tagine Bil Hoot (Tagine of Fish)

Serves 4

1/4 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1/2 cup olive oil

2 teaspoons sweet Hungarian paprika

8 threads Spanish saffron, toasted and crushed (see note)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 lemon

4 (6-ounce) boned fish fillets

4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon ground cumin

salt, freshly ground pepper

2 carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally

1 onion, thinly sliced

thin slices of lemon

12 green or black olives, pitted

fresh parsley or cilantro leaves, for garnish

In large bowl, mix parsley, cilantro, oil, paprika, saffron and ginger. Add juice of half of lemon. Coat fish fillets with mixture and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours, turning over once or twice. Cut other lemon half into very thin slices. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in large saucepan, combine tomatoes, garlic and cumin and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly, 8 to 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Place carrots in single layer on bottom of small Dutch oven or enameled casserole. Cover with onion slices. Spoon tomato sauce over onions. Cover and cook over medium heat until carrots are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from heat.

Set fish on top of vegetables. Top each fillet with one lemon slice. Add marinade. Surround fish with olives. Cover and cook over medium heat until fish is flaky, 10 to 12 minutes. Spoon some sauce over fish. Garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.

Note: To release saffron's intense aroma, place threads in small nonstick skillet and stir constantly over medium-high heat 2 to 3 minutes. Crush threads between fingers or pound them in mortar along with dash salt before using.

Kteffa (Phyllo Pastries With Orange-Flower Custard and Fresh Berries)

Serves 6

1 3/4 cups whole blanched almonds, toasted

1/4 cup powdered sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

8 sheets phyllo dough, thawed

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

2 cups milk

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cinnamon stick

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons orange-flower water (available in specialty food markets)

2 cups fresh raspberries,

blackberries or strawberries

To toast almonds, place nuts on baking sheet in thin layer. Bake at 375 degrees, turning once or twice, 5 to 8 minutes, until nuts turn light brown.

In blender or food processor, coarsely grind almonds. Transfer to medium bowl and combine with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Set aside.

Stack phyllo sheets on work surface. Using sharp knife, with 4-inch-diameter bowl or saucer as template, cut 6 circles out of stacked phyllo. You will have 48 circles or 8 for each pastry. Discard scraps.

On parchment-lined or nonstick baking sheet, stack 2 phyllo leaves, lightly brushing each with melted butter. Sprinkle top leaf evenly with 1 level tablespoon almond mixture. Repeat process twice. Top with 2 final buttered leaves. Repeat process to make remaining 5 pastries.

Bake pastries on center rack at 350 degrees 20 to 25 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven. With metal spatula, transfer each pastry to dessert plate.

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