For October’s Open House celebration we took inspiration from my Moroccan holiday last month; and the stash of spices I’d brought back with me, to have a Moroccan themed evening. With the aid of some cushions, rugs and mood lighting, our living room was transformed into a Moroccan wonderland. There were conversations on child labour and rug weaving (demonstrated through friendship-band making), a bit of turban-tying, and excitement at having S back in the gang after several weeks away, as well as some post bake-off analysis.
Interestingly, in the time between thinking of and publishing this blog, my friend Rich has just been featured in a blog talking about cooking a Moroccan meal and building community around food!
We started out with the ubiquitous flat bread, olives and Moroccan mint tea whilst dinner was stewing. The mint tea was made from a mix of equal amounts gunpowder tea and dried mint I bought at the airport. Although I’d not invested in the staple silver-plated teapot to serve from it tasted pretty authentic poured, from as great a height as you dare to aerate the tea, from our china pot into small glasses and mugs, with a sprig of mint and sugar cube in each.
For mains I was cooking for about 12 people, and I stuck to some standard options from the tourist-focussed restaurants we visited on my trip; a Chicken Tagine with apricots and Seven Vegetable Couscous. I steered away from the standard chicken with olives given the preferences of the small people likely to be there. After a bit of googling for inspiration, I realised that I may have to freestyle the recipes more than a little, especially given I’m not entirely sure what the contents of my spice mixes are.
For the chicken tagine, my chicken joints (8 free range legs halved to thighs and drumsticks) had been marinated over night with some Harissa paste that had been languishing in the fridge, some olive oil, a tablespoon of Ras el Hanout mix and a lemon, roughly chopped into eighths. When I got home I failed to engage my brain, and immediately started off by frying up a couple of chopped onions in a not-quite large enough casserole instead of browning off the chicken joints first.
After a bit of pan-swapping faff, we had some browned joints sitting on the softened onions, to which I’d stirred in a tablespoon of the ‘Épices au poulet’ (Chicken Spice containing turmeric and other mysterious things). A pint of chicken stock then went into the pan, along with about 100g of dried apricots, roughly snipped into halves. I gave it a quick stir, then put on the lid and left it to simmer gently for about an hour, until everything else was ready; though it would probably have been done in about 40 mins.
For the Seven Vegetable Couscous, I’d prepped four of my veg the night before in order to stand a chance of serving up at a reasonable time. In the end, I let the whole thing cook for slightly too long so the squash and carrot were falling apart, so I’ll give the times for what I’d intended to do; about 30 mins in total. I’d made far too much stock so if I repeat it I’d go with about 1.5l for this.
In a giant stockpot I softened three chopped, white onions in some olive oil. Then I added in about 8 smallish carrots, chopped into quarters/eighths lengthwise depending on size, and a smallish (just under 1kg) butternut squash which I’d washed, halved, de-seeded and sliced widthways but NOT peeled as life’s too short. I then added some coriander stems, a cinnamon stick, a tablespoon of sweet paprika (Piment Doux), one of Ras el Hanout, and one of Harira spice mix. Harira is a warming Moroccan soup, and seems usually to have a blend of paprika, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon and ginger so I’m assuming that was what the mix contained! After a good stir, I added 2 litres of vegetable stock, deliberately making extra to use for the couscous later, and put the lid on the pan to simmer for about 10 mins.
Then the peppers went in: as they’d been reduced in the supermarket this was a dozen mini-peppers halved and de-seeded but could easily be three or four normal sized ones quartered. Next were two aubergines, cut in half lengthwise then each half chopped to wedges about 1cm wide on the outside, and a couple of handfuls of sultanas. After cooking these for about 10 mins more, I took out 500ml of stock and stirred it into 500g of couscous in a giant bowl, with a bit of extra Ras-el-Hanout for luck. Then, after some multiple attempts at counting to seven and resorting to using my fingers, I added the final two veg; 200g of trimmed fine green beans, and tin of tomatoes and left it to cook for what should have been a further 5 minutes.
Then stir in some butter and chopped coriander leaves to the couscous grains and break it up with a fork. Ideally the couscous (and in Morocco that’s the name of the whole dish, not just the grain) would be served piled high in a platter with the drained vegetables arranged around them, and the reduced stock served in a jug. However, we had neither a dish large enough, nor table space to serve on so instead served from the kitchen using the couscous to divide the bowls and keep the remarkably tasty mystery-chicken-spiced gravy separate from the vegetables on the other side of the bowl.
After a reasonable break, during which time there may have been some lying down on the large mound of cushions to aid digestion, we moved on to, well, afters. Our east-london source had picked up some Hazelnut and Pistachio baklava, along with the flatbreads, and these were served with dates I’d bought semi-dry from the date market in Erfoud and an Orange and Cinnamon salad.
For the salad, the ever helpful A had earlier cut the zest and pith from four large, juicy oranges, before cutting them crosswise into round slices and arranging beautifully on a plate. We then made a simple syrup with 2 tbsps each of caster sugar, boiling water and rosewater. Ideally this would have been icing sugar and orange blossom water, but this combo seemed to work just fine. We then drizzled it over the oranges, sprinkled generously with ground cinnamon, and covered it and left it in the fridge whilst we ate, and for a final, Moorish touch, sprinkled over some pomegranate.