The Moroccan Pantry
From the zing of preserved lemons to the delights of feathery couscous, here are some of the distinctive ingredients and techniques that add magic to Moroccan cuisine. Read our article about Moroccan Jewish cuisine.
By Jayne Cohen
Available at Middle Eastern and specialty stores as well as many well-stocked supermarkets, the staples described below are some of the essentials you'll need for Moroccan recipes. But don't stop there—many of these items will add magic to other dishes as well. For example, to make one of my favorite sandwiches, a Tunisian specialty, mix harissa and preserved lemon into best-quality canned tuna in olive oil; pack into crusty bread or a roll, along with sliced egg, olives, tomato, greens, and if you'd like, cooked potato. You’ll find more suggestions here, but for other ideas, check out NYShuk.com. They feature additional creative ways to use harissa and the other excellent Moroccan products they make.
Prized for its assertive, distinctive nutty taste resembling toasted hazelnuts, this oil is extracted from the nuts of the argan tree, which is indigenous to the Moroccan southwest, where Essaouira (Mogador) is located. It is primarily used to drizzle over fish, couscous, and cooked vegetables, and to dress salads. Produced artisanally, argan oil is costly, but because of its strong flavor, a little goes a long way. Since it is also an au courant ingredient in beauty and hair products, be sure to buy only food-grade argan oil.
Couscous is often described as Moroccan pasta. But the textures of the two are quite different: Pasta is cooked directly in boiling water, giving it a characteristic smooth, slippery surface, while couscous, traditionally steamed above a liquid, cooks up fluffy, more like bulgur and similar grain dishes. (On the other hand, what is known as “Israeli couscous," or ptitim, is boiled in water and does taste like little balls of pasta.)
Couscous is made by rubbing and rolling semolina—or, less often, barley, millet, whole wheat or other grain products—with water into little pellets, pushing them through sieves to form smaller, uniform-sized balls, and then drying them. Today, even in Morocco and the rest of North Africa, cooks rarely do this from scratch; the process is almost always performed commercially by machines now.
Although hand-rolled, sun-dried couscous and artisanal brands are available here, most couscous sold in the United States is pre-cooked, "instant couscous." Usually prepared by pouring boiling water or broth over the couscous, letting it absorb the liquid, and then fluffing up the grains, this produces a quick, creditable version— especially if you give the couscous plenty of room to expand by preparing it in a large baking dish, as in our recipe for Liora’s Festive Vegetable Couscous.
And for most purposes, this will be perfectly fine. But it's certainly not the couscous that travelers to Morocco fall in love with. You see, when couscous is moistened, it swells to several times its original volume, and the more it expands, the lighter, airier, and more delicate it becomes. And, in fact, many people claim that if couscous hasn't expanded properly, it will continue to expand in your stomach, making you feel overly full and bloated.
So for the fluffiest, most tender result, cooks moisten and steam their couscous two or three times. Is it worth it? That depends. When I've done it for special occasions and Rosh Hashanah Seders, my guests and I noticed a world of difference between the steamed version and the weekday convenience dish with which we were accustomed. I've never been to Morocco, but it was as ethereal as the most exquisite couscous at my favorite Moroccan restaurant in Paris. Steaming produces a huge quantity; I felt like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, faced with ever-growing amounts of couscous with every step.
But the process does take considerably more time. If possible, do try it at least once. (Or make your couscous the regular quick way, but then give it one steaming before serving.) And you can prepare it ahead, up to the final steaming. Here's how:
For 6 to 9 servings, put 3 cups of couscous in a very large baking pan. Combine 2-3 cups of lightly salted hot water or broth (include seasonings, like saffron, if desired) with 3 tablespoons olive oil, pour over the couscous, and mix to make sure all the grains are moistened. Let the couscous absorb the liquid. Rub the couscous between your fingers to separate the grains and remove any lumps. If you don't have a couscoussier (special pot for cooking couscous), use a deep pot fitted with a colander or a pasta pot with a steamer insert. If the holes are too big, line the colander or insert with dampened cheesecloth so the couscous won't fall through. Fill the pot with water, making sure that there is enough space so that the bottom of the colander or insert won’t touch the water. Place the colander or insert in the pot and bring the liquid to a boil. Spoon in moistened couscous; steam, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes.
Transfer the couscous back to the baking pan and spread the grains out. Sprinkle with 1 cup of cold water. When cool enough to handle, separate and break up the grains with your fingers or 2 forks, and let rest for about 10 minutes. Add more water to the bottom of the pot if necessary, then pile the couscous back into the colander or insert and steam again for 15 to 20 minutes.
Return the couscous to the baking pan, and if you want to prepare ahead up to this point, you can cover the pan with a damp kitchen towel for several hours, if desired.About 30 minutes before serving, rub to separate the grains, then steam one final time for about 10 minutes. Spoon the couscous onto a wide serving platter or tray and toss with about 1½ cups of cooking liquid from a stew or well-flavored broth or with some melted butter to moisten well. If desired, form a mound and make a well, then fill with meat and/or vegetables accompanying the couscous. Or form into a pyramid and drizzle with melted butter or decorate with lines of sprinkled cinnamon or pomegranate seeds.
Whether you are serving the couscous with a saucy meat or vegetable stew or just solo, for a real Couscous de Cérémonie (special grand presentation), include some of the following garnishes in bowls or spooned into a ring around the couscous border: caramelized onions and dried currants; chickpeas and raisins; sautéed slivered almonds; tender prunes stuffed with walnuts; date halves folded around almonds; pomegranate seeds; and chopped pistachios.
Originally from Tunisia, this popular chili and garlic paste is now as ubiquitous in Moroccan homes and restaurants as ketchup is in American ones. It's not simply a hot sauce; its rich, deep flavor provides more complexity than just heat. Harissa is used as a spread for sandwiches, a condiment for kebabs and couscous, and a finishing touch for soups, stews, cooked vegetables, and salads. It also works well as a seasoning during cooking, as in our featured recipe for Short Rib, Chickpea and Harissa Stew. Also, try harissa in meat marinades, egg dishes, and your next Bloody Mary.
Paula Wolfert writes that "Preserved lemons are the most important condiment in the Moroccan larder." And Mourad Lahlou, owner of the ground-breaking Aziza restaurant in San Francisco, goes even further: Preserved lemons are, he says in his cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan, “Morocco's greatest contribution to the world, period." If you're a fan of bright, tart, pickle-y flavors, it's easy enough to become addicted to these lemons, which are cured and preserved with salt and fresh lemon juice. This process gives the fruit a unique, snappy acidity, and a fragrant, citrusy salinity, and turns the rind satiny soft. Preserved lemon adds plenty of zing to starches, earthy stews and vegetables, and long-cooked meats. It perks up salads, especially those made with cooked vegetables like eggplant or roasted peppers, as well as fish dishes, and provides the distinctive taste in the iconic chicken with preserved lemon and olives. You'll find many uses for preserved lemon, including as an addition to simply cooked vegetables and as a seasoning for olives and sauces, such as mayonnaise. Most recipes direct you to use only the rind and discard the pulp, but I find a little of the mashed pulp adds delicious, albeit salty, flavor to marinades and some sauces. Before using the rind in recipes, rinse to remove some of the saltiness.
Ras el Hanout
Literally translated as "top of the shop," this special blend of spices imparts a signature Moroccan taste to foods, much the same way that curry powder might suggest an Indian flavor. Spice merchants come up with different proprietary combinations--some even claim to have 100 ingredients or more. Good commercially available versions contain a balance of sweet, heat, and aromatic in their blends, usually including at least some or all of the following: cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, cloves, turmeric, rosebuds, cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppers, and chilies. Ras el hanout is often called for in meat dishes, slow-cooked saucy dishes, couscous, and other recipes. Try it as a dry rub for roast chicken, with roasted butternut squash and other autumn vegetables, in root vegetable soups and stews, and in pilafs.