Delicious Morocco: A Recap of Our Culinary Getaway

Hello, 2013!

I can't wait for all of the cookery and food adventures that are ahead of us. 2012 was a busy, amazing year (I even got to be on TV!), and it ended on a beautiful high note -- a culinary tour of Morocco.

Essaouira Rooftops.
Below is a recap of the food highlights from that trip. It's hard to explain everything we experienced--but the cuisine is a good start. We ate like kings. Imagine if you will, an array of oranges, olives, loaves of fire-baked bread, food-grade argan oil, and golden honey. And that's just the precursor to breakfast, where you'll be treated to fresh-squeezed orange juice and stacks of chewy, smoky Berber crepes, along with baskets of luscious pastries -- a nod to the French influence that prevails throughout Morocco. At lunchtime, the air is scented with the smells of tagines cooking over a charcoal fire--a hint of cinnamon, cumin, ras el hanout (a special mix of 35 spices), paprika, tumeric, and/or saffron in the cool breeze, and maybe the smell of fresh, grilled fish if you're by the ocean. At dinner, bowls are filled to the brim with warm vegetable salads that you scoop up with dense slices of bread, couscous piled high with organic vegetables, bright and flavorful. And, several times a day you stop for a glass of steaming tea steeped with mint, sage, marjoram, or absinthe... and let's not forget the joy of tasting plump dates and walnuts picked right off the trees during a mountain hike. We had five cooking classes during our trip, and learning to cook traditional Moroccan dishes in the kitchens of quaint riads and regal kasbahs was pretty awesome. (And tasty, too.)

It's hard to choose a favorite food moment. Maybe it was at lunch at Port de Peche where we sucked down oysters the size of my fist, or the pigeon pastilla and lamb tagine at the charming restaurant Mounia, both in Casablanca.  Or, maybe it was choosing a crab at the fish stalls in Essaouira that was immediately grilled over hot coals while I waited, and served with wedges of lemon and hunks of crusty bread, seawater still in its claws. Or, a romantic dinner at the quirky and chic restaurant Elizir, in the middle of the Essaouira medina. Walking through olive groves with a trusty donkey to a Monday Berber market in the High Atlas Mountains, where we bought carrots, eggplant, tomatoes, fava beans, and freshly butchered beef for our dinner was also pretty magical, complete with a tentative sampling of sticky, pungent cow's hoof stew with chickpeas (a delicacy, so they say). Or, making our own pastilla (a dish usually reserved for weddings) on Christmas Eve, while the evening prayer call echoed in the night air. And, nothing compares to the sensory overload of the chaos and excitement of the food stalls in Marrakech's Jamaa el Fna square. Morocco was a magical place, and Chris and I were lucky to spend ten days there. Here are some of the great food moments. Enjoy.

Hello, Morocco
Casablanca was the first and also the last stop on our trip, thanks to the convenience of a direct flight to/from JFK. We didn't spend a lot of time there, but the tour of the Hassan II mosque (the third-largest and the tallest religious monument in the world), lunch at the pier and cocktails at Rick's Cafe are not to be missed. We had our first full Moroccan meal at Mounia, complete with tagine, couscous, pastilla and harira soup. It is a gorgeous little restaurant with a huge weeping willow tree in front and jewel-toned zellige (tilework) throughout. The food was delicious and we're still talking about the charming waiters who treated us like family. Highly recommended.
Casablanca, Morocco.
Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca.
Lunch spot in Casablanca, and our first meal in Morocco.
We tried giant oysters on the half shell, grilled sardines, a flaky St. Pierre fillet and more.

City by the Sea
Essaouira is a laid-back seaside town with a bustling medina filled with colorful baskets, carpets, scarves, silver jewelry, and other handicrafts. Fish stalls piled high with fresh seafood line the port and quaint cafes in the square are perfect for people-watching and espresso sipping. And, the sunset views are like no other. It is normally very windy in Essaouira this time of year, but we had sunshine every day and only a light breeze. Our first cooking class was here in our riad's commercial kitchen, and Chris and I learned to prepare a simple but delightful fish tagine and a cool, crisp Moroccan salad. It was one of my favorite meals. On a side note, there were a ton of cats in Essaouria (and Morocco in general), which was pretty fun. We turned a corner one afternoon to the sight of a satisfied kitty finishing off a fish head, and across the way, a snoozing puss on a colorful pile of Berber carpets. Happy cats for sure. Just like us.
Essaouira, Morocco. 
The port at Essaouira.
Boats bring in hauls of sardines, crab, dorado, eel, shark, St. Pierre, etc. twice a day.
Fish tagine with tomatoes, carrots, peppers, potatoes
and a delicious Chermoula marinade. From Cooking Class #1.
Moroccan Salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and onion and seasoned with cumin and lemon juice.
From Cooking Class #1.
The High Atlas Mountains
Off to the High Atlas Mountains, and the Berber people of the Ourika Valley. This part of Morocco is more conservative, and the women do most of the work here. They are super tough and super sweet. Olive, orange and lemon trees line the roads, and we made use of the gorgeous produce we purchased at the weekly market. We cooked a lot during this part of the trip -- and, we totally rocked the kasbah! We were fortunate to learn how to make pastilla, a savory/sweet poultry and sugared almond-filled pastry usually reserved for wedding celebrations. And of course we made hearty, restorative harira soup and the national dish: couscous -- which is not treated as a side dish but as the main event, often served on Fridays after prayer and shared by the whole family. We learned that the secret to a great couscous is in steaming it at least three times over the heat of a bubbling pot filled with spices, herbs, water, peppers, carrots, onions, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and hunks of meat on the bone. The flavorful sauce from this is then strained and poured over the couscous and contents of the pot. (You judge your couscous on how good the sauce is.) And the warm Moroccan salads, zaalouk (eggplant salad) and taktouka (roasted pepper salad), are ones I'll be adding to my repertoire for sure. We even woke early on Christmas Day to make Berber crepes -- and ate them hot off the stove, smeared with honey, marmalade and amlou (a mixture of honey, almonds and argan oil).

We drank lots and lots of mint tea (a.k.a Moroccan Whiskey) during our entire visit, and we were invited to a local family's home to have tea when we were in the mountains. The tea is a base of green tea, flavored with heaps of sugar (Moroccans love sugar) and usually mint, although we had versions with sage, marjoram, absinthe, and lemon verbena. The boiling hot tea is poured ceremoniously from a high distance into small glasses, to both aerate and cool it. It was very sugary -- and I preferred the versions that were more floral than sweet. But, when in Rome, er, Morocco...
The High Atlas Mountains, Ourika Valley, Morocco.
The meat market.
Spices galore!
Fava beans (left) and green beans (right).

Piles and piles of fruits and veggies at the market.
The Donkey Parking Lot at the market.
Cow's Hoof Stew with Chickpeas from a stall in the market.
Zaalouk (Eggplant salad). From Cooking Class #2.
Taktouka (Roasted pepper salad). From Cooking Class #2.
Chicken Pastilla (topped with toasted almonds and honey).
From Cooking Class #2.

Making Berber Crepes. From Cooking Class #3.

Harira Soup. From Cooking Class #4.
Preparing the couscous. From Cooking Class #4.
Couscous with Beef and Vegetables. From Cooking Class #4.
Berber woman making mint tea.
The makings of mint tea -- green tea, mint, and LOTS of sugar.

Marrakech Madness
The last leg of our trip was a visit to Marrakech -- Morocco's "Red City." If any place in Morocco is like New York City, Marrakech is it.  Everywhere you look there's something to see, smell, touch, hear, or taste. Your senses are assaulted all at once: the bright colors of Berber carpets and babouches (slippers), the heat from a glass of mint tea and the chill in the morning air, the haunting tune played by a snake charmer mixed with a prayer call and shouts from the vendors at the food stalls and souks ("Come see! Take a look! Want to buy?"), plus honking and bells from mopeds, bicycles and even donkeys, as they try to sneak through the crowded, tight medina walkways. And, taste: cafes on the square, stalls piled high with dried fruits and nuts, mountains of oranges, bowls overflowing with snails, plus the smells of grilled kabobs, and sacks and sacks of spices. Anything you want is in Marrakech, but you have to be willing to haggle for it. There are no prices, but nothing is free. We used our NYC/NJ attitudes to get a few deals, but the guys in the souks are hardcore. It's tradition, I guess, but it also took some of the fun out of buying our souvenirs. I also had a hard time taking pictures here since most people wanted to be paid for the photos I took. So, most of the shots from Marrakech are blurry or taken from afar. Craziness! Back at the peace of our beautiful riad, we spent our last night in Morocco cooking and eating up a storm. Chicken tagine with olives and lemon, beef tagine with almonds and prunes, four cooked salads, crusty bread and even a bottle of Moroccan sparkling wine! It was a feast that ended with a gorgeous bowl of sliced fruit tossed with orange-blossom water.  A perfect way to end an amazing adventure, for sure.

Spices and herbs in a Marrakech drugstore.

Dried fruits and nuts in the square at night.

Jamaa el Fna square, Marrakech, at night.

Spice square, Marrakech.
A stall in the spice market.

Tagines on the stove.

Chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives. From Cooking Class #5.
Beef tagine with toasted almonds and prunes. From Cooking Class #5.

Shredded carrot with cumin and cilantro. From Cooking Class #5.

Roasted tomatoes with peppers (layered). From Cooking Class #5.
Baby zucchini with lemon and paprika. From Cooking Class #5.

Zaalouk made with roasted eggplant. From Cooking Class #5.

The colorful sights, amazing smells, warm flavors, and lovely people are something I'll not soon forget. Morocco, you were delicious.

Au revoir, 2012. Bonjour, 2013!