So long as I’ve had a spoon in my right hand and a fork in my left, Morocco has meant fire. Not just because my Mémé, with her fiery red hair, was born many decades ago in Casablanca (where, photos inform me, her hair was decidedly brown). But because everything that my French-Moroccan family put on my plate had spice, sass, and heat. In Morocco, spice doesn’t only mean chili, although the harissa with which I was anointed is certainly baptism by fire. It means smoky cumin, sweet cinnamon, and allspice. Like my family, Moroccan food is complicated, unruly, exotic, and feisty as hell.
Merguez is a Moroccan sausage that my family, when they left France and moved to America, had to recreate from scratch, because truth be told, there is not exactly a large Moroccan market here in the States. Here you don’t find merguez at every sausage counter as you do in France, and even in other parts of Europe. Even after Morocco ceased being a French protectorate, Moroccan food continues to pervade French restaurants and markets by the sheer force of immigration and cultural proximity.
Pink Peppercorn Tuna Tartare
Last week, I may have intimated (and knowingly) that pink peppercorns are a meek relative of the black peppercorn. But, the truth is, pink peppercorns are not peppercorns at all. They are in fact the dried berries of the Baies rose plant, which my sources tell me are grown in Madagascar and imported through France. You’ll often find them in a mixed blend of peppercorns, including black, white, and green. But, beware: they are toxic in large quantities. I love this secret ingredient! So full of danger and mystery. We are definitely living on the edge after March’s month of chamomile.
As I mentioned last week, their texture is that of a hollow Easter Egg: a quick crack and they’re in smithereens. Their flavor is more aromatically peppery than truly spicy. In both flavor and texture, they are softer than the black peppercorn.
Veal Stew Foresière
No one can name a dish like the French. My favorite moments of culinary school were spent sitting, listening to why Creme Dubarry was named after a countess, or which heroic feat inspired what battle-slain chicken. The names of dishes christened regally after landed aristocracy and great victory imbue a sense of grandeur, of pride, even of haughtiness, that accompany such church-mice affairs as cauliflower soup and lowly beef stews.
Forestière is one such name that always reproduces scenes of French legend and lore in my mind as I stand puttering about the stove. Forestière means forestry, or the forester. My stepfather Alain grew up in Normandy, and he always told me high tales of chasing hares through the forest with his dog, getting lost between wooden pillars under a canopy of leaves, and sitting down to a Normandy apple with some bread and Normandy butter on an arched, awaiting root. So whenever I make any dish forestière—a traditional flavoring combination of mushrooms and cream, and most often ham—I am reminded of a beautiful country, hearty, natural, even medieval, where wild boars bristled through the woody stumps and their tame cousins dug for truffles. I find it beautiful, and evocative.
Pink Peppercorn and Parmesan Gougères
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Pink peppercorns, which I discovered as poivre rose in cooking school, aren’t really peppercorns at all. Shakespeare may have said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but poivre rose is really a misnomer. Pepper is hard, and spicy. It makes you sneeze; it is boisterous and strident. But pink peppercorns are like hot, bright birthday balloons, freeze-dried and hollow, that crunch and crumble at the slightest pressure. They are not spicy so much as feisty, like a natural Pop Rock with just a hint of peppery spice—more subtle and delicate, in flavor and texture, than the peppercorns in your pepper mill.
The black peppercorn is the father figure: strong, set in his ways, inveterately hot-tempered. The pink peppercorn is his delicate daughter: beautiful, subtle, refined, unexpected, vivacious, and surprising. Yet, the Pink Lady doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Provençal Calamari Salad
This is a recipe of unsung heroes: calamari (calamars in French) and tarragon. I can still remember my first encounter with the thing that is calamari. It was in a spooky old cliffside restaurant near Woodstock in upstate New York. Up until that point, my only knowledge of squid was the sculpture of the giant one in the whale room at the Museum of Natural History. The crispy rings and tendrils were a revelation: crunchy, salty, chewy, briny, and even sweet in that delicate and tender way peculiar to seafood. That was twenty-one years ago, and I’ve eaten calamari at least once a week since.
Calamari is all you could every ask for: It’s cheap, it cooks in seconds, and it goes with anything, a Proteus that assumes and absorbs the flavors, and even sometimes the hue, of whatever you are cooking. And yet, for all their virtues, their ease, their inexpensiveness, they are still evocative of expensive seafood dinners, and generally bring an ooh or ahh from expectant eaters.
Apple Celeriac Remoulade
I’m continuously surprised that what seems outlandishly exotic in one region is a quotidian afterthought in the next. Think of fennel in Italy and France, and its recent revelation here in the States. And celeriac, or celery root, is one of the humblest, earthiest, and most common ingredients in France, only to be elevated by nostalgic chefs at their Paris corner restaurants.
Celeriac has the texture of something between an apple, yuca, and jicama—tender, crisp, and decidedly root-vegetable in its heartiness. Its taste is fragrant celery, more like celery seed or celery salt than the leafy-headed green tops peeking up from the vegetable bin. It’s crunchy, moist, and grassy for its pallor. Most of all, it is fresh.
Chamomile Rice Pudding
Chamomile is the comfort tea, built to settle any stomach, or any mind, at the end of a nervous, over-stuffed day. And to me, nothing is more comforting than rice pudding. This dessert plays with both chamomile tea and dried chamomile blossoms, both of which imbue a mellow floralness that counteracts the sweetness of traditional rice pudding. It’s creamy and studded with golden raisins rehydrated in a mug of chamomile tea, and sweet, sticky, floral honey. Instead of sweet, pungent, and heady vanilla—traditional in rice pudding—this version is subtle and dressed-down.
Chamomile Rice Pudding with Tea-Soaked Raisings
serves 4 to 6
- 2 cups water
- 3 tablespoons of dried edible chamomile flowers
- 4 cups milk
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 1 chamomile tea bag
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1/4 cup cream to finish (optional)
Start as though you were making a risotto. In two separate pots, heat the water and the milk. Place the chamomile flowers (not the tea bags) in the water, and allow to steep for at least ten minutes. Strain the flowers out, and return the chamomile water to the pan to keep warm.
Melt the butter in a wide pan with sides over medium low heat. Add the rice, and stir to coat, cooking for just a minute in the butter until the rice turns translucent.
Use a ladle to add the water bit by bit to the rice, adding more only as it is absorbed, and stirring continuously. Once you have used all the water, switch to milk, and continue to stir.
Meanwhile, brew a cup of chamomile tea with the tea bag. Place the golden raisins in the tea to rehydrate.
Once most of the milk has been used, and the pudding has reached a thick, porridge-like texture, add the sugar, and stir it in to melt over the heat. Add the pinch of salt as well.
Take the pan off the heat. Stir in a splash of cream to finish, and serve hot, in separate bowls or ramekins. Strain the golden raisins out of the tea, and top the pudding with them. Serve with honey alongside.
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