Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Morocco, Closer than Paris and a Lot More Exotic


To get a good photograph of Casablanca's Mosque Hassan II took a lot of backing up and avoiding the crowds of international tourists who had come to visit one of the world's largest mosques.
The building is not only about size, but details. The mosque invites visitors to appreciate the scale of nature and the intricacies of life as represented by the exquisite metal and tile work. As if it were the land's sentinel protecting man from the violence of the world, the Mosque stands on the edge of the North African continent, on the edge of a palisade overlooking the turbulent Atlantic Ocean.
A trip to Morocco often begins in Casablanca and frequently tour guides make the Mosque one of the first stops. After the majesty of the Mosque, we traveled north-east toward Fez, stopping in Mouly Idriss, a historically important hill city where we had lunch at Restaurant Alaambra with an open air-patio and grill.
The Mosque and Restaurant Alaambra were two good tent poles for our Moroccan trip. The spiritual and sublime mixed with the very human scale of every day life.

Visit a souk in Fez, Marrakech or seaside Essaouira and life tumbles out. Freshly butchered sheep, goats and cattle hang in the open air. Rabbits, pigeons and chickens sit quietly in wire cages waiting to be selected and turned into the family dinner. As a former French colony, bi-lingual Morocco has as many excellent bakeries selling croissants as Arabic bread.
A press trip to Morocco for New York Daily News circumnavigated the country, showing us the coastal cities of Casablanca and Essaouira, inland to traditional Fez, the Roman ruins of Volubilis, cosmopolitan Marrakech and relaxed Imlil in the High Atlas Mountains.

The article appeared Sunday in the print edtion and online: Former French colony of Morocco has much to recommend: stable government, good roads, beautiful architecture, exotic locales



Sunday, October 21, 2012

What's Cooking in New Orleans


Mention New Orleans and anyone who's been says, "The food's so great. And the music. If you go, you'll love it."
I hadn't been so when I was able to stay for a three day weekend in early October, I jumped at the chance.

With so few days in town, I asked for suggestions on Facebook and Twitter, read guide books and got recommendations from friends who are NOLA aficionados.

Certain restaurants appeared on multiple lists:

Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville Street, New Orleans 504/522-5973) in the French Quarter (for oysters although I was advised the place is so crowded, a good workaround to get in is to sit at the bar between 3:00pm-4:00pm).

Donald Link's restaurants are popular, especially Herbsaint (701 Saint Charles Avenue, New Orleans 504/524-4114) and Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas Street, New Orleans 504/588-2123) I made it to the latter, but more about that in a minute.
Fried chicken at Willie Mae's Scotch House (2401 At. Ann Street, Seventh Ward, New Orleans, 504/822-9503). Not close to anything, tucked away in a suburb, but well worth the 10 minute cab ride or 30 minute walk from the French Quarter.

Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the original Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/525-4544) in the French Quarter for a morning or afternoon cafe au lait and beignets.

In the jackets-preferred Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Avenue, Garden District, New Orleans, 504/899-8221), Antoine's Restaurant  (713 Saint Louis Street, New Orleans 504/581-4422) and Galatoire's Restaurant (209 Bourbon Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/525-2021) for an upscale version of Creole, Cajun and New Orleans cooking.

We didn't have time to use the St. Charles streetcar, travel on a Mississippi riverboat, take a ride in a horse drawn carriage through the French Quarter or visit the Audubon Zoo.

Because the city is on mostly flat ground, riding a bicycle is a great way to get around town. My wife took an early morning bike ride. Leaving the Hotel Modern (936 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, 504/962-0900, 800/684-9535) where we were staying, she spent two hours happily riding around the Garden District's stately homes and the hauntingly beautiful cemeteries.
We missed many of the recommended places, but we did have a drink at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monetleone (214 Royal Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/528-1019), which made me dizzy even though we were sitting safely in the nearby large lounge. Changing my seat improved the experience so instead of watching the slowly spinning bar, I watched people on the street walking by and riding in horse drawn carriages.
We heard music everywhere, in bars, on the street and in parks.
Our first night in town, arriving late because our Southwest flight was delayed, we walked into the French Quarter for something to eat. Surprisingly, given New Orleans' reputation as a party town, all the restaurants were closed by 10:00 PM.

After asking around, just off Bourbon Street we found Oceana Grill (739 Conti Street, French Quarter, New Orleans, 504/525-6002) which stayed open later than most restaurants.
Not on anyone's list, we enjoyed our meal of Cajun seafood gumbo, blackened red fish with red beans and rice and bread pudding with whipped cream. Even though it was close to 11:00 PM, the food tasted freshly made, the crab was sweet and delicious, the red fish with Creole seasoning was moist and spicy.
A Manhattan-up-with-a-twist was made with the local Sazerac Rye. Very nice.

On our short trip, we started a list of places we would happily recommend and look forward to visiting again.

We made a pilgrimage to cash-only Cafe du Monde for coffee and a breakfast beignet. Given the crowds morning-noon-and-night, it's surprising they have such a limited menu. Basically it's a riff on the SNL cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger joke. Only here it's cafe ole-beignet-orange juice.
The beignets--better than any I've eaten anywhere else--arrive thickly coated with powdered sugar on tapas sized plates. There's no way you'll eat your beignet and NOT get sugar on your shirt and pants.
The coffee is great and goes perfectly with the airy-suggary beignets. Even though the place is crowded, the turnover is quick so even if there is a long line to get in, you can sit, eat and even read the newspaper without feeling guilty.
A kitchen the size of a large closet accommodates dozens of waitstaff and kitchen help. With exquisite choreography, servers carrying large trays loaded down with silverware, stacks of paper napkins, water glasses, coffees and beignets leave the kitchen passing by others returning tray-fulls of empty glasses, dirty silverware and plates.
Meals at Herbsaint and Cochon were good. Finding fresh vegetables that haven't been steamed, stewed and fried isn't that easy in New Orleans. Donald Link treats his veggies with respect even as he celebrates all things meat, especially pork at pig-centric Cochon where I had a crust-perfect serving of short ribs on a bed of vegetables and creamy faro.
For lovers of good fried chicken, Willie Mae's is a lot of fun. One of my fondest memories growing up was our trips to the beach with containers filled with potato salad and fried chicken. Admittedly the fried chicken was soggy after spending the night in the refrigerator, but I loved it none the less.
At Willie Mae's, there is no such thing as soggy fried chicken. The chicken that arrives on the plate is as crisp as can be with the meat, hot and moist.

For $10.00, you get a wing, thigh and leg, a corn muffin and a choice of sides, which in my case was not a "side" but a second course of red beans and rice served in a large bowl. I loved the fried chicken and the red beans and rice. The beans were thick with flavor and a touch of heat.

The best meal of the trip started with an interview with Austin Kirzner, executive chef at Red Fish Grill on the edge of the French Quarter. Kirzner sat down with me over a cup of coffee in the morning before the restaurant opened and described the kind of cooking he learned to do in Louisiana and New Orleans.

To illustrate what he was talking about, he showed me how to make a New Orleans classic: BBQ Shrimp. The video lays out all the ingredients and the techniques required to make an easy-to-make recipe that any home cook could prepare.
The heads-on shrimp were delicious. And his creamy cheesy grits were as good.
At night my wife and I came back for a tasting of Red Fish Grill's menu.
Kirzner showed us his favorites: the BBQ oysters which were actually deep fried and served with blue cheese dressing, raw oysters on the half shell and Louisiana blue crab cakes.
A crispy whole redfish looked as if it could still swim but this time in a river of vegetables and a filet of hickory grilled redfish was topped with sweet lump crabmeat.
Several delicious desserts appeared on the table, including a fat slice of pecan pie with whipped cream and an over-the-top triple chocolate bread pudding that could barely contain itself in its silver bowl.
When we weren't eating and listening to music, we walked around the city, admiring signs, graffiti and architecture that was unique, distinctive, traditional and modern, with a sense of humor and a delight in bright, vibrant colors.










Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Cooking Class High in Morocco's Atlas Mountains

Taking a cooking class is a great way to learn about another culture. In Morocco recently we had a cooking class in a very unlikely spot--a mountain top in the High Atlas Mountains.
At the trekking hotel, Kasbah Toubkal, adventurers head off by foot and donkey on trails that go deep into the mountains for all-day and all-week trips.
Berber villages cling to the sides of the mountains, accessed only by dirt trails littered with donkey poop and walnut shells from the orchards along the path.
For our cooking class, in a clean and organized kitchen, straight out of the 1960s, our group sat on low stools around tables covered with whole chickens, large chunks of bone-in lamb shoulder, fresh tomatoes, turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, zucchini and a jumble of herbs and spices.
Haja Rkia ben Houari ("Haja" because Rkia had completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) had invited us into her kitchen to show us how to make a traditional Moroccan meal of couscous, tagine, freshly made bread and mint tea. 

Haja Rkia was assisted by Fatima. Since they are Berber, their approach to these national classics has a local touch.

In the morning we passed through Asni, the Berber village in the foothills below Kasbah Toubkal in Imlil. The Saturday market has everything you would want to prepare a meal: live poultry and rabbits, fresh produce, herbs, spices, sweets and baked bread.
Women are not allowed in the market. Men are sent to get what their household needs.

But the the fresh produce for our meal comes from the gardens in Imlil, the village at the bottom of the dirt road from Kasbah Toubkal. 
Haja Rkia leads me to the cold room to pick out what she wants to use. We carry back an enormous bowl filled to overflowing with fresh produce and root vegetables. No plastic wrapped tomatoes from the supermarket for this meal.
The prep room where the meat is cut apart and the vegetables cleaned and peeled is in a side room off the kitchen. The couscous will be cooked on the 1960's stove. The tagine--the conically topped, glazed clay cooking pots that are uniquely Moroccan--will be cooked in the open air laundry room on charcoal braziers.
The fresh bread is toasted on a wood fueled, mud stove in an open air shed outside. Fatima crouches within inches of the fire, using her smoke blackened fingers to gently turn the flat bread again and again on the hot metal cooking plate. Each side of the bread takes on a beautiful caramel color.
Smoke from the fires soaks into the tagine and the bread adding a lovely fragrance.
Making Moroccan dishes at home
Not every American kitchen has tagine and couscous pots. Happily, the recipe for chicken tagine can be made in a covered pot used for braising.
When Moroccans entertain, they make enormous amounts of food because no host wants their guests to go home still hungry.

The dinner was delicious, especially the bread. To finish the meal, we were served mint tea, which in Morocco means sweetened green tea, flavored with fresh mint leaves and served with ceremonial flair, the pot raised high in the air to aerated the tea and impress the guests.
The tea packs a wallop. Heavily caffeinated and tarted up with white sugar, the tea woke us up after the heavy meal and helped us manage the long walk down the hill in the dark.
Chicken and Potato Tagine

Tagines are used to cook combinations of vegetables, meat, poultry or seafood. Because our couscous used copious quantities of vegetables, for contrast Haja Rkia used potatoes for our chicken tagine.
Serves 4

Ingredients


1 whole chicken, washed, brined overnight in the refrigerator
1 large russet potato, peeled, cut into tablespoon sized pieces
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon on 1 package powdered saffron
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup chicken stock or water
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1/3 bunch cilantro, stems and leaves
1 medium red onion, peeled, stem removed, finely chopped
1/2 preserved lemon (available in specialty markets)
1 dozen green olives
1 four minute hard-boiled egg
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon kosher salt

Directions

Put the whole chicken into a large contained. Cover with water. Add 1/2 cup kosher salt. Refrigerate over night.

Before using, rinse and pat dry the chicken. Cut apart the chicken. Wings, legs, thighs and breasts quartered.

Bend the cilantro in half to better control and finely cut. 

Place the garlic and cilantro pieces in a mortar and pestle and mash together or crush on a cutting board using the flat side of a chefs knife.

Place the chicken pieces in the tagine.

Season with kosher salt.

Add the oils, herbs, spices and toss well to coat. 

Place on a medium flame and cover.

Scrape the white part off from the preserved lemon peel and discard. Cut the peel into slices and set aside.

After 15 minutes, add the chicken stock or water and cover. Turn the chicken frequently. When the chicken is tender, add the potatoes and preserved lemon.

When the potatoes are tender, add the onions. Cook another five minutes and move the tagine to a trivet on the table. If using a pot, transfer the chicken and vegetables to a serving dish and place on the table.

Slice open the hard boiled egg and place on top. Sprinkle with the green olives.

Serve with fresh French bread.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Morocco from Casablanca to Fez


From Casablanca on the coast to the inland city of Fez in the northern part of Morocco, the area looks very much like the American Southwest.

Looking out the window of the van, there's not much to see.

A well-paved highway cuts through the flat, dusty farmland, passing villages remarkable only for the number of flat roofed houses with satellite dishes and the occasional donkey cart.

I'm with a group of travel and food writers visiting Morocco. Some of us are here for the first time.

Before we leave Casablanca we stop at the Mosque Hassam II, the 3rd largest mosque in the world, the largest in Morocco. 
The scale of the doors makes visitors look very small. The detailing on tiles and metal work on the tall doorways is beautiful. The mosque overlooks the breakwater and harbor.
A few blocks away, restaurants and clubs share the same view. 
We grab a quick breakfast after our all-night flight before we climb in the van for a three hour drive.

Passing through villages along the way, small roadside cafes and stores selling drinks and snacks are the only commerce visible from the road. On the outskirts of Menekes we see something that makes us stop the van and get out for a look.

Open air meat markets.
When you see that, you know you aren't in Kansas anymore. The butchers are friendly. Sides of beef and sheep hang outside in front of the shops. Cuts of meat are laid out on the counters.
From that dusty scene we head on to Chateau Roslane, the largest winery in Morocco and worlds away from the butcher shops. A large, well-landscaped facility, we have a tasting of white, red and rose wines. All very good. Light and perfect for a summer meal.
For lunch we eat in the hill-top holy city of Moulyidriss. The buildings press against one another, moving like waves up the hills and down into the valley.
We want an authentic Moroccan meal. 

We have lunch on what our guide says is called "the Food Street," because there are small cafes mixed in with dry goods stores and stalls selling olives and bread.
Restaurant Alaambra is a hole in the wall. An open-air space with a dining area in front with a cash register on one side and a few plastic covered tables in the middle. 
The tables and chairs look like they came from someone's house. A larger dining room is in back. We sit out in front where we can watch the cook prepare the meal.
Wearing a bright red fez, Abdoul cooks outside in front of the restaurant. Opposite the cash register a row of clay tangines cook on a metal tray.
He checks the progress of the tangines and returns to his elevated kitchen on the other side of the outdoor area.
He smiles as he forms ground beef into thick dowels and places them into wire grilles with two sides. He flips one side on top of the other and places the meat on the gas powered grill next to ones filled with sliced tomatoes, onions and eggplant. 

He fills two more wire grilles with chicken and beef fillets and adds them to the others. Fat from the beef explodes into flames. Abdoul deftly controls the fire by flipping the grilles on top of one another. A spray of water beats back the flames.
At the table, the conical top of a tangine is removed as if it were a hat removed out of courtesy. Sliced carrots, zucchini, string beans and chunks of potato have cooked in a bubbling broth. The heat from the flames having created a thick sweetened crust on the bottom of the tangine that requires tugging to remove.
Baskets of soft white bread appear as well, along with small plates of stewed white beans, cooked potato cubes in tomato sauce, spicy herbed green and black olives, thick cut French fries and two wonderfully crisp potato croquettes that we share with great relish.
The fruit of Abdoul's fiery labors come to the table, a mix of charred meats, flavored by their own fat and the smoky flames, and the vegetable slices still mostly raw but singed and sweetened by caramelization.

Knives and forks give way to fingers tearing pieces of the soft white bread that are dipped into the tangine to soak up the delicious broth, then picking up pieces of onion, tomato and eggplant along with a choice of chicken and beef two ways.

Each mouthful benefits from a marriage of salt and fire sweetened fat. Here is umami, Arabic style. The whole much larger than the parts.

Against this marriage of flavors, the crispy croquette holds its own. The olives, French fries and white beans are in supporting roles. They might be overlooked entirely in the competition for attention but they also serve who stand and wait and in short order they too are consumed along with their more popular brethren.
Very full, we stagger back to the van, aware that we are only half-way through our first day and there is so much more to experience.  Still working in front of his fires, Abdoul gives us a big wave and a smile as we leave.