Earlier this summer, Artisan sent me a review copy of Mourad Lahlou’s new cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan and asked me to give it a try, in competition with staff from a number of other bookstores around the country. We packed some lemons in salt and put them in the cupboard, tried to decide what to cook, and then got incredibly busy doing other stuff, most significantly culinary school. Now that I’m in class from 4:30 PM to 12:30 AM twice a week, I barely have time to cook at home! It was only this past weekend that we finally managed to get our acts together around the house and throw this thing down. Normally we’d do a cookbook-centric party as a pot luck, but with this one, and on this schedule, I wound up doing all the cooking myself, with the odd assist from Mr. Bookdwarf on measuring, washing, roasting, and running out to the store for extra turmeric and paprika on Saturday evening.
We did have the advantage of knowing what the other bookstores had cooked, and were able to try different recipes. So our menu worked out to be four courses and bread:
- Sesame rolls
- Roasted pepper salad with garlic confit and preserved lemon
- Chicken kebabs with preserved lemon
- White beans with caramelized onions, tomato sauce, feta and breadcrumbs
- Curry ice cream
Julia Moskin recently recently reviewed Mourad: New Moroccan in comparison with a more traditional Moroccan cookbook, The Food of Morocco, from Paula Wolfert. I think she does a good job of explaining where Mourad Lahlou fits into the world. He’s definitely a fascinating voice for a cuisine that hasn’t really had a star turn in the US, and he’s doing some really interesting stuff modernizing a traditional menu.
I should caution you, that this book is not for the faint of heart. Lahlou’s approach reminds me of Thomas Keller’s: The ultimate product is fantastic, but there are tons of intermediate steps to get there. Traditional Moroccan cuisine draws on labor-intensive, all-day-in-the-kitchen roots, and Lahlou keeps those while bringing in the precision and demands of contemporary restaurant food. I was pleased to see that Lahlou provides both volume and weight measures for everything, which makes it easier to follow his lead. However, his measurements are oddly precise: One spice blend called for 40.2 grams of turmeric, and 0.3 grams of star anise. My digital kitchen scale is great, but it’s just not tenth-of-a-gram precise. Maybe Charlie Sheen has a kitchen scale that goes to the half-gram, but I don’t.
I’d also have liked to see more substitution suggestions, but that’s a quibble. Our bean dish called for corona beans and Lahlou helpfully listed several alternatives, but on the other hand, we did spend a few minutes in the store with our phones looking up the difference between green cardamom and black cardamom, before throwing the green cardamom into our spice grinder.
You do have a spice grinder, don’t you? Because if you’re cooking from Mourad, you’re going to be toasting and grinding your own spices. You can do it with a mortar and pestle, a blender, or just a big heavy pan, but a spice grinder is really handy. We still copped out and used store-bought harissa, but the other spices we did toast and blend ourselves. A lot of the other steps in the book are like this: He’s doing it the right way, and it’s going to be amazing, but it’s going to involve a dozen steps and you’ll wish you had a sous chef. Mr. Bookdwarf, although helpful, doesn’t count, even if he does say “yes chef” when I ask him to get me something from the pantry. The chicken was the easiest dish, with a marinade before grilling, five minutes on the grill, and vinaigrette after. It produced a delicious and tender dish that disappeared rapidly. The bread, too, was pretty easy, at least compared to a multi-day whole-wheat sourdough. The pepper salad wasn’t terribly hard, although each individual component required several steps: It’s easy enough to roast some peppers, and it’s easy enough to peel a ton of garlic and poach it in olive oil, and it’s easy enough to pack a half-dozen lemons in salt for a month. But each step takes time, so you have to plan ahead.
We were most surprised, I think, by the curry ice cream. I guess you’re asking for a surprise when you make something like that. It’s basically a creme anglaise (yeah, I’m in culinary school, so what?) infused with Lahlou’s curry spice blend, and frozen in an ice cream maker. And it’s basically amazing. It’s strongly spiced without being spicy-hot, and a beautiful, dessert-like shade of yellow from the turmeric. We might even add more hot pepper next time, but we’ll definitely be making that again. And the garlic confit. Oh hell yes.
I don’t feel vain saying this party went well. It was, honestly, an amazing meal. The preserved lemons were not something I’d had before, and we thought at first that we’d done them wrong because they were oddly slippery. But I’m definitely going to use them more in the future. Same with his garlic confit– the garlic, in fact, was one of the few things that was simple to make and will likely be a staple for me. You just peel a bunch of cloves of garlic, cover in olive oil, set on low heat to simmer until soft and golden, and put it on anything and everything. The roasted peppers were fantastic, the baked bean dish rich and satisfying in a manner I’d never seen before, and the rolls were soft and warm and, when topped with harissa and chicken, incredible. I also don’t feel like I’m understating things when I say it was a ton of work: I started cooking on Saturday afternoon with the spice blends and ice cream base, and didn’t finish until about 8:00 on Sunday when the beans came out of the oven for the third course. I’m looking forward to learning more about Moroccan food, and making more recipes from this book, although maybe not quite so many all at once.