Archive | January, 2012

Paula Wolfert in my Kitchen

29 Jan

Everyone who knows Paula Wolfert seems to have a great Paula story.  Here’s mine.

It was about 2 years ago.  I was dropping off a good friend at the Marrakesh airport.  After we said our goodbyes and parted ways, I glanced down at a counter and noticed a shiny credit card.  I read the name, Paula Wolfert, and it sounded so familiar, like a household name, but I couldn’t quite pin it down.  I looked around and spotted likely candidate.  I ran up to her and asked if she’d dropped a credit card.  She said she had and I handed it over and that was that.  I walked away then it suddenly came to me who she was.  Again I ran after her and asked, “wait, are you Paula Wolfert who wrote Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco?”.  She said “Yes”.  I was so excited, I told her how we’d grown up with that book in our kitchen.

It was that book, with its detailed description of how to shop for and prepare Moroccan food, that unraveled many mysteries for my mother and later for my sister and me.  When my sister and I decided to make bastilla for Eid, we used the books detailed instructions on how to prepare each layer, the chicken cooked in saffron, the eggs and the sweetened ground almonds, all of it wrapped them in thin, crispy warqa dough.  We did not have a Moroccan grandmother to pass on the old ways to us, but this book was often a good stand-in.  Paula was not just another cookbook author, she was one of us, a foreigner who had come to Morocco, learned the ropes, and lived to tell the tale.

Already in my mind I couldn’t wait to tell my mother that I’d met the woman we’d sort of grown up with.  Little did I know that Paula had gone on to write many, many other cookbooks, and that she had developed a loyal following.  Her fans were people who enjoyed doing things the traditional way, cooking in clay pots, tracking down the best cumin and saffron, steaming couscous for hours…

Then Paula told me that she not been back to Morocco in 27 years!  And that she had now come to find new (old) recipes that she hadn’t featured in her first book.  Food and Wine Magazine was going to run an article on her journey re-discovering Morocco.  She mentioned that one of the recipes she had come to pin down was Seffa, that steamed angel hair pasta with chicken dish that is my favorite.

It just so happens that we have a beloved housekeeper, Malika, who is an amazing Moroccan cook.  I mean the kind of woman who, whatever she puts her hands into, turns out delicious.   I told Paula about Malika, and the next thing you know I was inviting Paula and the magazine staff over for a cooking demonstration.  Yikes!

I called my mother and gleefully exclaimed, “you’ll never guess who I just me at the airport…”.  My mother was equally pleased, and she called up Paula at her hotel and the two of them talked for an hour.  I’m sure they had many tales to tell.  Both my mother and Paula came to Morocco at a very different time.  I remember my mother with her jellaba and basket, headed to the markets to do battle, haggling in a foreign language for the purchase of each and every item that crossed our doorstep.  Before the big chain supermarkets made everything easy and infinitely less interesting.

The day of the photo shoot came, and there we were, Malika, Paula, Emily Kaiser (the food editor), Quentin Bacon (world famous food photographer), his assistant whose name escapes me at the moment, and myself.  Malika was dressed in a beautiful turquoise caftan.  My daughter, who was then 7 years old, was so excited about the photo shoot and made sure she was wearing a beautiful gold caftan.  (She kept asking, “do you think they’ll put me in the magazine?”).

Malika started to work her magic, turning the noodles, chicken and almonds into work of art.  Quentin snapped away while his assistant wrote down information on every photo he took.  I was so pleased that Malika was getting her chance to shine, she certainly deserves it.  Making Seffa (or Chaariya medfouna) is a long process.  Angel hair pasta only takes a few minutes to boil, but it takes about 3 hours of steaming to turn al dente.  During this time, it absorbs the flavors of the chicken that is bubbling away in the bottom of the steamer.  Malika showed how she gets the most flavor out of saffron: she heats up the threads in a pan and then crushes them between her fingers.  She also demonstrated the steaming technique, skillfully turning the pasta onto a plate every 40 minutes or so to toss it and throw on more butter.  Here’s a photo of the same dish, made at a later date:

The next day, my mother invited Paula and the crew out to her farm in the country.  There we hired a couple of local ladies to demonstrate another rather labor intensive Moroccan dish called Treed.  Emily told us to look for the magazine article 12 months later.  “We prepare articles 12 months in advance so that when we run them, it’s the same season as in the photos”.

Let me just say that we were all very comfortable with each other.  Paula is extremely down to earth, real and loving.  It all came together in the most serendipitous way.

So, 12 months later I began to look for the magazine article online.  I did not see anything until a few months after that.   Finally the article appeared, I showed it my daughter Karima and to Malika the great cook.  Although Malika and Karima’s names had been switched, and the chicken had turned into lamb, it was fun to read about our cooking day together, it honored Malika and included a nice photo of her and Paula.

I thought that was the end of the story…until Paula published her highly-acclaimed newest cookbook.  This one:

Well, then, a friend of ours who had spent 3 months in Morocco returned to the States and wrote us, “someone gave me a beautiful new Moroccan cookbook and I opened it up and there was Karima”.  (Just so it’s clear, Karima is our daughter).  She snapped a photo of the page and sent it to us.  I don’t think I knew that Paula was also working on a cookbook when we saw each other, so this came as quite a surprise.

Soon after that, Paula sent 2 copies of the cookbook, one for me and one for my mom.  It’s really beautiful, part coffee-table book, part cookbook.  I’m amazed at the depth of Paula’s research into Morocco history, regional characteristics, obscure cooking tips and spice categorizing.  There was a very dear picture of Karima in the book , as well as a few pictures taken from the cooking demo with Malika. (If you want to see the pictures of Karima, Malika, our steamer, and a very blurry me eating Seffa, you’ll have to get your hands on a copy).  I showed the book to Malika and she was fascinated by all the different recipes.  I asked her if she liked being in the book and she said “shweeya (a little), I like the other people’s recipes better”.  Come on Malika, give yourself some credit!

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the book, which ties in nicely with the blog post I wrote a few days ago.  It sums up what I appreciate the most about Moroccan cooks, their ability to make something fabulous out of almost nothing

“Moroccans put much store in what they call baraka, which means good fortune.  And in culinary terms, baraka can also refer to an ability to start cooking with very little in the way of ingredients and yet feed many people from the food pot.”

The photo of Malika and Paula Wolfert is by Quentin Bacon.  

I live for olive

28 Jan

Olive season has just come to and end…and by olive season I mean that the olives ripened, were harvested, and either pressed for oil or cured to turn them edible.  Did you know that both black olives and green olives come from the same tree?  Here is a very ripe olive from our family farm.

Did you also know that harvesting olives by hand is a labor intensive business?  In Morocco it’s all done this way: a large plastic is laid out under the tree, then you take a long bamboo stick and start to beat at the olives to knock them down.  Eventually you have to climb the tree to get to the higher branches.  Olives yield about 16 liters of olive oil per 100 kgs of olives, depending on how much the trees were watered.  The more they were watered, the juicier the olives.

I will never forget when I was 8 years old and I spent a whole day knocking all the olives off a particular tree.  At the end of the day, I had very sore hand and about 20 kgs of olives.  I was very excited to lug my harvest down the road to where they would buy them from you for about a dirham per kilo (like 6 cents per pound, for those of you who are allergic to the metric system).  I walked back with more than 20 dirhams in my pocket (2.5 dollars).  I’d never been prouder of my earnings (maybe even to this day :-).  It didn’t occur to me that those olives actually belonged to my parents, and that technically, I owed them like 90% of the money.  They kindly didn’t point it out either.

Everywhere in the Moroccan countryside, you see olive trees, and under them there is wheat or barley growing.  Each farming family gets olive oil and flour for the entire year.  This way they have fresh bread and olive oil, which, along with sweet green tea, is a meal unto itself.  Talk about local, sustainable, organic and vegan….This is how it all once was.

 

Road trip snapshots

23 Jan

Road trip in Morocco means roadside cafe tajines.  The best ones are prepared in the morning and slow cooked on charcoal for a good 3 or 4 hours.

Onions, meat, veggies and olives.  My favorite part is the caramelized/burned onions that you scrape off the bottom of the tajine.  When I was pregnant with my firstborn I craved nothing more than one of these beauties…alas roadside tajines are not common in California.

Agadir is one of Morocco’s newest cities.  An earthquake in 1960 completely destroyed the city.  Since then it’s been rebuilt, and it’s retained a newish, cleanish aura.  We went there at the end of December and found the resort town eerily empty, not the usual bustle of sun-seeking tourists.  Welcome to the worldwide recession folks.

I love a good stone/adobe wall.   Solid, real, beautiful.  Whenever I see one I get a good look, because this building technique is fast disappearing, giving way to the fast, cheap and durable cinder block.

Along a dusty alley in Southern village I discovered this giant bag full of Argan shells.  Once you go south of Marrakesh you see a LOT of Argan trees and the oil is sold everywhere.  You’ve heard this all before, but let’s give a recap on why Argan oil is such a high-profile oil.  For one, the trees only grow in Morocco and in some areas of Mexico.   And it’s supposed to be great for you, whether on your skin or on your plate.  I use Argan oil on my skin on a regular basis and the thing I like most about it is it’s a dry, non-greasy type of oil, unlike olive oil for instance.   It’s good, not miraculous, but good.

A Wonderful Death

21 Jan

Baraka is the Arabic word for blessing (of course, it’s so much more, but you know…semantics).  I feel blessed to speak darija (Moroccan dialect of Arabic) because that means that I can participate in the daily Moroccan baraka exchange.

Each and every thing or action can either have baraka or not.  For example, food that is purchased on an honest income, prepared with love and prayers, shared among as many people as possible is said to have baraka.  Food that  is bought with questionable money, or processed in an unnatural way, or consumed greedily without praise of the Creator, without sharing with or offering to those around us, is said to be devoid of baraka.  The first kind of food makes you healthy, physically and spiritually, will never make you ill, will strengthen your body for doing good things, will strengthen bonds of friendship and unite hearts.  The second kind will weaken you, make you anxious and leave you wanting.

Our daily exchanges can have baraka.  Take, for example, this exchange I had with a man who is a car guardian.  This is when I get in the car to drive away.  I am giving him 20 cents for his car guarding, and he’s helping me navigate out of my parking space into traffic.

Me: Salam alaykom akhoya.  Peace be with you my brother.

Guardian: wa alaykom salam. And with you peace.

Me: bismillah.  In God’s name.  (hand him the money)

Guardian:  Allah ya3teek el khair.   God give you good things.  (another way of saying “thank you”)

Me: Allah y3awnek.  God assist you.

Guardian:  Seeri fid Allah.  Go in God’s care.

And that’s it.  As I type it in English it sounds so contrived, but you have to understand that in Arabic, this is actually completely natural speech.  This is just how people say “hello”, “thanks a lot”, “good luck” and “have a nice day”.  Every utterance is a prayer, returning the speaker to the divine, time and time again.  As I drive away from the guardian I feel so incredibly thankful that this is the case, I feel a little more alive, more humbled, more compassionate.

Most times when I have an exchange like this, I walk away feeling a little more light.  Then there are those exchanges that feel like the person reached in, took out my heart, plain cracked it open, washed it in light, and placed it back in my chest.  A heart unexpectedly broken in the best way possible.  Tears flowing at the most importune of moments.

And it can come from the most unlikely sources.  I’d like to tell you about someone who dazzles me with light.  She’s a woman who sells candy outside my son’s school.  Her name is Naima (not Naima from the baking project, it’s a common name) and she is one of the more joyful, exuberant people I know.  She’s got this cart that she had made, and it’s a child’s delight,  full of every kind of candy and trinket.  She pushes this cart to the school in the morning, noontime and afternoon school, as many as four times a day.  My son is a regular customer, both because he likes candy, and because I really, really want  to support her.  I often stop by after dropping him off at school, just to get a little dose of Naima to start my day off right.  I never know what the topic will be.  So I might ask her a question, like, “how did you get started with this cart?”  She’ll animatedly tell me all about how she got it made and  how she started out, and then she will offer the spiritual wisdom behind it.  “Honey, I’d rather make one dirham the right way than a million dirhams the wrong way!”.  Or if she had a day off, she’d say “Our body has a right over us!  These hands, these feet, they have their rights!  They’re going to bear witness against us if we aren’t good to them”.  She is smiling and animated, and has this amazing faith in God.  I doubt she can read or write, but she has a deep, strong wisdom about life, the human soul and our journey.

About 2 months ago, I came to the school, and I saw Naima dressed head to toe in white.  I was in total shock, because this is the color of mourning in Islam.  Even though I knew exactly what had happened, I couldn’t think of any other way of approaching her than to ask her “Naima, why are you wearing white?”.  She answered, “the man of the house died”.  This is a way of referring to her husband.  I stood there in total shock, and she told me about it.  She said “he wasn’t sick, so it was a total surprise.  He died a wonderful death, he didn’t suffer, his body was completely at peace.”  Her face is glistening with tears and at the same time she is smiling and there is that joy and light in her face.  “And you know, he died during the best times”.  (the first ten days of the Islamic pilgrimage month, considered to be the holiest days of the year).  Then, as usual, she shares spiritual insight, “we’re all just renting space on this earth, and once the rental contract is up, we’ve got to leave.”  But the words that stick with me the most are “a wonderful death”.  I’m amazed that anyone would use that particular combination of words, and I love it.  This woman endured the ultimate loss, the person that was closest to her,  and she was completely accepting of it, and could see that it happened in best way possible.  These are the fruits of a spiritual life.

Since then, it’s been so strange to see Naima every day, with her white jellaba, scarf, socks and shoes, busily selling candy to a 100 screaming kids or cheerfully chatting with the mothers after morning drop-off.  She’ll wear white for 4 months and 10 days, the traditional mourning period.  It’s a constant reminder of death.  We talk about it often, revisiting the story of her husband’s death.  And every time I am awed by how real her strength and faith are.  More often than not, we both end up in tears, and laughing for no other reason than that we enjoy each other’s company.  Exchanges of baraka are possible anywhere, anytime, if we are open to them.  If you’re not getting any love then you just have to be the one that gives it.  A kind word, a smile, a sincere prayer are what soften and open hearts.

The sufis say that a saint is one who reminds you of God.  With him or her you experience a higher level of reality, in an instant, effortlessly.  If anyone ever wonders where the women saints of Morocco are, have no doubt that they are there, making bread, raising children, pushing a candy cart around.

Light and color

6 Jan

Every day is the beginning of a new year, is the way I see it.  A constant, simple wish of mine, for myself and my family, is to have more light and color in our lives.  It shouldn’t be too hard in a place where the sun shines over 300 days a year.  May this year be the year the sun shines through our lives.

 

 

 

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