So you want to start a non-profit…

Starting the Amal Center was a difficult endeavor, I can’t explain why exactly I did it, I did not have a very clear plan on how it would all develop, I did not have answers to people’s most basic questions, like “how long will the women train there?”  I would freeze up and give vague answers like “well, we are still in the experimental stage trying to find a successful formula…”

I did not anticipate also the strain it would have on my family, of course no one could foresee that my daughter would develop a bone cyst that we discovered about 10 days after I signed the lease for the Amal Center, and that would put her on crutches for the next 5 months.  I would never wish it on anyone to undertake a major remodeling job AND have your daughter need emergency surgery and a metal plate inserted.  I felt that I had made an internal promise and engagement to help women who have had lives much more difficult than my own, but ultimately found myself often torn between the responsibility I felt to honor that promise, and the responsibility I felt to honor the more fundamental promises I have towards my husband and children.  My husband is a good and patient man, and I feel like he has been just as responsible for the manifestation of the Amal Center as I or anyone else has.  He works long hours to allow me to follow this weird and inexplicable dream to create, from scratch, a massive institution to empower women.  He supports me in this, and often provides a realistic perspective to counter my “woman’s intuition” approach.  Did I also mention that when you are the president of a non-profit, you don’t get paid.  But you get the cool perk of being the president of something, which is totally worth the blood, sweat and tears (please pick up on the sarcasm).  Just time-wise, the Amal Center needed as much as I could give it, and so did everything else important to me.  Valuable relationships and friendships suffered damage because of this.  My management and communication skills (my least developed skill set) were tested to the extreme.

However as you can see all these sentences are in the PAST tense, not because the Amal Center fell apart, au contraire.   At the most crucial time, deliverance appeared.  Help came in many forms: an experienced board of directors came together (which would have been so valuable from the beginning: don’t work alone is a big lesson learned), volunteers took over chunks of the work (delegate!), and a life-saving grant was awarded to the Amal Center by the Swiss Drosos Foundation (apply for any and all grants, sooner or later someone will believe in what you are doing and want to help!).  All of a sudden, a very skilled and experienced director was hired to run the Amal Center.  Another talented and gracious person came on board to take care of communications, which is basically telling the story of who we are and what we do to many audiences through many mediums. over and over.  Soon we will also have a social worker (!!!) to screen potential trainees and monitor their progress.

Now if you ask me all your trick questions like “how long will the women stay at the Amal Center?” or “how are the women selected?” or “what happens to them afterwards?” I no longer need to bob and weave through them, there are actual solid, well-thought out answers. The women will spend 4 months in training.  The candidates are selected either through our partnerships with other local non-profits, or based on an application and interview process to determine socio-economic need.  Priority is given to mothers who are the primary support of their families (widows, divorced, single mothers) and to women who were child maids.  The women also need to demonstrate a degree of motivation and the desire to enter the job market.  While they are at the Amal Center, the trainees will learn: Moroccan cooking, “Cuisine Internationale” (will show you photos in a bit), baking and pastry-making, waiting tables.  And they will pick one language-based course to study: either Arabic literacy, French or English.  In addition, we are going to be having workshops on what is referred to in the field as “soft skills”, such as life-planning, empowerment, non-violent communication, reproductive help, and this thanks to a working partnership with Search for Common Ground, a Rabat-based international NGO.  Simultaneously, our Amal Center team will be networking with potential employers to facilitate job placement for the women once they graduate from the Amal Center.  Insha Allah!

Right now we are in transition mode full-swing.  The entire team is getting used to the new structure and putting everything in place to ensure that when the new trainees come in, they get a really top-quality training experience.  5 of the women who started out as trainees and made it through some of the rocky transition times are now full-time staff members with work contracts and benefits.  And also we saw that it would be impossible to move forward without a clear leader in the kitchen, so we hired a very capable chef (male, I think that also makes a difference and helps balance dynamics).  On the one hand, we’ve come a long way and are now working with a very clear objective.  On the other hand, I’m impatient to actually get down to the training and job placement!  We have not even gotten to the real work.

And in the meantime, we also have a restaurant to run.  The restaurant has been a huge success (alhamdulilah).  In November (pre-grant) we served an average of 13 people a day.  In December that number went up to 29!  I think January’s going to show even more of an increase.  Friday is by far the busiest day: couscous day!  The number of customers on Friday has been gradually increasing until we broke 100 recently.  Here’s what some of them have to say on tripadvisor  Mostly people love the place/food/social concept (a few people were not feelin the love though).

Speaking of links, the Amal Center is having its (annual?) fundraiser, an effort that is spearheaded by some of our volunteers.  Anyone who wants to be a part of our humble endeavor here in Marrakesh can use this rockehub link  which will be up only until the end of January.

New garden couches:

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Tea time cookies:
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The ceramic teap-cups are part of a donation from a local artisan businessman.  He gave us hundreds of pieces.  Those are the kind of amazing heart connections that happen.
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It tastes like deviled eggs, and salad nicoise.
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This is what I want to eat for every meal:
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A “light snack” for the mothers and toddlers weekly class.

snack

 

Traditional Moroccan cookies:
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Wow. I don’t even know what this is:

raspberry

 

 

 

 

The team that is behind all this amazing yumminess:
team

 

Kitchen looking good:
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And this!  I could also eat this…a lot.  Seafood bastila:
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Again, no idea what any of this is, sigh…
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Cooking lessons happen in a sort of informal way:
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The Amal team had a booth at a local fair, another opportunity for the women to display and sell their goods and mostly to become confident in a rather intimidating setting (a good number of the fair-goers were European).
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And here is that donation link again http://www.rockethub.com/projects/35895-expansion-efforts-for-moroccan-women-s-center-working-to-employ-empower .  If you made it to the end of this post, thank you dear ones near and far for reading first draft material!

 

Death by Chocolate, the Cheesecake Version

 

 

 

 

When you live in Morocco, it’s handy to have a few super powers.  Driving stick shift…is not a super power. It’s a plain old power.  Driving stick shift, during rush hour, behind a mule cart and right up next to a flashy 4×4, a guy trying to sell you box of tissue while the light is red, while tuning out the arguments of 3 or 4 kids (is it pronounced pokemon or pokeman?  No!  It’s not a man, it’s a monster)… is a super power, one that few give credit to.

Another, much less vital super power I’ve discovered I possess is the ability to bake any American dessert with Moroccan ingredients.  I have cracked the code on many classics, such as Chocolate Chip cookies, for which I have sourced actual chocolate chips in both dark, milk and white chocolate (you can only find them in the deep recesses of the medina, at a professional baker supply store).  I’ve also discovered a decent substitute to brown sugar, which is cane sugar (Marjane) mixed with a few spoons of sugar honey (Miel de glucose).  Works like a charm to give that must-have butterscotch flavored chewiness to the cookies.  No need to thank me, frustrated fellow bakers, it’s just what I do.  I find this super power useful when my American friends complain about the food here.  I just say, man up and make it yourself!  If you’re gonna make it around these parts, you better crack the code too.  That’s my PSA for y’all.

One strange thing about my super power is that I can never outpower my sister.   Just when I’ve reached a new level, she’ll show up with like, oh, Cinnamon Rolls from scratch (I’m not gonna write from scratch anymore during this post, because there’s no other way to bake around here).  Funny story about that, once my sister was over and we made brownies.  That day my husband had a guest from the states and we served the brownies for dessert.  The guest said “so you guys brought the box of brownie mix over from the states?”.  And we were like “are you kidding me?”.   There’s like 5 ingredients in brownies, all available from the local store and they take about 10 minutes to mix.  Box mix is for sissies 🙂

That said, there are some things that I like to have from the states.  One is a set of measuring cups, since most American recipes are measured in cups, not grams (there are ways to convert between the two, some websites, don’t get me started).  Anyway, I have my measuring cups.  Another is some good quality vanilla extract.  I like the Trader Joe’s brand that is alchohol-free.   That’s about it, seriously.  2 things.  As far as cooking in general, I like spice mixes like Mrs Dash.  I stock up on those if I get to the states, or my family and friends bring them over.

Everything else I can either make, find or do without.

So, this past Eid, I decided to put a new twist on my Moroccan-made cheesecake.  (My sister did, and since I can’t get ahead of her, I have to at least keep up).  Chocolate Cheesecake!

1.  I think the ingredients speak for themselves here, but just in case not, let me introduce them.  Sable are our Graham Crackers, Carre creme (the squares) is our cream cheese, Perly is our sour cream/yogurt, Nestle is sweetened condensed milk.  That Choco Pasty stuff is dark chocolate, the real kind, don’t go for “Sucre Chocolate” which only has 5% cocoa.  Eggs and butter are, naturally, universal.

2. Put the Sable biscuits in the food processor.  My food processor is about 13 years old.  Every time a new piece breaks of and I think about springing for a new one, I’m like, nah, just superglue it:

3.  Process till they look like sand.  Add about 50-100 grams of melted butter (1/4 to 1/2 cup):

 

 

4. Pat the crust into the pan like so.  It’s classier to just cover the bottom and not try to go up the sides:

5.  Food process the rest: the Kiri, Perly, Nestle, eggs.

 

6.  This is how chocolate looks when you’ve done absolutely nothing to it:

 

7.  Now melt it.  I ended up using 200g, almost the whole pack but not quite.  I wanted it chocolaty enough to overpower the cream cheese, but not so chocolaty that it’s bitter.  This is where you gotta love microwaves.  Sure we don’t know what the long-term effects are… but you make it up in clean dishes!

 

8.  Let the chocolate cool for a minute and blend it into the cream cheese mixture.  I love that this whole recipe take place in the food processor and you hardly have to do any work.  When you pour it over your crust it should look like this and very liquidy:

 

9.  It takes a good hour to cook on low heat.  Once it’s set, don’t let it overcook or it will dry out.  I went ahead and made a lemon cheesecake too.  I was interested to see that they behaved very differently in the oven, the lemon one really puffed up and the chocolate one stayed low.  I realized that the lemon juice I used to flavor the lemon cheesecake actually curdled the milk ingredients and gave a whole other texture, it was grainier.  The chocolate one tasted smooth as mousse.  Of course when I mentioned this to my sister, she’d already encountered the same phenomenon and solved it by using only lemon zest (not juine) to flavor it, and it didn’t curdle.  She’s so Obiwan to my Luke.  Yeah, yeah, we watched Star Wars and now every metaphor or simile is Yoda this, Darth Vader that.  

 

 

10.  Ta da!

11.  My attempts at food styling.  Couldn’t think of anything to top this with except for a blue morning glory.  The teapot is a bit of a show-stealer, all shiny and symbolic of Morocco.  Enjoy and remember, I’m not legally responsible for the 5 pounds you gained while reading this post.  

The Best Moroccan Food You’ll Never Eat (in a Restaurant)

Moroccan food has to be homecooked.  For the most part, and tajine joints aside, restaurants around here just don’t do it right, which explains the fact that Moroccans rarely order their own national food when dining out.  Instead they seem to have picked Italian food, or a version of it, as the national eat-out food.  Pizzas, paninis, pasta are standard fare in many popular eateries.  It makes sense, most people want a break from what they eat at home, something that is not spiced with cumin, ginger and paprika for a change, something you don’t sop up with bread.

Visitors to Morocco may surmise, from eating at restaurants that serve Moroccan food, that we Moroccans survive on a steady rotation of three different meals: Chicken Tajine with Preserved Lemons, Beef Tajine with Prunes, and Couscous (on Friday).  I don’t know how those three dishes became our national culinary representatives and ambassadors, given the variety of other superlative candidates.

Take for example, in no particular order:

1-Chicken Bastila:

This dish has it all, chicken stewed in saffron and spices then cleaned off the bone, eggs, almonds that have been peeled, deep fried and ground with cinnamon, sugar and rosewater, all wrapped in crunchy, buttery paper thin layered dough.  It’s sweet, it’s savory, it’s soft, it’s crunchy.  I could eat this every day.  Realistically Moroccans will only eat this on a special occasion.

The downside is that it’s pricey and time-consuming.  Not to mention the calories.

2-Fish Bastila:

For a long time I was a Chicken Bastila purist, until I finally got over my seafood phobia (someone once told me to be really careful when eating sardines, or the little bones would get stuck in my throat.  I did not eat fish again til I was an adult).  Even so this bastila is not super fishy tasting, it’s stuffed with shrimp, calamar and cubed white fish cooked with vermicelli and mushrooms.

3-Herbel: it’s like oatmeal, only good.  Moroccans eat this on Eid morning as a special breakfast.  It’s cracked wheat boiled for hours until it softens, then you add condensed milk and butter.  Some take it salty and others add honey.  It’s very satisfying and addictive.  Carbalicious.

Before:

After: creamy and delicious.  Even the Gerber baby approves.

4-My go-to Chicken and Rice recipe

You’re not likely to have this dish in anyone’s home, much less a restaurant.  The reason?  I got this recipe from my sister, who I believe got it from the Moroccan TV chef Choumisha.  Since then it’s always come through for me (although I have a tendency to forget about it for months on end, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment every time I remember that I know how to make this).    It’s distinctly Moroccan, yet the rice sets it apart from most Moroccan dishes.   No bread!  I don’t even know if my sister still makes this (do you sis?).  If not I may be the only person in Morocco who presents this on a regular basis.  And now I humbly pass it on to you.

You start with some old old North African standbys: garlic and onion, parsley and coriander, preserved lemon and sliced olives, turmeric, paprika, ginger and yellow stuff.  A tea glass full of half olive oil, half regular.  It makes this kind of salad that looks pretty remarkable as is.

But then you mix it with cooked rice, and use it a stuffing for chicken.  The juice from the chicken runs down and cooks into the rice.  I make plenty of the rice because that’s usually the best part.  There’s crunchy part.   If you come over to my house, I will probably serve you this (if I remember that I know how to make it).

5-The Big Salad

Every Moroccan family has their own version of the big salad.  It’s great especially in this weather (guess how hot it is here).  You just keep piling stuff on until voila, it’s a meal.  My favorite versions include corn, boiled eggs, cheese, avocado.

You know, I am also writing a post about homeschooling.  It’s a lot of work (the writing that is.  The homeschooling is a whole other ball of wax).  I don’t exactly know what I think about it, but writing is helping me sort that out.  Some blog topics are a lot of work, so we end up with post after post about food and pictures.  Fun, light, safe.  To do it justice I’m going to have to write about homeschooling in installments, complete with flashbacks to my own school days, psychological forays into what motherhood means to me, issues of identity and belonging (mine and my kids’), and how my husband saved me from near breakdown.  There’s a good book’s worth of material right there.  Stay tuned…

Step-by-step photo recipe: Moroccan fry bread (msemen/rghaif)

A fun little tutorial on how to make Moroccan fry bread (msemen or rghaif in darija).  These are eaten for breakfast or as a special afternoon snack.  Cafes often have a woman making them on an outdoor griddle.  They are heavy on the oil but so good when eaten hot of the griddle, downed with a glass of tea.  Interesting how so many cultures have some sort of fried bread, in New Mexico we eat sopapillas drizzled with honey and Navajo fry bread tacos, while our Pakistani friends have shared spicy Puri with us.  I guess fried comfort food is a universal concept then.

Click on the first image to view as a slideshow.

Paula Wolfert in my Kitchen

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.  

Moroccan Chicken Bastila: step-by-step recipe with photos

Bastila is a Moroccan dish made from chicken, eggs and almonds, layered and wrapped in phylo dough.  The word comes from Spanish “pastilla” which I am assuming refers to the thin crispy layers of dough.  Who knows if this dish still exists in Spain, but “history” (i.e. wikipedia) tells us that the Moors brought this dish with them when they were driven out of Spain in the late 1400’s.  Today it is served ubiquitously at special occasions, usually as an appetizer ahead of a meat dish.

I’ve been wracking my brains for ideas to help some of the struggling ladies I know, which is hard to do since my brain actually liquefied and oozed out of my ears a long time ago in this 110 degree heat.  But thankfullyI retained that 10 percent of our brains that we actually use.  So it dawned on me that knowing  how to make bastila is a potentially marketable skill.  In Morocco, women who know how to make it can get commissioned by their neighbors or by local catering companies.  It’s something they can do at home and at their own pace.  But for a large number of Moroccan women, there are two basic challenges when it comes to a home industry like making bastila.  One is illiteracy.  So they can’t read recipes, something most of us take for granted.  Another challenge is not being able to afford the ingredients in order to practice a few times.  These things pose such a huge mental block that women won’t even try.

I wanted to find a way to overcome both challenges.  The idea came to have  a series of cooking classes, free to the participants, funded by outside donations.  We held the first one last Sunday, at the school I work at CLC Morocco (www.clcmorocco.org).  When our school cook, Khadija, heard about the project, she immediately volunteered to teach the class.  Khadija is great cook, but more than that she has a fun-loving confident personality that puts even the shyest and most awkward among us at ease.  As for the participants, we started with a small group of 5 women, some of whom I’ve blogged about here, so if you’ve been reading, you have an idea of the challenges these women face.

As they worked, I took pictures in order to make a picture recipe book that the women can follow another time.  Seeing and participating in making the dish the first time would give them the initial confidence they would need to try it again.

First they prepared and laid out all the ingredients.  From left to right, top: powdered sugar and regular, 1 kg almonds, 1 kg onions, 2 chickens; middle row: 1 gram saffron threads, fake saffron food coloring, 3 cinnamon sticks, peppe, ginger, chopped coriander, smen (ghee), and 1 kg of the bastila sheets called warqa in Arabic; last row: Ras el Hanout spice mix, salt, 3-4 garlic cloves, oil, melted butter.  Missing from this picture are 15 eggs and orange blossom water.

I have to warn you, making bastila is a long process.  It’s a labor of love that I don’t actually expect you or myself to make.  But just for fun, here’s how it’s done.

First, the chicken is set to stew with lots of salt, pepper, ground ginger, ras el hanout (about 2 large spoons each, Moroccan cooks don’t give exact measurements).  There is also a good cup of oil, about a quarter cup of smen (gheen), the onions, garlic, saffron and coriander. Khadija told us that some people prefer to leave the coriander whole in a small bouquet, then fish it out at the end.  She prefers to add it chopped, but she said “you do it however you want”.  That is basically the philosophy behind Moroccan cooking, measurements are eyeballed, the dish is tasted at various intervals and tweeked, and no two cooks will make the same exact recipe.

Stir the chicken in the pot.  It’s going to smell really good really quick, but don’t start to falter, although your mouth may start to water, the end is *not* in sight.  

Good yellow chicken.  Moroccans will not tolerate white chicken.  While the chicken is cooking, you can work on the almonds, see bellow.

When it’s good and cooked, the chicken is removed from the sauce, left to cool and de-boned.  Stage one complete.

Next, skim off a small bowlful of the sauce, add it to the chicken to avoid dryness.  Now start the egg stage.  About 12 or so eggs will be broken straight into the sauce and stirred.

Keep stirring until they look like this.  Then transfer them to a colander and let all the excess water drain out.  Stage 2 complete.  

The almonds now.  These take a while so it’s best if you do this step the day before.  It’s tedious and depressing to do this alone, be warned, so call your friends and make it a bastila-making party.  In our cooking class, there were like 5 ladies plus Khadija plus me working, cleaning, laughing (in my case, snapping photos and running out for random ingredients that we ran out of) and it still took about 2-3 hours from start to finish.  The almonds need to be washed, boiled, skinned, dried, and fried.  If you know Moroccan cooking, then you know what I mean.  For the bastila, Khadija’s method was to take the now prepared almonds and add cinnamon (1 large spoon), regular sugar (a bowlful, to taste, personally I like mine good and sweet), a few tablespoons of orange blossom water.  Then the almonds are pulsed in a food processor until they are coarsely ground.  Then Khadija added a good half a cup or so of melted butter.  Mmm!

Stage 3 complete.  Now on to the great assembling of the bastila.  Here you have 2 things on hand, a bowlful of melted butter (check your diet at the door) and a bowl with 2 beaten eggs (remember the eggs are the glue that keeps the bastila sheets together).  In Morocco, we order bastila sheets at the local bakery the day before.

First butter the pan.  Lay the first sheet down, half hanging out of the pan.
Step by step instructions for Moroccan bastila with photos

Add four more overlapping sheet, brushing egg in between them, and brushing butter on top.
A fifth sheet is added in the center, egged and buttered.

Now take your chicken and eggs and mix them up (who cares which came first, hehe).  Lay them down for the first layer.  It should be a good 1.5 – 2.5 inches thick.  With the amounts we used, we had a good third left over (we made little bastilas out of the leftover filling).

Place a bastila sheet over that layer.  Not everyone does this, some prefer to just add the almonds directly.  

Now add the coarsely ground almonds.

Now add another bastila sheet smack dab in the middle, and start to fold all the flaps over. 

Always egg and butter.

At the very end, you add one last bastila sheet to cover the whole thing.  Tuck it in nicely all around and butter the top.

Put it in to cook, about 45 minutes, until the bastila is golden brown and crispy.  At this point I sort of dropped the ball on photos and did not get a PHOTO OF THE FINISHED BASTILA.  Doh!  At the end, you decorate it with powdered sugar and cinnamon.  It is so good, I’d place it among the top 5 best Moroccan dishes.  Oh yeah, and you can’t get it in restaurants, well, not really, unless you go to those swanky places that serve pigeon bastila at exorbitant prices.  Homemade is always better!

But you can sort of see it in this picture along with the apprentice cooks.

It was such an enjoyable day.  I think the ladies learned a lot from Khadija (she’s second from left here).  She has had lots of experience cooking for riads and for catering services, so she has the confidence it takes.  These women on the other hand, have worked mostly as maids, receiving orders, so maybe do not have that confidence.  The cost of the ingredients for this dish and the fruit tarts they made afterwards was about 300 dirhams (40 dollars).  It’s not a lot, but in Morocco it can be a week’s salary.  Someone had given me this money and said, do something for the ladies.  This turned out to be an awesome use of the money.   Khadija also insisted that we buy the ladies proper white uniforms, which made them feel like real students.   And these ladies who are so used to serving others, their employers and families, well on this day they were the guests of honor, since we all sat down and ate the bastila together.  For me, it was a perfect day combining several of my favorite things (things I have not yet figured out how to get paid for doing, lol): networking, planning, empowering women, photography, eating and finally breaking through the blogger’s block!

Eid: thoughts, teachings, snapshots

“These are days for eating, drinking and remembering God”.  That is a description of Eid, which we celebrated this past week.  And that sums it up pretty well.

Eid comes as the celebration marking the end of each year’s pilgrimage season.

Some of my favorite things about Eid are…

…thinking about those who have made the pilgrimage, their stories, their light filled faces as they return.  Thinking about the year that my husband made that journey, as I stayed home 7 months pregnant with Karima.  That is a story worth its own blog post.

…Eid prayer, a special communal prayer held outdoors.  Normally we go to the one on the road to Ourika, with tens of thousands of people.  This year we had the good fortune to be out in the countryside, where a gathering of the entire community means a couple hundred people.  As we arrived and settled onto the straw mats, we were greeted by the most peaceful singing “dear Lord, make us among the thankful”.

…the beautiful teachings related to the slaughter of the Eid sheep.  As part of the celebration, it’s traditional to slaughter a sheep (or goat, cow or camel), feeding family, friends and giving away a third to charity .  It’s a very real experience, that puts you face to face with your own meat-eating.  Certainly for me there is a heaviness associated with it.  I’d much rather just grab some meat at the store, but as Barbara Kingsolver put it, you can’t run away on harvest day.  The Islamic teaching is to accompany the animal through the door of death in the best possible way.   That is, to speak softly and soothingly to it, to not show it the knife, to not slaughter it in the same place as another animal so that it won’t smell or see blood, to use a well sharpened knife and to make the slaughter itself as quick as possible, and finally to utter a prayer a the moment of death.  One of two things will happen if you witness or participate in this event, either you will become a vegetarian, or you will come away with more gravitas, a much deeper awareness of the responsibility we have as meat eaters.  Where does our meat come from?  How was the animal raised?  How was it killed?  The answers to these questions are so directly relevant to our own humanity.

…family time, food time.  See pictures below.  What I love about this set of pictures is the light, notice the light.

1-On the way to Eid prayer.  My son and my father.

Walking to Eid prayer, Marrakesh Morocco

2-Planting feathers.  An ambitious endeavor.planting feathers

3-Let the feasting begin.  Moroccan tektouka salad, made with roasted red bell peppers and tomato.
Moroccan tektouka salad

4-My plate.  Spinach artichoke dip, the famous liver brochettes of the first day (meat needs to wait till day 2 to taste better), guacamole, broccoli (a treat in Morocco, trust me on this), and tektouka.  I didn’t actually eat the liver brochettes, sorry, not a fan.  But my kids love them, and broccoli too, contrary to the common kid stereotypes.  Moroccan food on Eid

5-This is my identity expressed via the medium of cookies.  One one hand, the all American fave, chocolate chip (chip here is singular).  On the other hand, Moroccan “slipper” cookies (shaped like a belgha), which are, incidentally, filled with peanut butter.  I had an “I am baker, hear me roar” moment when I baked these and they actually came out looking and tasting as good as store bought.  I always thought Moroccan cookies were well beyond my scope.  chocolate chip cookies and Moroccan slipper cookies

6-Last food pic I promise.  Indian carrot pudding (much, much more heavenly than the name connotes).  And Moroccan tea.

gujarella and Moroccan mint tea

7-My daughter is wearing a dress that my sister, and later I, both wore as girls.  I think it was used to begin with.

sunlight

8-Just the light.  It almost made me cry, all day, it made the simplest things so beautiful.

Olive orchard, Ourika valley, Morocco

9-That night we stayed in one of the few houses in the area still without electricity.  Candle light is also so peaceful and lovely.candle in moroccan lamp