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Out With the Old: Mourad New Moroccan
By Nicholas Gilman

I consider myself a traditionalist in most things, and could even claim to be ‘old-fashioned’ when it comes to topics like music and art—and food.  I was aware of my innate prejudices when I opened Mourad New Moroccan, a collection of recipes by Mourad Lahlou, owner of the restaurant Aziza in San Francisco.  “What about ‘old Moroccan’ ?” I asked myself.

I’ve been a fan of Paula Wolfert, the Julia Child of Moroccan and Mediterranean cooking, for decades. Paula’s Cous cous and Other Good Food from Morocco (a new expanded version, The Food of Morocco, was published recently) introduced the English speaking world to a mostly unknown but highly sophisticated cuisine about the same time that Diana Kennedy was revealing that Mexican food consisted of more than tacos and enchiladas. My original copy of Wolfert’s book is splattered with grease and turmeric. Like Kennedy, she is uncompromising in her authenticity -- not all the recipes can be made outside the country because some ingredients are impossible to find or substitute. I like that in a cookbook —rather than creating a big recipe file, the author digs deep into the cultural meaning of a cuisine. 

Mourad takes a different approach. He doesn’t limit himself to Morocco’s traditional food; his is a personal cuisine. Born in Casablanca, as his introduction relates, he learned to love food within his family. He later relocated to California, the land of re-invention and abbreviated history and, as he says, he “evolved.”  Mourad updates traditional Moroccan food, aiming to turn it inside out and bring life to its clichés. The interpretation may be lost on many Americans, who are unlikely to be familiar with the recipes being tweaked. I don’t know of any great Moroccan restaurants in the United States; it can even be hard for the visitor to find high level cooking in Morocco itself. I’ve been there multiple times and eaten exquisitely, but mostly at markets, stalls and holes-in-the-wall. The complex dishes and flavors that Wolfert and Mourad describe remain elusive, more often prepared in homes. I’ve enjoyed more sophisticated North African cuisine in France, where fancy Moroccan restaurants have been common since the colonial 50’s.

This is a handsomely designed book, well illustrated with black and white photos. The writing is informal, but at times a bit cloying; one cringe-inducing title is “Dude: preserved lemons."  
The book is divided into three sections. In the first, Seven Things, spices, sauces, condiments and other Moroccan ingredients are explained alongside recipes for ras al hanout, harissa, and the cuisine’s essential preserved lemons.

Section two, Recipes, is divided into sections with titles like “Bites to begin’, ‘The dance of the seven salads’ and “Fish Story.” Great pains are taken to explain the culture and laborious preparation of cous cous, well documented with step by step pictures.

Section three, Basics, defines such kitchen staples as stocks, clarified butter and garlic puree and explains how to make them.

I took the book into the kitchen, tempted by many recipes, elaborate as they were, and set to work.

I started with Mourad’s take on the classic beet salad, normally a simple toss of roasted diced beets in olive oil and lemon juice, perhaps with a dash of cumin. Here roasted beets are dusted with crunchy ground pumpkin seeds and cloaked with a light verdant, fluffy puree of avocado. The recipe is well written and easy to follow, and the final product was beautiful, its flavors subtly balanced between sweet, tart, chewy and creamy.

But I was bothered by what I discovered to be a running theme: too many elements. Multi-colored, tiny beets are called for although full-sized red ones work just fine. Crème fraiche is added to the avocado, already a rich, creamy element - why? Superfluous pink grapefruit wedges garnish the  sweet/sour, red/green plate. While successful, I thought a little simplification was in order.

I also found this to be true in the rather elaborate chickpea spread. Two chili powders and two kinds of pepper overwhelm and nullify the expensive pinch of saffron.

The charred eggplant purée was simpler, an un-altered classic, easy to make.

From the main dishes I chose the roasted whole black bass, red charmoula. A fish, smothered in an herby, spicy, tomatoey sauce is oven-baked over a bed of vegetables. As I suspected, the fish was done long before the vegetables and so had to be removed and set aside. I would have blanched them first. Once again there are too many ingredients--the artichoke heart called for is lost in the shuffle. The end result was spectacular nonetheless; subtle yet hearty and evocative of many essential
North African flavors.

The Roast chicken with preserved lemons and root vegetables is also homey and fairly traditional, although it’s explained that chickens aren’t usually prepared whole in Morocco. Here my caveat is the preparation of a rather complex brine for the poultry, in which green olives are tossed – a waste of expensive ingredients.

Overall I was impressed with Mourad’s book. The recipes are inspired though many could be simplified without compromising complexity of flavor or presentation. I’d recommend it for the experienced cook, but not in lieu of Ms. Wolfert’s works which should be waiting in the wings.

1 comment:

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