Prepare a warming winter feast with the exotic flavours of Morocco, detailed in Mourad Lahlou’s beautiful cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan

“Some people set out to learn to cook. They pursue it. They look for teachers. They go to cooking school. They practice and study. I became a cook in a way that could scarcely have been more different from all of that, in a place so far from where I ended up that it feels like a beautiful, brightly colored dream. I learned to cook from memory. Let me tell you how.”


Photo by Deborah Jones; from
Mourad: New Moroccan by
Mourad Lahlou (Artisan Books).
Copyright 2011

So begins Mourad: New Moroccan, the new cookbook by Mourad Lahlou, owner and executive chef at San Francisco’s Michelin-starred Aziza restaurant.

The book offers a fascinating lesson in Moroccan flavour combinations and cooking techniques interwoven with beautiful pictures, and stories from Lahlou’s childhood.

You’d imagine from Lahlou’s success that he grew up dreaming of becoming a chef and attended a prestigious cooking school, but that’s not the case.

Lahlou was on his way to becoming a PhD after obtaining his Master’s in economics at San Francisco State University, when his desire for the home cooked food of his childhood in Marrakesh compelled him to begin learning to cook, inspired by the memories of the home he grew up in, a massive complex housing a dozen relatives, where only the women prepared food.

As a child, he accompanied his grandfather to the market to collect fresh ingredients and then watched his mother, aunts, cousins and grandmother prepare traditional dishes.

In Mourad: New Moroccan, Lahlou takes his self-taught skills in Moroccan cooking and gives them a modern twist, using California’s abundance of fresh, local ingredients – easily transferable to Vancouver’s Pacific Northwest offerings.

Lahlou was in Vancouver to promote his cookbook, with events at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks and West restaurant.


Lahlou (third from right) and Dang (far right), along with Dang's team, prepare dishes inspired by Lahlou's cookbook for guests at West restaurant. (Image: Catherine Roscoe Barr) 

At West, diners were treated to a seven-course menu with dishes that took inspiration from the cookbook and were prepared by Lahlou and West’s executive chef Quang Dang.

The event was part of West’s Guest Chef Series, created to “showcase a variety of chef’s styles and culinary talents with our guests,” says Dang.

“Mourad is a self-taught chef, incredibly talented and passionate, and very willing to share ideas and techniques,” he says.

Each course was paired with Bombay Saphire cocktails crafted by bar manager David Wolowydnick, who fittingly won the World’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition in Morocco last year.

“Mourad has an exceptional gift for Moroccan spice combinations,” says Wolowydnick, “and is always open to converse about his recipes to describe the balance of each dish. Much like when wines are paired with food, cocktails must also create a balance with the dishes, either through complement or contrast to the food.”

Here are three recipes excerpted from Lahlou's cookbook, which is available at Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, your local bookstore, or online.

Preserved Lemons


(Image: Excerpted from Mourad: New Moroccan by Mourad Lahlou (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2011. Photographs by Deborah Jones.)

“The first thing people need to make is the preserved lemons,” says Lahlou, over the phone, about his cookbook. “It is something that is so easy – three ingredients: lemons, lemon juice and salt. If you make that, you can have it in your pantry within four weeks. I know that you have to wait a little bit to get it there but at the end of the day it’s something that will really change the way you cook. It could be added to anything you want: stews, grilled meats, salads vinaigrettes, purees. If there’s one thing that I want people to cook from the book, that’s it. You can’t be making Moroccan food without preserved lemons.”

In fact, an entire chapter of the cookbook is dedicated to preserved lemons, beginning with an explanation of why they are so important to Moroccan cuisine.  

Makes a 1-quart batch

Ingredients

  • About 6 lemons for preserving
  • About 6 more lemons for juicing, or enough to make 1/2 to 1 cup lemon juice
  • About 3/4 cup kosher salt

Instructions

  1. Scrub the 6 lemons you will be preserving with a vegetable brush under cold running water, then dry them very thoroughly.
  2. Pour the salt into a large bowl.
  3. Stand a lemon stem end down on a cutting board and use a sharp knife to cut down into it as though you were going to cut it in half, stopping about 1/2 inch above the stem.
  4. Now make a perpendicular cut, again stopping short of the stem, so the lemon is quartered but still intact.
  5. Holding the lemon over the bowl, spread the four quarters open and pack in as much salt as you can, allowing the excess to fall back into the bowl.
  6. Don’t be shy – you’re not just salting here, you’re really jamming in a sold pack of salt, up to 2 tbsp per lemon.
  7. Put the lemon cut side up (to keep the salt from spilling out) in the jar [use a wide-mouthed 1-quart canning jar with a two-piece screw-on lid or a clamp-on glass lid and rubber gasket] and repeat with as many lemons as the jar will hold, pushing them down hard so they’re squeezed in tightly. (If you can’t fit the 6th lemon into the jar, you can add it the next day, when the lemons are softer.)
  8. Put the lid on the jar and leave it on the counter overnight.
  9. The lemons will have softened and released some liquid. Use a clean spoon to push them down, and add another salted lemon or two if they fit. If there’s only a little extra room, it’s fine to add a salted half or quarter lemon.
  10. Juice the remaining lemons a few at a time, pouring the juice into the jar until it is filled to the brim and the salted lemons are completely submerged.
  11. Put the lid on the jar turning it until it’s just finger-tight (overtightening can keep air from escaping and cause the lid to buckle), or clamp it closed if that’s the kind of jar you’re using.
  12. Put the jar in a dark spot, like a cupboard or pantry, not in the refrigerator.
  13. For the next week, turn and shake the jar once a day to redistribute the salt that has settled to the bottom. 
  14. Add more lemon juice if you notice that the lemons are no longer submerged.
  15. That’s all there is to it. Just let the jar sit in that dark cupboard for a month. If you notice a little bubbling around the edge of the jar lid, don’t worry. That’s a normal part of the fermentation process.
  16. After you’ve waited patiently for a month, it’s time for the big reveal: open the jar.
  17. If the lemons on top have floated above the surface of the liquid, they will have oxidized a bit, which will have caused them to turn brown, but they’re fine.

Lentil Soup with Date Balls and Celery Salad


Lahlou's Moroccan lentil soup is served to guests at West restaurant. (Image: Catherine Roscoe Barr)

“This is my version of harira, the national soup of Morocco,” says Lahlou, “which shows up in unending variations from city to city, street stall to street stall, and family to family. It can be vegan [like this version], vegetarian, or made with meat – usually lamb.”

“This makes a big batch," he says. "That’s how I always do it, even at home, because we love to eat it over several nights, and it keeps for up to a week.”

Serves 12 to 14

Ingredients

Spice Mix

  • 3 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 1/2 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1/4 tsp saffron threads

Soup

  • 2 cups tomato paste
  • 8 quarts plus 1 cup cold water
  • 2 bunches cilantro, leaves and tender stems only
  • 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves and tender stems only
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow onions
  • Green leaves from 1 bunch celery, about 3 cups
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups warm water (about 110 F)
  • 1/8 tsp active dry yeast (not quick-rising)
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste

Date Balls

  • 12 Mejool dates
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Lentils

  • 1 1/2 cups dried green lentils, preferably French, picked through and rinsed

Celery Salad

  • Reserved bunch of celery (from above)
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Spice Mix

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a small bowl. Set aside.

Soup

  1. Put the tomato paste and 7 quarts cold water in a large nonreactive stockpot over high heat.
  2. Whisk occasionally as the water comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle boil and cook for about 1 hour, or until it has reduced by about one-quarter. (Remove from the heat if the onions aren’t ready.)
  3. Meanwhile, rinse the cilantro and parsley well and set aside.
  4. Cut the onions into large chunks. Put the chunks in a food processor. Pulse the machine, adding small amounts of cold water if necessary to allow the blade to spin.
  5. As the herbs decrease in volume, add the remaining herbs and the celery leaves and continue to pulse.
  6. Stop from time to time to scrape the sides with a rubber spatula and mix the herbs to redistribute them.
  7. Run the machine for up to 10 minutes until the mixture is almost liquefied.
  8. Transfer the mixture to a large saucepan and stir in the spice mix.
  9. Add the remaining 5 cups cold water to the onions and bring to a gentle boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and boil gently for about 1 hour or until the liquid is reduced by half.
  10. Stir the onion mixture into the stockpot, return to a simmer, and cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, skimming any impurities that rise to the top, until the soup has reduced by about 1/3 to just over 4 quarts.

Date Balls

  1. Cut a lengthwise slit down one side of each date, open it as you would a book, and remove the pit.
  2. Cut the dates lengthwise in half, then cut each half lengthwise into 4 strips.
  3. Using your fingertips, shape each strip into a rough ball. If you keep the skin side facing out, the ball will be less sticky and will hold together better.
  4. Pour a shallow pool of olive oil into a small bowl. Rub a little of the oil on the center of one palm, put a date ball on it, and use the index finger of your other hand to roll the date into a smooth ball.
  5. Put the ball in the bowl of oil, and repeat with the rest of the dates, adding more oil to the bowl as needed to keep the date balls covered. Set aside.

Lentils

  1. Put the lentils in a saucepan, add 6 cups cold water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
  2. Cook the lentils for 10 to 20 minutes, stirring them from time to time.
  3. Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with cold water. Taste a lentil. When they have started to soften but are still firm in the center, drain them in a fine-mesh strainer, rinse them with cold water, and submerge them in the bowl of cold water until ready to use.

Celery Salad

  1. Remove the tough outer celery stalks and reserve them for another use.
  2. Pinch off the leaves from the inner stalks and place the leaves in a bowl of ice water.
  3. Cut the stalks into 1/8-inch dice; you need 1 cup.
  4. Put the diced celery in a small bowl, toss with olive oil and parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

To finish the soup

  1. Once the soup has reduced, add the lentils; keep warm over low heat.
  2. Whisk together the flour, water and yeast in a small bowl and let sit at room temperature until foamy and bubbling, about 10 minutes.
  3. Whisking constantly, add the flour mixture to the soup, then stir with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pot, as you bring the soup to a simmer over medium heat. (High heat could cause the flour to sink to the bottom of the pot.)
  4. Simmer the soup gently, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
  5. Season to taste with salt, remove the soup from the heat, and stir in the lemon juice.
  6. Drain and dry the celery leaves.
  7. Using 2 soupspoons, form the celery salad into a quenelle or football shape and place toward the rim of each soup bowl.
  8. Stack about 8 date balls alongside each quenelle. (If you end up with extra date balls, keep them in the refrigerator and add them to salads.)
  9. Carefully ladle the soup around the garnishes so that a bit of the celery salad and the date balls remain visible.
  10. Drizzle some of the olive oil that remains in the bowl of celery salad over the soup and garnish with the celery leaves.

Chicken Skewers


(Image: Excerpted from Mourad: New Moroccan by Mourad Lahlou (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2011. Photographs by Deborah Jones.)

“The chicken skewers are the simplest recipe in the book,” says Lahlou, and the ingredients “work together to give you an easy approximation of the pleasure of red charmoula” – a mixture that Lahlou calls “a defining Moroccan flavor that’s more than the sum of its parts.”

Serves 6

Ingredients

Marinade

  • 3 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 3/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped garlic
  • 3 tbsp coarsely chopped thyme
  • 1 1/2 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp coarsely chopped cilantro
  • 1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Chicken

  • 6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup finely diced preserved lemon rind (see recipe above for Preserved Lemons)
  • 1/4 cup plus 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 1/2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice

Instructions

Marinade

  1. Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Trim the chicken breasts of excess fat.
  3. Remove the tenders and reserve for another use.
  4. Cut the meat into 1 1/2-inch pieces.
  5. Add the chicken to the marinade and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or as long as overnight.

Vinaigrette

  1. Whisk all the ingredients together. Set aside.

Chicken

  1. Soak 6 long wooden skewers in cold water for 30 minutes.
  2. Lift several pieces of the chicken at a time from the marinade and squeeze them over the bowl to drain the extra marinade.
  3. Skewer the chicken, leaving 1/4 inch between the pieces to allow all sides of the chicken to cook evenly.
  4. Season the chicken lightly with salt and pepper.
  5. Preheat grill to medium-high heat.
  6. Place the skewers on the grill and cook for 2 to 3 minutes without moving them, to mark the chicken.
  7. Turn the skewers 90 degrees to mark with a crosshatch pattern and grill for another 1 minute. The marks should be well browned but not burnt.
  8. Turn the skewers over and cook for about 2 minutes to finish cooking the chicken.
  9. Carefully remove the chicken from the skewers and place in a bowl.
  10. Toss with a light coating of the vinaigrette, and serve the extra vinaigrette on the side.