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North African food is, as far as I'm concerned, the last great regional cuisine that has yet to hit the big time.  Sure...most big cities have at least one Moroccan restaurant...but they are mostly big on the ambiance and the belly dancing, and big on the check.  It's hard to find a good restaurant that serves good food without the theater, for a reasonable price.  It's a shame, because Moroccan food is delicious, and unlike many other ethnic cuisines...it's really not that hard to make.

Get yourself a good cookbook...I suggest Paula Wolfert...or just cruise the internet.  You'll find that the cuisine is easy to prepare, and the ingredients are not all that exotic.  The only thing exotic is the way that Moroccans spice and season their food.  It is heavy on spice, but not hard to find ones.  It is a little unique in that it often marries seasonings we here in the USA associate with baked goods with savory dishes.  Many main courses incorporate dried fruits like dates, raisins or dried apricots, so you have to open to tasting meats that have been braised in a way that lends them both succulent, well spiced and with a bit of natural sweetness.

Either you like it or you don't. I do.  And you can save a lot of money by learning how to do it at home.

This soup is like crack cocaine (not that I know)...It is hands down my favorite butternut squash soup recipe, and during the fall/winter months I'll bet I make this twice a month.  First you have to throw together a spice mixture.  It will make more than you need.  Don't worry...you will make this soup again, and use it up.  Store the extra in a spice jar, and make a note to buy more of the basic ingredients.

Spiced Butternut Soup

spice mixture:
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cubeb pepper. (You're not gonna find this...just use black pepper with a dash of allspice)
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

SOUP
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse salt
2 pounds butternut, kabocha or calabaza squash—peeled, seeded and cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 cups water
1/2 cup crème fraîche, heavy cream or plain yoghurt
4 oz aged chevre (goat cheese), grated
Harissa  (if you can't find harissa, chop a small red thai pepper into the soup)
Freshly ground black pepper

Mix the spice ingredients and store in a spice bottle...you'll only need 1 tsp of this mix.

In a large, heavy pot, toss the onion with the olive oil and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is very soft, about 10 minutes. Stir in the squash, cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Add the tomato paste, 1 teaspoon of the spice blend and the water to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the squash is tender, 20 minutes. Let cool.
Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender (or just use an immersion blender, if you have one); add the crème fraîche, three-fourths of the cheese and 1 teaspoon of harissa to the last batch. Return all of the soup to the pot and season with salt and black pepper. Serve the soup, passing the remaining cheese and more harissa at the table.

Moroccan Rabbit with Raisins

2 young rabbits cut into joints
4oz butter
1 good pinch ground ginger and paprika
1 pinch ground nutmeg
3 crushed cardamom seeds
1lb chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 pinch saffron
Salt and ground black pepper
Water
1lb stoned raisins
1 tablespoon honey
1 good pinch ground cinnamon
Cornstarch mixed with a little water (optional)
4oz flaked almonds, fried until golden

Place the rabbit pieces in a casserole with everything except the honey, cinnamon, raisins and almonds. Cover with water and bring gently to the boil and then simmer for 1 hour. Add the raisins and continue cooking for 30 minutes. Now add the honey and cinnamon. After 5 minutes remove from the stove, arrange the rabbit pieces on a dish and cover with the raisins. If the sauce seems too thin, reduce it by fast boiling and thicken it with a little cornstarch mixed with some water. Pour over the sauce and sprinkle with the almonds.

Roasted Beets with Mint and Cumin

This is so easy, and so good.  The cumin really draws out the earthy flavor of the beets, and if you grow mint like I do...this is a welcomed way to put it to use.  Delicious.

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium beets (1 1/4 pound total without greens), trimmed, leaving 1 inch of stems attached
1/3 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped

Stir together lemon juice, cumin seeds, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl. Stir in oil and let stand while roasting beets.
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 425°F.
Tightly wrap beets in a double layer of foil and roast on a baking sheet until tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool to warm in foil package, about 20 minutes.
When beets are cool enough to handle, peel them, discarding stems and root ends, then cut into 1/2-inch-wide wedges.
Toss warm beets with dressing. Stir in mint just before serving.

Now for some fish...We all want to eat more fish, but let's face it...inspiration often fails us.  Here are two GREAT recipes to liven up your fish night, and neither is particularly tough or time consuming.  The stew is downright easy.

Moroccan Fish Stew

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 cinnamon stick
pinch cayenne pepper
14oz can chopped plum tomatoes
pinch salt
1lb 2oz firm white fish fillets (cod, snapper or ling) cut into chunks
14oz can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
generous one cup of water
2 tsp honey
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve
fresh coriander leaves
flaked almonds, lightly toasted

Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for five minutes, or until the onion is translucent.
Add the garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon stick and cook for two minutes, stirring regularly.  Add the cayenne pepper, tomatoes, salt and  water and cook, stirring frequently, for ten minutes.
Add the fish and simmer for five minutes, or until the fish is almost cooked through and tender.
Add the chickpeas and honey and cook for a further 2-3 minutes, then season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
To serve, spoon out the tagine into bowls and garnish with fresh coriander leaves and flaked almonds.

I usually cook some instant cous cous to go with this, and spoon some into a bowl before ladling the stew on top of it.

Got salmon?  Try this.  

Salmon with Chermoula Marinade

1/4 cup coarsley chopped cilantro
1/4 cup coarsley chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
2 tablespoons ground cumin
Ground cayenne pepper to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
4 salmon steaks or fillets
1 lemon, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1/2 cup green olives, pitted and roughly chopped

In a small food processor combine cilantro, parsley, garlic, and lemon juice. Process to thoroughly mince garlic and herbs. Add spices and olive oil and process until thoroughly combined into a paste. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Season salmon with salt and pepper, and spread half of the charmoula paste onto the fish. Allow to marinate for 20 minutes. In the meantime, preheat oven to 400°F.

On a baking sheet, lay salmon on aluminum foil and lay lemon slices on top of the fish. Cover with remaining charmoula and add a small amount of water before folding fish up into a pouch. Roast in the oven for 8 minutes, then uncover and continue roasting until fish is cooked through, another 8-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the fish. Serve immediately.

Seriously, folks...Moroccan food is so much easier than, say, making homemade Mexican food.  Or Chinese.  Or Thai. If you like these flavors, do yourself a favor and pick up Paula Wolfert's latest Moroccan Cookbook.  It's a winner.  And it is such a rich and tasty cuisine.

I'm having the salmon and butternut squash soup this evening.

What are y'all cookin'?

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