The New York Times                                    June 13, 2007 Wednesday                                       Late E...
baked their bread in them, and later, when the ovens were cooler, cooked casseroles and otherdishes.Today many people have...
home by their cook, Halima Sella, and baked in the same public oven I had just seen, only stepsaway from the house. The Be...
garlic, minced 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 21/2 pounds sardine, swordfish or red snapper fillets,cut into slices about 3 inc...
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Assilah, MOROCCO


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Assilah, MOROCCO

  1. 1. The New York Times June 13, 2007 Wednesday Late Edition - FinalA Moroccan Oven Thats Open to AllBYLINE: By JOAN NATHANSECTION: Section F; Column 4; Dining, Dining Out/Cultural Desk; Pg. 1LENGTH: 1952 wordsDATELINE: ASSILAH, MoroccoTHE best way to understand this fortress town, on the Atlantic coast about 30 miles south ofTangier, is to let your eyes and your nose lead you through the narrow streets where only foottraffic is allowed. While visiting here for a few days, I sniffed my way through the warrens of themedina, built in the 14th century by Portuguese and inhabited later by Muslims and Jews fleeingthe Spanish Inquisition. Today the towns population is international, with people from Spain andFrance buying quaint apartments as second homes.Morocco, at the end of the spice route in Africa, developed a fine cuisine known for its pungentspice combinations. In Assilah, as in much of the country, people eat seasonally, shop at theoutdoor markets, buy live chickens to have slaughtered on the spot, feathers flying helter-skelter.(In the big cities, where health inspectors and supermarkets are taking over, this is a dyingcustom.) At one market I saw eggs gathered the same morning, carefully protected by strands ofhay; lemons preserved in salted water; black and green olives from nearby orchards.As everywhere else in Morocco, the home cooks make the most flavorful food. But not all oftheir cooking is done at home.One morning, I happened upon a crowd of women, along with a few men and small boys, allbalancing boards on their heads piled with rounds of dough. I followed them into a small stuccobuilding where smoke poured from the chimney. Inside, a baker stood calmly underneath aportrait of the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI. He carefully placed the mounds of shaped doughon long wooden paddles and slid them into a brick oven fueled with eucalyptus branches.From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, customers arrive in a steady stream, pay a few dirhams -- about25 cents -- and then leave. About 20 minutes later, they return to pick up their golden rounds ofbread.In three other towns in northern Morocco I found similar ovens, all contributing to the heartbeatof the city. Communal ovens have been a part of Mediterranean life for thousands of years.People in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in French country towns and in Middle Eastern medinas
  2. 2. baked their bread in them, and later, when the ovens were cooler, cooked casseroles and otherdishes.Today many people have gas stoves or propane cooktops at home, and the communal ovens aredisappearing. In my travels I have found them only rarely: in Jerusalems old city; in Arabvillages in Israel and the West Bank; on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.In Assilah, as in other Moroccan towns, the ovens are in transition, still in use even though manypeople have their own stoves. These bread ovens are a link with the past, said Paula Wolfert,the author of Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, who lived in Tangier for sevenyears. It was part of the community, an extension of the home.Traditional cooks in Assilah wake around dawn each morning to knead and shape the dough.They let it rise for a few hours before carrying it to the public oven, known as a ferrane. Calledkhubz, the bread is about the size of pita but much denser. Sometimes it is made entirely withwhite flour; sometimes barley or coarse whole wheat flour is mixed in, and semolina is sprinkledon top.Somehow, with dozens of loaves on the floor of his oven, the baker always knows whose breadis whose. But just in case he forgets, most people make an identifying mark on their dough.My housekeeper put a special stamp on the bread made out of iron with a design, a sort offamily mark on it, Ms. Wolfert said. She didnt sleep well unless there was a sack of wheat inthe house to make bread.Bread isnt the only food cooked in the ferrane. I saw metal plates filled with green peppers andtomatoes, ready to be quickly charred and then peeled for salads. Clay pots covered with tinfoilor parchment paper also waited their turn. Inside were tagines of fish -- sardines, swordfish,snapper -- rich with tomatoes, potatoes, cilantro and spices. Family secrets work their way intothese tagines: the way the vegetables are cut, the ratio of spices, the kind of fish, even the shapeof the clay pot.The public oven is also where families announce weddings, anniversaries and other specialoccasions, whether they want to or not. When someone brings a bstilla, one of the jewels ofMoroccan cooking -- a chicken or pigeon pie made with nuts, sugar, cinnamon and orangeblossom water -- everybody knows that a big celebration is on the way. After all, no one wouldtake the trouble to make bstilla on just any old day. This delicious pie is topped with warka leaf,a thin dough somewhat like phyllo that is made by bouncing fistfuls of wet, pasty batter on a hotgrill until it miraculously comes together.Other celebratory foods also appear at the ferrane, like crisp Moroccan cookies. Also made fromwarka, they are first baked in the oven, then taken home and soaked in honey.Later that day, I ate lunch at the home of Mohamed Benaissa, the towns mayor and an old friendfrom the time he was the Moroccan ambassador to the United States. The round bread and thefresh sardine tagine, the centerpiece of our magnificent meal, was assembled at the Benaissas
  3. 3. home by their cook, Halima Sella, and baked in the same public oven I had just seen, only stepsaway from the house. The Benaissas have two gas ovens in their kitchen, but they prefer to usethe ferrane.The oven is a social equalizer, said Mr. Benaissa, who is also the foreign minister of Morocco.It also creates jobs and is economical, especially in the summer, because we use little energy forso many people.After lunch Ms. Sella showed me how to make her chicken couscous with onions, ginger,cinnamon and saffron, a dish I had adored at the Benaissas home in Washington. She simmeredit over the stove in a large couscousier, a double-layered pot.The chicken stewed in the bottom of the pot, producing steam that seeped through the holes of asieve and cooked the couscous in the top layer. Plastic wrap helped seal in the steam. Patientlyfrying almonds in hot oil, Ms. Sella insisted that the couscous be steamed three times, somethingthat cooks rarely do in the United States.As I tasted the Benaissas food and reflected on the different varieties of tagine and bread I hadseen at the oven, it occurred to me that Moroccan recipes are proud secrets embedded in families,transferred by word of mouth from generation to generation. A little more cumin, a little lesscinnamon? Should the vegetables be diced in rounds or squares?These secrets are not revealed even to the man at the ferrane who does the cooking. ChickenWith Couscous Adapted from Halima Sella Time: 1 hour 1 4-pound chicken, skinned and cutinto chunks (thighs in half, breasts in thirds, drumsticks and wings left whole, and backbonediscarded) Juice of 1 lemon Salt 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 3onions, diced 1 tablespoon ground ginger 1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/2 cup (lightly packed) parsley sprigs 1/2 cup (lightlypacked) cilantro sprigs 1 pinch saffron threads 11/2 cups blanched whole almonds 1/2 cup sugar1 tablespoon butter 1 pound couscous. 1. Rub chicken pieces with lemon juice, and seasonlightly with salt. Place a Dutch oven over high heat, and add olive oil and 2 tablespoonsvegetable oil. When oil is hot add onions, and saute until beginning to soften. Add chickenpieces, and saute until seared on all sides. Pour off all oil in pan. 2. Add ginger, 1 tablespooncinnamon, black pepper, parsley and cilantro. Mix saffron with 1 cup water, and add to pot; thenadd 2 cups more water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until chicken is cooked, about 30minutes. 3. While chicken cooks place a skillet over medium-high heat, and add remaining 1 cupvegetable oil. When hot add almonds, and stir until golden brown. Remove immediately, anddrain on paper towels. In a food processor combine almonds, sugar, butter and remaining 1/2teaspoon cinnamon. Pulse until there is just a tiny crunch to almonds. 4. To serve, cook couscousaccording to package instructions. Add almond mixture, and toss to blend. Spread couscousacross a large serving platter, and mound chicken on top. Serve hot. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.Tagine of Fish Adapted from Halima Sella Time: About 1 hour, 15 minutes 3 tablespoons oliveoil 1 large red onion, thinly sliced into rounds 1 large potato, boiled until tender and thinly slicedinto rounds 1 green bell pepper, roasted, peeled and thinly sliced 1/2 cup chopped cilantro 1/2cup chopped parsley 1 tablespoon paprika 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste 1 teaspoon freshly groundblack pepper 2 tablespoons ground cumin, or to taste 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves 5 cloves
  4. 4. garlic, minced 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice 21/2 pounds sardine, swordfish or red snapper fillets,cut into slices about 3 inches long 2 tomatoes, peeled and sliced into rounds 1 lemon, thinlysliced Harissa, for garnish (see note) Thinly sliced preserved lemon, for garnish (see note). 1.Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Smear bottom of a tagine, clay pot or Dutch oven with 1 tablespoonolive oil. Layer slices of onion, potato and roasted pepper in pan. In a small bowl, combinecilantro, parsley, paprika, salt, black pepper, cumin, thyme, garlic, lemon juice and 2 remainingtablespoons olive oil; mix well, and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons over vegetables in pan. 2. Ruball sides of fish with some spice mixture, and place on top of vegetables. If using red snapperfillets, sandwich two pieces of fillet together before arranging them. 3. Smear tomato slices withspice mixture, and place on fish. Top with lemon slices and any remaining spice mixture.Sprinkle with more salt, if desired, and drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons water. 4. Cover with a lidor foil, and bake until fish is cooked through (30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on type of fishand pan used). Garnish with harissa and preserved lemon, and serve. Yield: 6 servings. Note:Available in Middle Eastern and specialty shops. Moroccan Anise-Flavored Bread (Khubz)Adapted from Paula Wolferts World of Food (Harper & Row, 1988) Time: About 11/2 hours,plus 2 hours rising 1 package active dry yeast 1 teaspoon sugar 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1cup stone-ground whole wheat flour 1 tablespoon salt 1 tablespoon anise seeds 1 teaspoonsesame seeds 1 tablespoon vegetable oil 2 to 3 tablespoons semolina flour, as needed. 1. In bowlof an electric mixer combine yeast, sugar and 2 cups warm water. Stir, and add all-purpose flour,whole wheat flour, salt, anise seeds and sesame seeds. Mix with dough hook until smooth andelastic. 2. Divide dough in half, and shape into two balls. Let stand 5 minutes. Lightly oil surfaceof each ball, and roll around inside a wide mixing bowl until smooth. Flatten each ball into a disk1 inch thick and 6 inches in diameter, slightly thicker in center. 3. Sprinkle a baking pan withabout 2 tablespoons semolina flour. Place loaves on pan, and sprinkle surface of loaves withadditional semolina flour to keep them from being sticky. Cover loosely with a damp kitchentowel, and let loaves rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until a finger pressed in the sideof the dough leaves a deep indentation. Prick each loaf deeply 6 or 7 times with a fork to releasegas. 4. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake loaves 12 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300degrees, and bake about 20 minutes longer or until bottom of bread sounds hollow when tapped.Remove loaves from oven, and let cool before slicing into wedges. Yield: 2 loaves.URL: