COOKBOOK REVIEW Mourad: New Moroccan

By Mourad Lahlou

Mourad: New Moroccan is available for purchase through our online store or at local bookstores. For more information on this book please visit Thomas Allen & Son Ltd.


Review written & photographed by Helena McMurdo

Virtually self-taught, Mourad Lahlou learned to cook “accidentally” while at university, trying to recreate the dishes of his childhood Morocco and longing for a connection to home. Eventually abandoning his studies to open a restaurant with the support of friends and his former professors, his first restaurant became an overnight success.

Today, Mourad Lahlou is the Chef behind San Francisco’s Aziza restaurant where his cuisine marries the traditions of Morocco, with the fresh local ingredients of the Bay Area and the advanced culinary techniques employed by only the most modern of chefs.

In collaboration with Susie Heller, Steve Siegelman, and Amy Vogler along with stunning photographs by Deborah Jones, Mourad: New Moroccan is Mourad Lahlou’s first cookbook and a sensual homage to the memories of his homeland while showcasing the modernity of his cuisine.

At  380+ pages, the book (published by Artisan, $40.00 USD) is comprehensive and detailed. After two introductory sections, the book launches into “Seven Things”, a set of seven introductory lessons that introduce the reader to such essential pantry items of Moroccan cuisine as Preserved Lemons, Couscous, and Harissa. Each of these sections covers these ingredients in amazing depth, with a look at the culture surrounding the ingredient as well as detailed information on how to make them from scratch. There is also a section with suggestions about how to include these items in your cooking.

At first, I was a bit daunted by the magnitude of these sections. The idea of rolling my own couscous or making my own warqa (a Moroccan brick pastry) seemed like more than I wanted to take on. In fact, Mourad explains in the case of warqa even Moroccans buy it these days. But gradually I came to the realization that whether or not you choose to make these things yourself is not the point. The point is that these chapters will give you a better understanding about how these things are made which will ultimately assist your culinary efforts throughout the book.

This cookbook may be grounded in the traditional flavours and memories of Morocco, but the techniques are sophisticated and modern. The recipes range from salads and quick bites to the rich and hearty stews we most commonly associate with Morocco. But there are also refined dishes like Berbere-Cured Chicken Liver Mousse, surprising and unexpected combinations like Farro Curry with Yuzu-Glazed Mushrooms, and a range of sophisticated and beautiful restaurant-style desserts featuring ingredients such as almonds, lavender and rosewater.

Here’s what I loved about this book:

It’s a great read
From the very first pages, Chef Mourad paints a vivid and heartfelt picture of his childhood and the sights, smells and tastes of his homeland Morocco. You’ll be just as inspired to curl up with this book in a quiet corner and let yourself be transported to Mourad’s world as you will be eager to roll up your sleeves and get down to work cooking the recipes.

It’s beautiful
The book’s modern aesthetic and stunning photography make it a pleasure to peruse. The plating is clean and sophisticated and Deborah Jones’ photographs of the dishes flooded in light seem to be bathed in Moroccan sunshine. These are juxtaposed with the colour and flavour of traditional family scenes in Moroccan kitchens and markets.

It was a great excuse to give my spice cupboard a makeover
This book introduced me to spices and ingredients like grains of paradise, long peppers, and dried rosebuds, that were either completely new to me or I had heard of but never deigned to use. If you have a bunch of old supermarket spices, it will make you want to toss them out and start toasting and grinding your own. The biggest reward this book has provided to me has been the insight into the flavours of Moroccan cuisine and the recipes for spice blends like Ras El Hanout, and Harissa Powder. I’ve enjoyed using these while testing recipes from the book, but have also had fun experimenting with them on my own.

It’s an educational adventure
This book imparts a lot in the way of technique. Hand-rolling couscous, making preserved lemons and fresh cheese were all new to me. Some of these things I may not do again, but others will become staples of my pantry. The useful appendix in the back of the book is filled with chef basics, recipes for stocks, sauces etc. If you like knowing how the chefs do it, you’ll also appreciate the “Chef to Chef” sidebars in select recipes which provide alternate presentations and method tips. 

It’s filled with delicious and exciting flavours
The recipes I chose to make were flavourful and rich and featured ingredients both familiar and new. Preserved lemons in particular were something new that I’ve been delighted to discover.

This is definitely the kind of book you’ll want to spend some time getting to know. Be warned that there are few ‘quick-fixes’ in here. The recipes require time and effort and in some cases you need to be prepared to dedicate a few days to complete a dish. Initially I thought this style of time consuming cooking would be impractical for most of us who lead busy lives. But the more I got into the book, I realized that because many of the recipes are prepared in stages the steps can be broken down to make it less of a chore. If you get satisfaction from the effort you put into your food, you won’t mind. And let me tell you the results are worth the effort! More than anything, this book is a chance to look through into someone else’s world, delivered in an authentic and heartfelt voice. I’m looking forward to cooking from this book for many years to come and I’m sure it will quickly become a favourite of mine.

Chicken Legs, Preserved Lemons, Green Olives

RATING: 5 out of 5 (preserved lemons…where have you been all my life?!)

THE TEST: Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives is a classic Moroccan dish, so I felt this would be a great recipe to start testing first. Plus I was anxious to find an excuse to use my preserved lemons that I had started preparing weeks earlier.

The flavour profile for this dish comes from an array of spices including ground white pepper, coriander, ginger, saffron, turmeric as well as the olives and the show stopping preserved lemons.


Chef Mourad explains in the handy intro to the recipe that he approaches this dish in a manner that is more European than classic Moroccan, browning the chicken first in duck fat, sautéing the onions with the spices and then simmering everything in chicken stock and finally enriching the sauce with – what else – gobs and gobs of luscious butter.  Might as well loosen your top button now folks!
 

I did not have a tagine to use for this dish, so was grateful that the book suggested alternately using a tin foiled fashioned cone placed inside your roasting pot.  The instructions were to make the cone so that it would fit inside the pot with the lid on. I couldn’t find a way to make this work with the depth of my pot so ended up with a crumpled sort of tin-foil cone, kind of a tribute to a building by Frank Gehry, which I used without the pot lid. It seemed to work well although I found the cooking time for this recipe to be a little shy and my chicken definitely needed more time to make it fall off the bone.

Once the chicken is cooked, it is removed from the oven and from the pan while the sauce is finished.  The liquid in the pan is reduced, the preserved lemons and olives are added and then butter is whisked in to finish. Finally the warm sauce is poured over the chicken and served.

THE RESULTS: Surprise, surprise – things browned in duck fat are really, really good!

This is by far the chef-fi-est thing I have ever made! The sauce was rich and addictive. I’ve made this twice now and I think it was even better the second time when I allowed it to cook a little longer. I’ll definitely make it again. And again. And again… 

I think it’s probably a good time to have a small aside about preserved lemons. Besides using them in this and other recipes in the book, I am finding that I like them in just about anything I make. We’ve already started a third batch as they have become a staple of our everyday cuisine. Their salty, sweet, tart flavour brightens just about anything from tuna sandwiches to vodka. As for their role in this recipe, they are the star of the show, imparting a luscious, salty, tanginess that cuts through the richness of the other ingredients.


Short Rib Tangia, Aged Butter, Preserved Lemons

RATING: 4 out of 5 (dinner party deliciousness)

THE TEST: I love short ribs – who doesn’t? So this recipe jumped out at me right away. The short ribs are brined and then braised slowly and served with the braising liquid, crunchy croutons and an herb salad. Sounds great, right?

The recipe calls for one 3-bone plate of short ribs. Because I was cooking for two and the ribs at my butcher looked huge to me, I opted to get just two. My butcher separated them – which probably makes for a shorter cooking time – but I’m sure flavour wise it makes little difference.

This recipe could be made in one day but only if you start early in the morning. I chose to make mine over two days. On the first day I assembled the flavourful brine with cumin, coriander, peppercorns, star anise, cloves, bay leaves and chile de árbol.

The whole spices looked so pretty and gave off such beautiful fragrances. I have an entirely new appreciation for spices since reading and cooking from this book.

The warm brine is left for 15 minutes for the flavours to infuse and is then cooled with ice cubes before the short ribs are added. It is then left for at least 6 hours.

I was pretty excited to wake up the next day and start cooking. The next stage of the process involved searing the beef, sautéing some garlic cloves, fresh ginger, cumin, ground ginger and preserved lemons and then adding stock and braising the beef for several hours.

After searing the beef in a Dutch oven, Chef Mourad instructs to clean the pot if there are any burnt bits on the bottom in order to have a clean pot for the sautéing of the aromatics. Next time, I might use a second pot in order to avoid this ‘pit stop’ in the process, which left me feeling like my cooking groove had been interrupted by the drudgery of cleaning. 

With my Dutch oven now clean, I proceeded with the sautéing of the garlic cloves and ginger and then added the ground cumin, ground ginger and preserved lemons. 

The meat is then reintroduced to the pot, along with an herb bundle of cilantro and parsley. The stock is then added to just cover the meat. At this point, the directions call for a teaspoon of saffron to be added and to bring the liquid to a simmer before putting the pot into the oven. 

The meat is braised for 4 hours under parchment lid, and with the Dutch oven lid overtop. Instructions for the parchment lid are provided in a handy appendix to the book. This recipe, like many in the book, contains a very lengthy set of directions (three pages for this particular recipe). While I do read everything in advance, I forgot about the parchment lid and found myself fumbling around trying to pull this together quickly. At this risk of sounding like your Grade 8 English teacher laying down instructions for your final exam, it’s probably a good idea to make notes of any extras like this that you need to do in advance so you are not caught on the hop. 

While the meat was braising I made the croutons using the crust of a country loaf of bread. I used the delicious and crispy Pain de Campagne from Vancouver’s Terra Breads. The croutons are tossed in olive oil with garlic, rosemary and some marash pepper, then left to drain on a paper towel and sprinkled with salt.

Warning – This book will keep you on your toes in terms of finding ingredients. I couldn’t find marash so I substituted a pinch of harissa powder. My biggest issue was trying not to eat all the croutons before the meat was done! They were fantastic and will be my go-to croutons in the future. 

Once the meat has finished braising, it is left to cool for about half an hour in the stock and then removed to a rack and covered in foil. This gives you the perfect amount of time to assemble the herb salad; a mixture of parsley, tarragon, chives and chervil. Sadly, in January chervil is pretty hard to find in Vancouver so I did without. The salad is then tossed in a light vinaigrette of lemon juice and olive oil. 

Getting near the home stretch in this marathon recipe, some aged butter is smoothed over the meat and it is reheated in the oven while you whisk more aged butter into the stock in the pan.

What is aged butter you may ask? It is another “side recipe” for this dish and is contained in the appendix of the book. There are two versions but I chose the one that is made by mixing a small amount of blue cheese with unsalted butter and some kosher salt. Chef Mourad recommends Cashel Blue – yes he really is a man after my own heart. The butter is rolled up into a tight log and chilled in the fridge. Warning – it’s seriously delicious. Try not to eat it straight out of the tube!

With the meat now nicely warmed it was time to serve so I spooned the stock into a shallow bowl and balanced the warm meat on top with the herb salad and croutons and got ready to dig in.

THE RESULT: I loved the contrast in textures in this dish. The melt-in-your-mouthness of the short ribs worked perfectly with the crunchy croutons. The anise flavour of the tarragon really shines through and gives the herb salad a bright flavour that complements the richness of the beef. 

I did brine the meat for more than 6 hours, as between one thing and another I wasn’t around to take the meat out at the required time. I did find the dish a little on the salty side but I’m pretty sure my lengthy brining session is the reason why.

I will definitely make this recipe again. It seems perfect for a dinner party as so much of the prep can be done in advance and the results are incredibly impressive.

 

Classic Steamed (Hand-Rolled) Couscous with Butter & Parsley

RATING: 2 out of 5 (now I know what real couscous is all about)

THE TEST: I hesitate to call this a recipe because it was really more of an experience.

The book devotes a 15-page chapter to the culture, buying tips, method and serving variations for couscous.

Right away I learned that the couscous I have been making for years – yes, the one from the box that you probably make too – is according to Chef Mourad what an instant noodle cup is to fresh pasta. Feeling slightly guilty about my food choices, I pressed on with the chapter hoping to find some inspiration and trying not to think about the fact that my instant couscous would have been done by now. 

Hand -rolled couscous Chef Mourad goes on to explain, is made by rolling coarsely ground semolina (made from durum wheat) with salted water and flour until it forms the little spheres we know as couscous. Rather than being re-constituted with water, it is steamed several times to gain its fluffy texture. My first thought upon reading this was that as romantic as this sounded, Chef Mourad had unfortunately completely lost the plot. Seriously, who is going to take the time do this?! Well my friends, the answer is that apparently I was going to be that person. As I read on, I become more and more intrigued, and eventually curiosity won out and so our couscous adventure began.

Step 1. Buy coarsely ground semolina or in other words scour the city of Vancouver for something called coarsely ground semolina, while encountering many impostors. My fella became my partner in couscous and was a big help with the running around which was the most time consuming part of the whole exercise. We ended up with three different bags of ‘stuff’, each of which were described to us as coarsely ground semolina but varied greatly in both colour and coarseness. 

Most specialty food shops we visited tried to offer us the finer semolina used for pasta and even when they had a variety that they called coarse, it really wasn’t that coarse. We finally came up trumps at Mediterranean Specialty Foods on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. Because their version was the coarsest and the yellowest (shown on far right above) we went with it and called it a day.

So with our semolina now in hand, we set up our couscous ‘factory’ on the dining table. As recommended in the book, we used a large terracotta flowerpot saucer as the substitute for the ga’srhia, the traditional vessel used for making couscous in Morocco. While Chef Mourad recommends a tray 20 to 30 inches in diameter, the largest one we could find that was in pristine condition and not covered in dirt was only 15 inches. This made the process a little longer, as we had to do more batches, but it still worked very well.

The semolina is sprinkled over the tray and sprayed with salted water from a spray bottle. This made it easy to distribute the water evenly and finely. The idea is to swell the grains of semolina and roll them with your hands in the tray so that they get bigger and bigger and rounder and rounder. 

Looking through the book, and seeing the scenes of Chef Mourad and his family making couscous I began to understand how making a big batch could be a very social activity with everyone chatting and helping out. But sitting at the dining table of our condo in Vancouver looking out at the raindrops while perched on a stool with a terracotta pot propped up on tea towels and tilted below us, my partner in couscous and I were all business, taking turns at rolling the grains and waiting for something to happen. Initially we approached the process with trepidation; our grains were too dry and nothing was happening. Then we over-sprayed and our grains became too wet but gradually we did get the hang of it and soon our grains were fluffing up and starting to look like actual couscous. Now that we were well into the process our efforts took on a more natural feel. It was even starting to be (dare I say it) fun!

Eventually the grains got kind of sticky and would no longer dry out as we continued to roll, at which point Chef Mourad instructed to add a small amount of flour. This really seemed to separate the grains and smooth everything out.

At this stage, the grains are passed through two strainers: one very fine tamis and one coarse colander style, so that any grains either too small or too large, are removed.

With all the couscous rolled, I then par-steamed the grains to prepare them for drying.  (Sadly I had lost my partner in couscous by this stage). I used a steamer basket lined with cheesecloth with a large pot underneath that took the place of the recommended couscoussier.

After the par-steaming, the couscous is put through the coarse strainer once more and then left to dry overnight. Chef Mourad recommends laying it out on a cloth with “plenty of cloth showing through” which left my dining table out of commission for the next few hours. 

At this stage, I don’t mind telling you that I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Even though the process to this point had taken about 4 hours (not including semolina searching), there was something very satisfying about standing there and surveying the tiny grains laid out in front of me.

It did feel a bit strange to have it all laying out in the middle of the room, but these are the realities of urban living. The cloth was a brilliant idea as the next day it was easy to gather up the couscous in the cloth and feed it into a bowl or jar for storing.

On day two of couscous making reality set in as I realized that I still had a lot of cooking to do before I would be able to sit down and enjoy a bowl of couscous and decide if this had all been worth it.

Unlike the very simple process of preparing instant couscous, i.e. add water, this hand-rolled type and the non-instant commercial equivalent (sometimes called French Couscous) is moistened with chicken stock and then requires several rounds of steaming to prepare.

I’m just going to say right here that as satisfied as I felt the day before, I soon became equally despondent as I tried to add the specified amount of chicken stock to my dry couscous and it promptly morphed into what looked like a huge lump of bread dough, my beautiful grains of couscous disappearing before my very eyes. I re-read directions, checked quantities, my heart racing, my couscous gone. All that work! What I had I done wrong? Had I not left the couscous to dry long enough? Had I added the stock to quickly? Had I rolled it improperly? Did I have the wrong kind of semolina? At this point it was clearly gin and tonic time so I gave up for now and quite rightly drowned my sorrows.

A few days later, having somehow regained the will to live, I started again. Yes, re-rolling and re-making. What kind of a crazed nut am I you may ask? I had already proclaimed I was doing this on Twitter so there was no backing out now. 

But this time I left the couscous to dry for two days and when I added the stock, I added it very slowly and was careful not to over saturate. I suspect that temperature, humidity and type of semolina you use, can all have bearing on how the liquid absorbs.  This time, I used about half of the amount of stock, the recipe called for and, so far so good. 

After adding the stock, I worked the grains to separate them as instructed and brought them to the steamer basket to be steamed. The steamed couscous is poured back into the terracotta tray and grains are once again separated by hand and the process is repeated several times.  At the final stage, additional stock is sprayed into the couscous to moisten it even further until finally the couscous is finished with butter, salt and chopped parsley. 

THE RESULTS: As far as the process is concerned, I enjoyed rolling the couscous and at first glance that part would have been deemed a success. I’m not sure I’ll ever know if the difficulties I encountered were with the rolling process or with the cooking method. I definitely found that during cooking the couscous was not responding as indicated in the recipe.  It seemed dryer than it should be through through the various steaming rounds, perhaps because of my reluctance to add the specified amount of stock given the earlier mishap.

Although it took a long time to get there and the recipe did not work exactly as written, at least for me, the end result was still quite delicious. It was fluffy, tender, and flavourful. 

I now know that hand-rolled couscous bears no resemblance to the instant variety, which seems hard and stale to me now. I used some of my leftover couscous to make a cold salad by adding arugula, some chickpeas tossed in harissa powder and some roasted red peppers and the results were fantastic.

Chef Mourad writes in the beginning of the chapter on couscous that he wants his readers to experience hand-rolled couscous for themselves, even if this means just reading about it in the book. He wants people to know what couscous is and what it is not. By this measure, he has succeeded. Although my experience with this recipe was definitely not straightforward and I doubt I will be hand-rolling my couscous anytime soon (if ever), it will change the type of couscous I buy in the future. I have already purchased a non-instant commercial version of hand-rolled couscous that I was able to find locally and have prepared it successfully using a hybrid of Mourad’s method of steaming and the package directions. There’s no going back now.


To read Helena’s interview with Chef Mourad Lahlou, please click here