Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rock the Casbah

What other spice mix can boast a lengthy exotic list of ingredients ranging from a cantharid based aphrodisiac like Spanish fly to psychoactive hashish, nutmeg and peppers alongside the floral nuance of rose petals? Ras el Hanout translates to “top of the shop” and is a Moroccan spice blend that challenges the well worn phrase that warns- less is more. Understandably the mix reflects the region’s cuisine which is based upon interaction with surrounding Berber, Moor, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African food. It is the romance of camels traversing the ancient sands of the Sahara mixed in with the lively banter between merchant and buyer of the crowded central souk.

Knowing little of Moroccan cooking, I unwittingly purchased a fiery red tagine years ago solely attracted by its unusual conical top rising dangerously like an earnest intent filled volcano. In actuality the form allows heat and moisture from foods cooked at relatively low temperatures to circumnavigate the interior space of the vessel, yielding relaxed cuts of meat, sumptuous fruits and silken vegetables lazily napping in velvet sauces. This stumble into foreign land, this loll into lax has provided me with a taste for a different kind of braise, one that is warmed from the eternal sun, honeyed and perfumed throughout.

Since receiving a handsome faceted jar of Mustapha’s Morrocan Ras El Hanout recently I’ve been in a spice induced reverie, a carpet ride to places far and outside my familiar. Inhalation of this tawny powdered terrain reveals a substance perfectly suited to anoint a holy space shadowed by nameless hallowed void. Or better still I find, a fatty hunk of meat. Somehow I lose myself in this story, this travel where scents blend so seamlessly with place and time. There is no tail of twig or finial flower which leave dominant tracks in this bouquet. And because of this I wander, unable to pin my past experiences upon this new one. Coriander, Cinnamon, Grains of Paradise, Cardamom, White Pepper, Saffron, Mace, Fennel, Rose Petal…. I find the flavor veiled and mysterious, moucharabieh revealing a fragment of taste once explored and now slightly askew. I am pulled in by my senses to that which I cannot understand, reconciling the new with the old and somehow traveling further away and at the same time closer to the center. Slowly the significance of man’s history with the spice trade goes beyond commerce and reveals itself as noble search to augment life, to flavor food, to embellish that which is ordinary yet sustains. Spices and exploration go hand in hand. This desire is more valuable than gold and awakens us beyond our ordinary selves into piqued expansive existence.

Scheherezad’s Magical Prune and Pig Tagine serves 4-6: I have never tasted an authentic tagine- only my own. What I do know is that I love prunes and use every excuse to include them. This quick assemblage infused with hard to pin point Ras el Hanout made an exotic feast which had me dreaming of far away places all week. While I’m not sure if I made best use of this spicy, floral mix, I look forward to other travels with it. And unfortunately the inclusion of Spanish fly and hashish has been outlawed, but rock the Casbah anyways.

1 ½ lb. boneless pork short ribs cubed
Salt and pepper to taste
4 teaspoons Ras el Hanout
1 1/2 cups canned beef broth
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion chopped
2 medium carrots chopped
½ small head of cauliflower, broken into pieces.
1 fennel bulb chopped
½ C dried prunes
1/3 cup slivered almonds toasted

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Dry rub salt, pepper and half of Ras el Hanout into pork. Meanwhile sauté onions in oil until golden brown. Make slurry with the remaining spice mix, broth and honey. Mix all ingredients except almonds together in a Dutch oven. Bless with more olive oil, cover with lid and place in the oven for about an hour until pork is tender. Serve with couscous or rice and sprinkle with slivered almonds. If using a stove top tagine, I would saute the vegetables first and then add the rest of the ingredients cooking on low. From time to time, check the meat to see when done.


Lydia said...

I started getting into tagine cooking a couple of years ago -- so much so that I'm now designing tagine pots with a local potter! And I'll be teaching my first course on the art and craft of tagine cooking in the Fall, so I'm testing many recipes now. It's such a relaxing and satisfying way to cook, and of course I love to use ras el hanout in the recipes. Glad you're having fun with your red tagine!

Callipygia said...

Lydia- How neat, are you designing tagine pots for yourself? for the public? And are they meant for stove top? Do you have a special recipe for ras el hanout?

Nancy said...

I have a little lamb loin chop for tomorrow that your recipe might well do the trick for! Sounds fantastic...

Gattina said...

saffron, rose and grains of paradise... sound heavenly!
seems to me any food cooked from clayware must turn out good, like naan, or Chinese clay-pot rice!

Monkey Wrangler said...

I have dreams of baking bread on the Big Island someday using just radiant heat from lava, but I guess this should really be the way to cook with a volcano first. I've wanted one since the first time I realized the roasting potential involved. And the prune thing is just brilliant.

Thanks for the deflated basketballs and various sundries. (Just got them a few hours ago.) How did you know I just loooove maple candy? Thanks!

blatta said...

moucharabieh...a word I might have gone the rest of my life and never heard again (sad sorry sessile existence that I've got)and yet I'm looking at one right now. That is, if the turned spindels of the expat screen on my coffee table filtering out the view of kid's toys and dog hairs on the carpet below retains any vestige of its distant history.

Wonderful sensuous writing, irrepressible and irresponsible. I love it. Thank you.

Callipygia said...

nancy- thank you for the beautiful bottle of magic! It was actually strange, I was drifting far away- staring at maps...

gattina- really those spices do sound heavenly don't they? And I do love chinese clay pot.

monkeywrangler-I guess when cooking with volcano one must gingerly walk towards the heat source (with the stealth of a ninja) w/o becoming sacrificial food. I wonder what you'll do with the basketballs?

blatta- Hey any excuse to use "moucharabier" and note to self to look up sessile! That's great that you have "the table" it has really globetrotted.

Lis said...

I wanna go on a magical carpet ride to find a fiery red tangine holding yummy exotic food!!

Course it'd help if knew what a tangine did. I always just thought it was a ceramic tee-pee shaped vase of some sort. Doh!


pom d'api said...

Hi Callipygia. Your recipe it's fantastic, I test quickly.

HipWriterMama said...

Now I've got that song in my head. I've never tried Moroccan food, but with this beautiful description, and easy to follow delicious sounding recipe, I might just give this a try, although I'm not sure where to find ras el hanout. I don't have a tagine. Does that matter?

Callipygia said...

lis- a teepee like vase, I love it. A container, home, heat source and pot all in one. Now that's good marketing.

pom d'api- Great do you like to cook Moroccan food?

hipwritermama- I actually gifted a friend my tagine, so I used a dutch oven instead. And when you come to visit, I'll share some of the ras-el-hanout. Maybe a whole foods might carry it, probably Penzey Spice.

Freya and Paul said...

I love Ras El Hanout but have only used it once, as a rub for a whole roast chicken. I then served it with a Greek salad dusted with Za'atar. I would love to try this in a tagine but I think a stockpot will have to suffice as my oven is very short!

Callipygia said...

freya and paul- I think that using it as a dry rub is an excellent way to eat chicken.

Gattina said...

Hey babe, I just bought home some raddish... I always want to try your suateed raddish in French style! Keep the leaves right?... yeah, too pretty to just throw them away. Merci!

JennDZ said...

Wow, I have always wanted to cook with a tagine...they just look so beautiful and the food they make is beyond yummy! :)

Callipygia said...

jenndz- The tagines are great, but you really can substitute a dutch oven. Shh, just don't tell.