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.