A Moroccan Feast
“The chief pleasure in eating does not consist in costly seasoning, or exquisite flavour, but in yourself.”
Horace (65-8 B.C.) Roman lyric poet.
Oh, how much truth this quote from Horace holds. And in yourself lies your neighbour, your friend, your lover, your children, your family, the universe, everything. And before I get to carried away, let me just say that when you take pleasure in yourself, you will take pleasure in others. And every time I share a meal with friends, I do experience chief pleasure, that’s a fact.
Good friends, some old and some new, came over for dinner last week. Among the many things they have in common is that they don’t eat meat. Since I love cooking with vegetables, this was a great opportunity to plan a vegetarian feast. And had it not been for the dessert, it would have actually been a vegan feast.
The theme for the evening became Morocco solely because I really wanted to make vegan pastilla and to explore different vegetables and spices that would work wonders when brought together in this traditional dish. For appetizers, I made a plate of smoky eggplant dip with pomegranate and a nice bowl of lemony tomato couscous. The entrée, the individual vegan pastilla triangles, were quite magnificent, tasty and filling, with a strong note of cinnamon and a nice top layer of roasted almond meal. This was an absolute stand-on-its-own dish, I didn’t for a second feel that it was lacking meat, even though this dish is traditionally made with pigeon (squab) or nowadays, as it is easier to source, chicken.
For dessert, I wanted to make something that would bring forth the flavours that most evoke Morocco to me, so I made a moist cake with lemon, rosewater and almonds, drenched in a sweet rosewatery syrup. While it is not traditionally Moroccan, I got my recipe inspiration from the Middle-Eastern dessert, basbousa, that is basically a sweet cake made with semolina. The great thing about this cake, aside from the fact that is absolutely delicious, is that one of my guests, a declared rosewater hater, started loving it after biting into her first slice. Yes, everybody came back for seconds, it’s that good! Also, it’s the kind of cake you mix by hand in one single bowl and then you just bake. It’s also gluten-free, if you’re wondering. Enjoy and rejoice! I know I did.
Smoky Eggplant Dip
Two medium eggplants – burned on the stove top or roasted in the oven (sadly, I cannot use the stove top, as I have an induction hob, so I roasted mine in the oven with the broiler set to maximum, sliced in half and placed halves flesh-side down on a baking sheet, for about 15-25 minutes)
60g/¼ cup tahini paste
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
A small handful of chopped parsley
One medium cucumber, diced
Seeds from half a pomegranate
Olive oil, for drizzling
Salt and pepper, to taste
When the burnt eggplants are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh, put in a colander and allow to drain for 30 minutes. Chop the eggplants roughly and transfer to a bowl. Add the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, parsley and cucumber and mix everything together. Season with salt and pepper, then scatter the pomegranate seeds all over and drizzle some olive oil on top.
Lemony Couscous with Roasted Tomatoes
250g/1 cup couscous
300ml/1¼ cup boiling water
500g/2¼ cup mixed tomatoes (cherry tomatoes – chopped in half; big tomatoes – diced)
A pinch of sugar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
A handful of mint leaves, chopped
1 Tbsp dry tarragon OR 2 Tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped
1 Tbsp dry oregano OR 2 Tbsp fresh oregano, chopped
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Place the couscous in a bowl, season with a little salt and olive oil, pour the boiling water over it and cover with a plate. Set aside for 12 minutes, then remove the plate and fluff the couscous with a fork and leave to cool. Spread the tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with baking paper, sprinkle with a little sugar, salt and pepper. Drizzle a little a bit of olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Pop in the oven until they look a bit charred and have released their juices, about 20-30 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Mix together gently the couscous with the tomatoes and all of their juices, add the garlic and the herbs. Season with some more salt and pepper, according to your taste.
Butternut Squash and Chickpeas Pastilla
1 butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper
½ tsp paprika
2 tsp olive oil
½ red onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
240g/1 cup chickpeas (cooked and cooled)
2 tsp Grade A maple syrup
20 sheets Brick en Rouleau pastry sheets or Filo Pastry (cut to 10×10 cm/4×4 in)
2-3 Tbsp flaked almonds (substitute with almond meal, if you haven’t got slivered almonds on hand)
Icing sugar, for dusting
Preheat your oven to 200C/380F. Garnish the the squash with spices and 1 tsp olive oil and roast in an oven-proof dish until soft, for 30-40 min. Heat 1 tsp olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onion until it becomes golden brown. Add the garlic, the cooked butternut squash and the chickpeas and cook for a little bit. Next add the maple syrup, give everything a nice stir and remove from the hob and allow to cool slightly.
Next, assemble you pies, you have enough to make 10. On a baking tray lined with parchment paper, place the first sheet of pastry and brush with olive oil. Top with the second sheet of pastry, brush with oil. Put the filling in the centre and fold the filo layers over to close the pie. Turn the pie over so the folds are at the bottom. Scatter with almonds and bake for 20 minutes or until the pastilla pies are golden brown. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a little bit and dust with icing sugar.
Lemon and Rosewater Cake
For the cake:
370g/2 cups rice flour
340g/12 oz. Greek yogurt
1 beaten egg
150g/¾ cup sugar
113g/½ cup melted butter
zest from 1 lemon
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
3 tsp. rosewater
100ml/1/3 cup milk
90g/2⁄3 cup slivered almonds
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Butter and line a 9in/20cm springform pan. Combine rice flour, yogurt, egg, sugar, butter, lemon zest, baking powder, baking soda, rose water and milk in a large mixing bowl, then whisk together gently until the batter is relatively thick. Dump batter in prepared pan and sprinkle the sliced almonds on top. Bake 40–45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean, then allow to cool to room temperature.
For the syrup:
300g/1½ cup sugar
250ml/1 cup water
1 Tbsp. rosewater
Combine the sugar, water, and rosewater in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to thicken. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Pour some of the warm syrup on each slice of cake before serving.