Articles by Author
As this best part of summer delivers a ready-to-eat bounty of fresh vegetables to the kitchen, Luigi Fineo, executive chef at West Hollywood’s RivaBella Ristorante, shows off a large bowl of Iowa yellow corn. With one taste, Fineo knew what he would do with these fat sun-ripened kernels. He would make a healthy, sweet tasting soup.
More on Zester Daily:
The youngest of five, Fineo grew up in southern Italy in Gioia del Colle. Like many chefs, he learned to love cooking in his mother’s kitchen. Helping to prepare the family’s meals, she taught him the basics. That early training would serve him well as he worked in demanding restaurants around the world from Francesco Berardinelli’s Shooeneck Ristorante in Falzes, Italy, to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif..
From the outside, RivaBella has the appearance of just another upscale restaurant. Inside, the sprawling interior is set-dressed to look like an elegant version of a rustic Italian country inn. Full-sized trees and a 7-foot tall brick hearth dominate the interior. During the day when the retractable ceiling is open, the bright blue Southern California sky hangs overhead.
The current menu recalls the kitchen of Fineo’s mother and the refinements of his colleague, owner-chef Gino Angelini, who helped popularize quality Italian cooking in Los Angeles. The entrees include fine-dining versions of Italian classics: risotto with porcini mushrooms, spinach lasagna, Veal Milanese and pasta with broccolini and salmoriglio.
Reflecting his time spent in Santa Monica’s La Botte where he earned a Michelin star, Fineo also enjoys using the high-tech tools that are popular in many contemporary restaurant kitchens.
For his slow-cooked lamb shoulder ragù, he adds summer flavor with peaches he dehydrates, then rehydrates in a white wine bath flavored with cinnamon, anise and bay leaves. The handmade pappardelle he serves with the ragù is made with flour, flavored with a fine pistachio powder that is first frozen in liquid nitrogen before being ground into the fine powder.
Of the corn, by the corn and for the corn
When I first tasted the corn soup at RivaBella, it was so velvety, I asked if heavy cream or butter were used. The answer was neither.
In his kitchen for the video demonstration, Chef Fineo explained that he did not need cream or butter to create his soup. All he needed was farm-fresh Iowa corn, a little water, a pinch or two of salt and a lot of stirring.
Usually when Fineo makes soups, he begins with a sauté of shallots and aromatics. Cooking with corn, he’s inclined to roast the kernels. But with this sweet corn, he decided he didn’t need to add flavor and he didn’t need to employ any high-tech machines. To prepare his corn soup, he would return to the basics he learned from his mother.
Because, essentially there is only one ingredient, use high quality, fresh corn to create a soup that is healthy and delicious. When picking corn, choose ears that have green, healthy husks and kernels that are plump. If the kernels are indented or the husks are brown, choose different ears. In the restaurant, the soup is served with fresh crabmeat to enhance its upscale qualities. But Fineo recommends that the soup is a treat served entirely as a vegetarian or vegan dish.
- 12 ears yellow corn, shucked, washed, pat dried
- ¾ cup water
- Sea salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh chives
- ½ cup crab meat, preferably crab leg meat (optional)
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil (optional)
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper (optional)
- Using a sharp knife, cut the raw kernels from the cobs.
- Working in batches, two cups at a time, place the kernels into a large blender and blend with just enough water, about one tablespoon water for each cup of kernels. To create a vortex, if needed, add more water.
- Blend each batch about 45 seconds.
- Again, working in batches, strain the resulting corn mash through a chinois or a fine meshed strainer, capturing the liquid in a large bowl. To release all the liquid, press on the corn mash gently, using the back of a large ladle or large kitchen spoon.
- Transfer the corn juice to a large saucepan or small stock pot and place uncovered on the stove.
- Using high heat, bring the liquid to a boil and then lower to medium.
- Using a wire whisk, gently stir the liquid 30 to 40 minutes until reaching the desired thickness. Very importantly, the liquid must be stirred constantly to prevent the corn’s sugars from sticking to the bottom and burning.
- As the liquid thickens, lower the heat.
- Taste and add sea salt as desired. Serve hot, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of finely chopped chives.
- Optionally, in a non-stick pan on low heat, sauté the crab pieces in olive oil or butter until crispy on all sides, then place one or two pieces on top of each bowl of soup and garnish with chives and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Instead of crab, Chef Fineo also recommends using shrimp or scallops.
- Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Drain the crab on a paper towel. Place on top of the soup. Drizzle with olive oil and finely chopped chives.
Main photo: Yellow corn soup with sautéed crab and chives. Credit: David Latt
Chef Giacomino Drago smiles a lot. The youngest member of a family of cooks to immigrate from Sicily, Drago, along with his brothers, has opened a dozen restaurants in Los Angeles, many in Beverly Hills, over the past four decades.
A contributor to the “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” Drago declares that using the highest quality, freshest ingredients is the essence of Italian cooking. In his video he demonstrates an easy-to-prepare, classic Italian panzanella salad with diet-friendly spelt instead of bread.
Drago enjoys cooking. He smiles as he drops a handful of spaghetti into one of the half dozen pots of salted water on the stove and when he quickly renders a red onion into a mound of thin, pungent ribbons.
More from Zester Daily:
Come to Italy, he says, and one of the first salads you will eat is one made with vine-ripened tomatoes, basil, red onions, extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Simplicity, he says several times, is the essence of Italian cooking. Find the freshest, highest-quality ingredients and prepare them in what Drago calls the rustic way, roughly cut so the dish is not overly fussy. The result is delicious, healthy food that is easy and fun to make.
A panzanella salad is the perfect dish for summer. To pursue the “current fashion,” as he puts it, he has traded spelt for bread in a signature salad at Via Alloro in Beverly Hills. He chose spelt because it has a refreshing texture and nutty quality that contrasts well with the acid of the tomato and vinegar. A heritage grain and cousin to wheat, spelt was developed hundreds of years ago as a flour in bread making. High in protein and fiber, Drago says spelt is heart-healthy because it is high in niacin. Because “panzanella” refers to a bread (“pane”) salad, it might be more accurate to call chef’s creation a speltzanella.
Chef Drago loves all his restaurants. But he designed the kitchen at Via Alloro in a special way. The area where the line cooks work is a horseshoe space with stoves in the middle and counters running along the walls. There are no dead-ends in this kitchen. Moving efficiently Drago and Executive Chef Paolo Sicuro prepare dishes with an unhurried ease, transferring their love of cooking onto the plates.
Fresh tomatoes are key to the flavor and pleasures of the salad. To protect the tomatoes’ richness of flavor, Drago insists they must never be refrigerated. That is why buying tomatoes from farmers markets is so important. Supermarket tomatoes may have been refrigerated for days, even weeks during their journey from the field to your kitchen.
Drago is precise about his cooking but flexible in terms of ingredients and seasoning. When cooking at home, he encourages that you use only ingredients you enjoy. If you do not like onions, don’t use them in the salad. The same goes for cucumbers and ground black pepper.
To capture all the tomato juice, chef cuts the tomatoes over the bowl. Use a variety of tomatoes for contrasts in shape, color and flavor. For the demonstration, Drago and Siruro used vine ripened, cherry and grape tomatoes. Yellow and heirloom tomatoes could also be added for contrast. To make the onion slices more “friendly,” Drago suggests double rinsing in water. This will result in a more mild flavor. Not widely available, spelt berries can be purchased in specialty markets and ordered online from purveyors such as Bob’s Red Mill. Cooked like pasta in boiling salted water, kosher salt should be used for the cleanest taste. Chef Drago uses English or hothouse cucumbers for the dish. If those are not available, Persian cucumbers would be a good substitute because they have a lower water content than garden cucumbers. The spelt may be cooked ahead and refrigerated. The other ingredients should be prepared immediately before serving to preserve their freshness.
- 3 tablespoons spelt
- 2 medium-sized tomatoes, washed, stem removed, cut into a small dice, reserving the liquid
- 5 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 5 plum tomatoes, washed, quartered
- 1 small hothouse cucumber, washed, skin on, a small dice the same size as the tomatoes (optional)
- ¼ medium red onion, washed, root and stem removed, thin sliced (optional)
- 4 fresh basil leaves, washed, pat dried, roughly torn or chopped
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- Pinch of salt to taste
- Pinch of freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- Add kosher salt to three quarts of water. Bring to a rapid boil. Add spelt. Boil uncovered 30-50 minutes or longer depending on the desired doneness. Taste at 30 minutes to determine what is al dente for you and then again at 10-minute intervals until you reach the texture you like. I prefer cooking the spelt 50 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool
- Using a sharp paring knife, cut the tomatoes over the salad bowl to capture all the juices.
- Cut the skin-on cucumber into pieces similar in size to the tomatoes and add to the bowl.
- Slice the red onion. Submerge in cold water, rinse, drain, submerge in fresh cold water, rinse and drain. Add to the tomatoes and cucumbers.
- Add the cooked spelt berries.
- Roughly chop the basil leaves or tear them with your hands. Add to the salad bowl.
- Toss the spelt, vegetables and aromatics with the extra virgin olive oil and red wine vinegar.
- Season with sea salt to taste and freshly ground black pepper, as desired.
- Serve as a salad or a side with grilled meats, fish and poultry.
This year, the gloomy, wet, cold winter seemed to last forever. Happily all that is a dim memory now. With heat and humidity back in our lives, it’s time for ice cold beverages, with new concoctions always welcome. Increasingly, mezcal (also spelled mescal) is appearing in trendsetting bars and liquor stores and inventive mixologists are using it to make fun and refreshing cocktails, perfect for summer.
All tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequilas
The Mexican government controls how and where mezcal and tequila are produced. It is as diligent in protecting the integrity of those appellations as is the French government in its guarantee that a wine labeled Bordeaux comes from that region.
More from Zester Daily:
There is still a lot of confusion about mezcal, beginning with what exactly is it? To get to the heart of the matter, I talked with mixologist Marcos Tello, who consults with El Silencio, a distillery in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Tello explained that both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave or maguey plant. Although there are dozens of agave varieties that are employed to make mezcal, for a distillate to be licensed by the government as tequila, only the blue agave may be used.
Tequila and mezcal are grown and bottled in different, designated regions but there are some overlaps. Tequila is primarily grown and distilled in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Mezcal is exclusively manufactured in Durango, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas but both mezcal and tequila are produced in the states of Guanajuato and Oaxaca.
Most mezcal is manufactured from a single type of plant, usually espadin agave. Sometimes agaves are blended to create a balanced flavor as is the case with El Silencio Mezcal, which blends espadin, tobasiche and Mexicano agaves.
Roasted, not steamed
To prepare the agave plant for fermentation, the body of the plant is trimmed of its thick leaves. What is left, the “piña,” looks like a pineapple. To make tequila, the piña is steamed and then fermented. For mezcal, the next step is crucial in creating the spirit’s distinctive flavor. Before fermentation, the piña is roasted in an underground pit. For aficionados, the resulting smoky aroma gives mezcal a quality similar to scotch and whiskey.
Like tequila, mezcal is graded. Joven (“young”), the first grade, indicates a mescal that was bottled within 60 days of being distilled. Reposado (“rested”) is aged longer, between two months and a year. If mezcal is aged in small oak barrels for at least six months and as many as four years, then it is labeled añejo (“aged”).
Among other classifications, there is also pechuga (“breast”), which denotes a small-batch mezcal that after completing two distillations is given a flavor-enhancing step in which fruits (plums, apples, pineapples and plantains), almonds, uncooked rice and a chicken breast with the skin removed are added. Yes, you read that correctly, a raw chicken breast, which is suspended over the fermenting distillate, the juices and fat helping balance the fruit flavors.
Mezcal cannot be substituted for tequila in all recipes. The deeply nuanced smoky flavor can overpower the ingredients used in many tequila cocktails. To illustrate mezcal’s distinctive qualities, Tello created a signature cocktail he calls a Saladito.
As with any cocktail that employs robust flavor components, the least expensive grade of mezcal should be used. Save the reposado, añejo and pechuga to sip and enjoy neat or on the rocks.
Proust wrote that when he was presented with a plate of madeleines, childhood memories of an “exquisite pleasure” consumed him. Saladitos have a similar impact on Tello. The inexpensive Mexican candy originally from China is made from chile-salted, dried plums. Tello was inspired by homemade versions of the candy. On hot summer days, children would press a saladito into the middle of a lemon or lime and drink the juice as relief from the oppressive heat. That flavor memory inspired his creation of a mezcal cocktail that has sweetness lurking behind the smoky citrus notes. To add a salty-heat garnish to the cocktail, Tello uses a popular Mexican prepared seasoning called Tajin, a mixture of salt, dehydrated lime juice and pepper powder. If Tajin is not readily available, a similar effect can be created by mixing your own version as described here.
- ¾ ounce honey syrup (see below)
- 2 ounces mezcal (Tello recommends El Silencio Joven)
- ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
- ¼ teaspoon Tajin seasoning or combine 2 parts fine granulated sea salt to 1 part cayenne pepper
- Prepare the honey syrup by combining 3 parts honey with 1 part hot water. Mix well. Refrigerate to cool. Reserve.
- Fill a cocktail shaker or a large (16-ounce) glass with ice.
- Add the mezcal, honey syrup and lime juice.
- Place a lid over the top and shake vigorously.
- Open the shaker, cover the top with a bar strainer (also known as a Hawthorne Strainer) and pour into a cocktail glass.
- Dust the top of the cocktail with Tajin seasoning or the cayenne-salt mix.
- Serve chilled.
Main photo: A mezcal Saladito by Marcos Tello. Credit: David Latt
Which Swiss wines do you love? Hands? Anybody? Nobody? Know why? Only 2% of Switzerland’s wine production is exported. All the rest is consumed domestically. The best way — actually, the only way — to sample Swiss wines is to visit Switzerland. That’s what I did last fall.
The Valais’ microclimate
Having grown up with images of Switzerland as a land of snow-covered mountains, I expected cold weather when I visited the Valais, a French-speaking canton east of Geneva. But the climate was better suited to shorts and T-shirts than to parkas.
More from Zester Daily:
Neatly trellised vineyards climb up steep hills taking advantage of a hot, dry microclimate. With 300 days of sun a year, the Valais feels like Napa and Sonoma except for the Matterhorn looming in the distance.
In Switzerland, family-owned vineyards and wineries (called vignerons-encaveurs) are the rule. Even if unprofitable, they stay in the family. We met one winemaker whose family was regarded as a newcomer. They had worked the vineyard for only three generations, whereas the neighboring farm had been owned by one family for seven generations. Neither winery was self-sustaining. Everyone had a day job.
During a hosted trip we tasted dozens of varietals from local vineyards, some with such a small output that customers who lived in the neighborhood consumed their entire production.
The wine most closely associated with the Valais is Fendant, a white wine made with the Chasselas grape. But it is a red wine, not a white, that is making news these days.
Cornalin, the new kid on the block
Twenty years ago the Swiss government encouraged farmers to plant improved strains of grapes that were indigenous to Switzerland and to pursue new blends with distinctive qualities. The goal was to expand the export market for Swiss wines.
In the Valais that led to the improvement of Cornalin, a grape that had been cultivated since the Roman Empire. Used primarily in blends to make inexpensive table reds, the wine was often bottled without appellation or date of production.
Rouge du Pays
Frequently confused with an Italian grape with a similar name, the Swiss variety (Rouge du Pays or Cornalin du Valais) is genetically distinct. In the 1990s the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswi, a federal agricultural agency, funded research to cultivate promising local strains to improve the quality of the grapes and the survivability of the vines. A group of young vintners adopting the appellation Le Coteaux de Sierre planted the new vines. Over time, the acreage in the Valais devoted to Cornalin has expanded.
The wines have a low-tannin, fruity flavor and a dark cherry red color. Helping market wines made with 100% Cornalin grapes, the wineries of the area have enlisted an unlikely champion.
Antoine Bailly is an internationally respected academic and a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Geography, 2012). A native of Switzerland, Bailly travels the world as a lecturer. These days his passion project is Cornalin.
A Cornalin Museum: Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins
On a tour of the under-renovation Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey, Bailly pointed out details of the building, parts of which were built in the 13th and 16th centuries. Restored at great expense, the building is unique in the area for its history and architectural details. Open to the public in late August 2014, a photographic tour of the museum is available on a French language website.
In the tasting room, products from 17 of the local wineries can be sampled, along with cheeses and charcuterie from local purveyors. To visualize where the grape is grown, Bailly created an interactive map with the locations of the Cornalin vineyards in the Valais. Another interactive display with video screens illustrates the cultivation of the grape.
A temperamental grape
In the tasting room, with Bailly leading an animated discussion accompanied with appetizers of local cheeses and slices of beef sausage from Boucherie La Lienne in the village of Lens, we sampled several of the 100% Cornalin wines. Each of us had our favorite. Mine was the Bagnoud Cornalin, Coteaux de Sierra (2012) Rouge du Valais.
Bailly described the grape as difficult to grow and unstable. Slight variations in heat or rainfall can ruin the harvest. Through trial and error, the vintners have learned how to get the best out of the grape.
So why bother with such a temperamental grape? The answer was pretty direct. The vintners like the wine they’re making with Cornalin. For them, the extra effort and increased risk are worth it.
Cornalin needs three years in the bottle to mature. With the vintages currently offered for sale, these wines will be at their best just about the time the museum opens. Bailly invited us all to come back then. In the meantime, we bought bottles of our favorites to bring home. We had become little agents of export for Swiss wines.
Top photo: The Cornalin Museum, Château de Vaas, La Maison des Cornalins in the village of Flanthey. Credit: David Latt
After a long winter, summer will be welcomed with open arms. Looking ahead to outdoor parties under sunny, blue skies, chef David Padilla’s easy-to-make Drunken Shrimp sautéed in a spicy citrus sauce is the perfect recipe for lunch or an early dinner.
As Padilla describes what he loves about cooking, he remembers his father taking him to the markets in their small town in the Mexican state of Nayarit, on the Pacific coast between Sinaloa and Jalisco. His father would lead him past the fishermen on the beach and ask, “Do you want oysters today, or fish or shrimp?” They would eat what had been in the ocean’s clear waters only a few hours before. And long before farmers markets were fashionable, he and his father shopped in the mercados to buy freshly picked produce from the family farms outside of town.
So when Padilla says he searches out organic, local and seasonal products, he’s not following trends, he’s referencing his childhood in rural Mexico — even if his kitchen is now in a boutique hotel in the heart of Beverly Hills.
Padilla is chef de cuisine at Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel’s restaurant called On Rodeo Bistro & Lounge. As documented in the recently published “Beverly Hills Centennial Cookbook,” the wealthy city has dozens of restaurants. Surprisingly, only one of those restaurants is on Rodeo Drive, the city’s internationally known, upscale shopping street.
Chef puts a Latin touch on Drunken Shrimp recipe
Given the hotel’s cosmopolitan clientele, Padilla embraces a California-inspired, fusion cuisine. He describes his menu as “a little bit of Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, a little bit of everything because we’re in L.A. and it’s a melting pot of cultures.”
More from Zester Daily
At the restaurant, Padilla pulls together Latin, Asian and French influences. The bits and pieces he takes from many cuisines are melded into a balance of flavors and textures. For him, a meal is a journey. As he says, “I want your mind and taste to get lost and then you get to your destination.”
Padilla puts a decidedly Latin spin on Drunken Shrimp. The well-known Chinese dish has many iterations. One decidedly cruel version tosses live shrimp into a pot of liquor. Most commonly, the shrimp are cooked in wine or liquor so shrimp and diner presumably can share the bar tab. The shrimp in Padilla’s dish are flavored with tequila. Citrus sections and freshly squeezed juices give the dish its bright, summery flavor. serrano peppers add fire, and butter mellows and sweetens the dish.
With such a flavorful sauce, Padilla wants every drop to be enjoyed. He serves the shrimp with a thick slice of a soft Italian ciabatta bread, toasted on the grill. He suggests that rice and pasta would be good companions for the shrimp. I think steamed spinach would also be delicious.
Mexican Drunken Shrimp in a Spicy Citrus Sauce
As with any recipe, quality ingredients increase the pleasures of the dish. Use freshly squeezed citrus sections and juice and the freshest raw shrimp available. To sear the shrimp, a frying pan like one made of carbon steel that can tolerate high heat is very helpful. Quick searing is important for flavor and appearance, and also because searing seals in the shrimps’ juices. Because the flavors of the sauce take several minutes to combine, the shrimp simmer along with the other ingredients. Smaller shrimp and ones not seared can dry out and become chewy.
While grapefruit and oranges are available year-round, kumquats are seasonal. When they are available, they are a beautiful addition to the dish.
Taste the sauce and adjust to your palate. You may want more lemon or grapefruit juice or less. Do not season with salt during cooking. The shrimp are naturally salty. Padilla dusts the plated dish with a small amount of sea salt crystals to “brighten” the flavors.
12 raw large shrimp (10 to a pound), washed and patted dry
4 tablespoons blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
4 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 teaspoons finely chopped shallots
4 tablespoons Italian parsley, washed, patted dry and finely chopped
12 tablespoons sweet butter, plus more for bread
4 thick slices ciabatta
8 ounces tequila
1 cup orange or Cara Cara orange juice
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
12 kumquats, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds with the skin on
4 fresh serrano chilies, washed, patted dry and sliced into rounds
12 grapefruit sections, membranes removed
12 orange sections, preferably Cara Cara oranges, membranes removed
Sea salt as needed
1. Prepare each shrimp by peeling away the shell, exposing the body. Leave 1 inch of shell covering the tail. Devein and drizzle with 2 tablespoons blended oil, season with black pepper, garlic, shallots and 2 tablespoons parsley. Set aside.
2. Heat a grill. Place a small amount of butter on each side of each piece of ciabatta. Using tongs, grill the slices on both sides. Remove and set aside.
3. Use a large frying pan so the shrimp are not crowded. Place the pan on a burner with a high flame. When the pan lightly smokes, drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons blended oil into the pan. The oil will smoke in a few seconds. Using metal tongs, place the shrimp into the pan.
4. Each shrimp will sear quickly. Turn to sear the other side. This will not take long.
5. From the marinade, add the garlic, shallots and parsley. Sauté to caramelize.
6. Remove the pan from the burner so the tequila doesn’t catch fire when added. Deglaze the pan with tequila. Stir well to lift the flavor bits off the bottom of the pan.
7. Add the citrus juice and sliced kumquats. Stir to blend together the flavors.
8. Add serrano peppers.
9. Place chunks of butter into the sauce. Stir to melt and mix together.
10. Turn the shrimp over to absorb the sauce. Reduce a few minutes.
11. To plate, use shallow bowls. Place four shrimp in each bowl. Portion out the sauce, covering the shrimp. Garnish each plate with grapefruit and orange segments. Place a slice of grilled bread on the side. Dust with a sprinkling of sea salt crystals. To add color, lightly drizzle the grilled bread with olive oil and dust with parsley.
Main photo: Shrimp marinated with shallots, garlic and Italian parsley being prepared for Chef David Padilla ‘s Drunken Shrimp at the Beverly Hills Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel. Credit: David Latt
When skies turn dark and temperatures plunge, out come the short lists of dishes to warm body and soul. To those lists should be added an easy-to-make hot, savory, deliciously satisfying Moroccan-style chicken tagine.
Making a tagine sounds exotic, but at its heart, the dish is a one-pot braise, a technique as basic to an American kitchen as beef stew.
More from Zester Daily:
Traveling with half a dozen food writers on a hosted trip to Morocco, at the trekking hotel, Kasbah du Toubkal, we were given a cooking demonstration by Hajjah Rkia ben Houari (“Hajjah” is an honorific given to a woman who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca) and her assistant Fatima. In her kitchen with a view of the High Atlas Mountains, she showed us how to make classic Moroccan dishes: chicken tagine, preserved lemons and lamb couscous. She started the lesson by reminding us that having quality, fresh ingredients is essential.
The chickens, lamb, fresh vegetables and herbs came from the nearby open-air market in the Berber village of Asni. The spices were from vendors, much like the ones we saw in the Marrakesh and Fez souks with their finely ground spices organized in mounds next to bushels filled to overflowing with olives, dates, dried fruit, dried beans and herbs.
Home cooking in the High Atlas Mountains
In the pantry between Hajjah Rkia’s kitchen and the laundry room, sitting on short stools around a low table, we felt a bit like nursery school kids on a field trip. With our knees bumping against the table, we were her prep chefs. She assigned tasks — peeling onions, garlic, carrots and potatoes — and the translator explained how we would cook the dish according to our host’s Berber traditions.
At the end of the cooking demonstration, Hajjah Rkia’s son made Moroccan-style mint tea, which meant the teapot was held high in the air as a hot stream of black tea flavored with fresh mint was poured into small glass cups. He explained the long stream aerated the tea and gave it added flavor qualities. Without the benefit of a test kitchen, we couldn’t validate that opinion, but we loved the spectacle and the tea was delicious.
Just before we sat down for dinner, Fatima cooked flat bread on an outdoor clay stove fueled by wood and charcoal. Charred on the outside, the bread was chewy on the inside. To stimulate our appetites, Fatima’s handmade bread arrived at the table warm from the fire with a plate of fresh feta cheese and a bowl of spicy Moroccan olives. Then the table was set with large platters of the dishes made during the cooking demonstration. What a feast.
Translating Moroccan classics in an American kitchen
Back in my own kitchen, facing an inclement day when friends were coming over for dinner, I remembered that wonderful meal at Hajjah Rkia’s. The chicken tagine appealed to me as the perfect way to beat back the cold. I adapted the recipe to my own palate and the realities of a Southern California kitchen.
In Morocco the pot used to prepare a tagine is a shallow pan with a distinctive conical top. Lacking a tagine, I find the qualities of the dish can be approximated using a covered pot that has a vented lid to promote the thickening of the sauce through evaporation. I use an inexpensive Chinese clay pot, which works well.
Before using a clay or ceramic pot, always check the manufacturer’s instructions. Some pots should be soaked in cold water before using. For some pots, a diffuser must be placed between the pot and the heat source to prevent cracking.
Chicken With Preserved Lemons, Cracked Olives and Golden Raisins
Preserved lemons give the dish a bright, citrus finish. Easy to make at home, preserved lemons will keep refrigerated for months. The lemons can be used after one week, although the longer they have been preserved, the more they will have their distinctive “perfume” flavor.
As a side dish, Moroccan pickled vegetables provide a tangy complement to the savory tagine. The pickles are fun to make and, like the lemons, will keep refrigerated for months.
This recipe calls for cracked olives, which are olives that have been “cracked” sometimes by hand, sometimes by machine to create a deep cut in one side of the olive reaching to the pit. That allows the brine to reach deep into the olive. In cracked olives, the pits are mostly separated from the “meat” because of the cracking. The advantage of cracked olives in a braised dish is the sauce soaks deeply into the olives and the saltiness of the olive passes into the sauce so the effect is different from using regular olives.
1 whole chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, washed
¼ cup kosher salt
¼ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon ground black pepper, divided
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, peeled
⅓ bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon of powdered saffron (optional)
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
2 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1 preserved lemon, rinsed, white pith removed, finely chopped
1 cup cracked green olives
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
⅛ teaspoon cayenne powder (optional)
1. Place the whole chicken in a large container, cover with water. Add the kosher salt. Refrigerate overnight.
2. Place the golden raisins, ¼ teaspoon of the black pepper and lemon juice into a covered container. Allow the raisins to absorb the juice for at least one hour or overnight.
3. Before cooking, rinse the chicken and pat dry. Using a sharp knife, remove the breast meat, legs, thighs and wings from the carcass. Cut apart the wings at the joints. Debone the thighs and legs, taking off the skin.
4. Place the carcass, skin and wing tips into a large pot, cover with water and simmer 60 minutes. Strain the bones. Reserve the stock. The meat on the bones can be picked off and used in a salad or a soup. Refrigerate the chicken stock. When cooled, remove the fat and discard.
5. Finely chop the garlic and cilantro.
6. Cut each chicken breast into four, equal sized pieces. Cut the deboned thighs into four and the legs into two pieces.
7. Over a medium flame, heat the olive oil in a tagine or pot. Add the onions, ground ginger, saffron (optional), garlic and cilantro. For additional heat, dust with cayenne powder (optional). Stir well and cook for two to three minutes.
8. Sauté the wings, thighs and legs in the seasoned oil until lightly browned. Do not add the chicken breasts, which require less cooking time.
9. Finely chop the raisins, which have now absorbed the pepper-flavored lemon juice.
10. Add raisins, remaining black pepper-lemon juice and chicken stock. Stir well to create the sauce. Cover and gently simmer 30 to 40 minutes or until the chicken meat is tender.
11. Add chicken breast pieces, cracked green olives and finely chopped preserved lemon peel.
12. Cover and simmer 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with sea salt or ground pepper. Serve hot with steamed rice as a side dish.
- Do not debone the breast, thigh and legs. Traditionally, the chicken is quartered and the wings are kept whole.
- Along with the onions, add other vegetables of your choice such as leeks, peeled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower and turnips, cut into bite-sized pieces.
- For added sweetness, dissolve 1 tablespoon honey in the chicken stock.
- Before adding the vegetables, lightly drizzle them with olive oil and roast for 15 minutes in a 350 degree F oven on a parchment-paper-lined baking tray.
- Serve with steamed spinach instead of rice.
- Serve with boiled or mashed potatoes instead of rice.
Top photo: The distinctive Moroccan ceramic tagine. Credit: David Latt