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moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives

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This weekend, for the first time since I was in third grade (or, if I’m being brutally honest, high school), I was in a talent show.

The performances—there were two—were held at our local theater, and as I walked round the side of the building in search of the green room (a small tent atop a patch of Astro Turf) I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. Since we moved years ago I’ve spent hours each week at the coffee shop, the brewery, and our branch of the public library. But our home has always been in the hills, and apart from the close friend whose band I was playing in I don’t socialize much in town.

When I entered the tent the show was on-screen and under way. There was a 90-year-old high school teacher playing the harmonica. There was a Hawaiian Slack-key guitarist. There was a group of 8-year-old hip-hop dancers who sustained their opening crouch for 90 seconds while the right music was found, and a man with a pony tail, his mother, and Penny the Talking Dog, who spent most of the act wandering across the stage eating pieces of salami.

It took me a few days to figure out just why I loved the talent show so much, why I took the memento picture of all the performers and knew that I would keep it. The thing is, all those people—the angsty songwriter, the tall, flustered ballroom dancers, the percussionist who flailed determinedly at his bongos in a losing battle with the beat—weren’t there because people had asked them to be, or because it was their full-time job, or even because they were particularly good at what they did. They were there because something in them—possibly the deepest, truest part—told them they had to be, that their drive to do this thing in which they felt most themselves was sacred, strong, and uncompromising. Days got long, work got hard, people moved in and out of their lives. But this thing, this thing which probably didn’t bring them money, or fame, or even anything other than a few rolled eyes and polite applause, was there, and it wouldn’t go away.

What does this have to do with Moroccan chicken with preserved lemons and olives? Probably nothing. But it has a lot to do with why I’ll keep writing this blog, in one form or another, for as long as that true something tells me to.

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Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives

The following recipe was inspired by a lovely meal at my grandparents’ and is loosely adapted from Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. (According to my parents the picture doesn’t do the meal justice – I seem not to have the knack for photographing stews!)

6 cloves garlic, crushed

1-inch piece of ginger, grated

1 tsp sweet paprika

1 tsp powdered cumin

ground black pepper, to taste

olive oil

4 large chicken breasts or 4-6 chicken thighs

2 large onions, chopped

2 preserved lemons, cut in quarters

4 Tbs fresh herbs like cilantro or parsley, chopped

¾ cup kalamata olives

Israeli or regular couscous, for serving

The night before you plan to serve your meal (or the morning of if, like me, you are forgetful), combine the first five ingredients with the olive oil to make a marinade. Massage onto your chicken pieces (you can cut into smaller bits, if desired) and place in a small dish. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, place the marinated chicken in a large pot and add the chopped onion and a cup of water. Bring to a boil, adding a bit more water if the sauce looks too thick, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Separate the pulp from the skin of the preserved lemons, roughly chop, and add both parts to the pot together with the herbs and olives. Cook until meat is tender, and serve with Israeli couscous.

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Making Preserved Lemons

Making preserved lemons takes time, but the result is truly worth the wait. My method of choice is outlined here, by Melissa Clark of the New York Times.

If you don’t have preserved lemons on hand and can’t wait to try the recipe above, never fear – Mourad Lahlou of San Francisco’s Aziza has a shortcut method in his fabulous book Mourad: New Moroccan. (Note for the Californians among us – this method is particularly rewarding with Meyer lemons). Simply slice your lemons very thinly, salt the slices, stack to re-form, wrap in cling-wrap and place in the freezer overnight. Thaw the lemons the next morning, shake off the salt, and pack the slices in a jar with olive oil to store and use.

bobotie with apricots and almonds

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January 2013 felt new. There were long days at work, but I ran a race and got my car serviced, went line dancing and knitted a scarf that only just makes it round my neck (but which, of course, I love). I played violin in a bar with a songstress friend, and cooked dinner parties out of Jerusalem and Sunday Suppers at Lucques. I got bangs. I joined instagram. I did not, however, write a blog post.

The work-play balance is a subject beyond the scope of a few paragraphs, but it’s hard to power down at the end of the week – and harder still to sink into that free time without thoughts of the books you should be reading, the current events in which you should be well-versed. I heard somewhere recently that in your twenties you aren’t particularly humble, and seen from that vantage point I don’t suppose I am – I want to work eight hours, master Keynote, pay off my loans, go for a run, cook a meal with strange ingredients, and knit my funny little scarf. That and, well, write about it.

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Unfortunately, I also want to lie in my deckchair all Saturday and do nothing. The list is there – email subjects bold and accusing, bangs swept in a headband and desperate to be trimmed – but the deckchair, the bathtub, the towel on the beach just won’t be resisted. I used to feel guilty about this urge towards nothing. Then I realized it takes a certain humility to lie in the sun without so much as a magazine in sight.

So perhaps I’m more humble – or maybe I’m just a bit more lazy. Either way, I do know that on the totem pole of To-Do’s my blog should probably come before the scarf. Just maybe not before a nice long bath.

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Bobotie with Apricots and Almonds

Yes, this is not the first bobotie recipe I’ve posted on my blog. But I present this updated, improved version for two reasons: firstly, because bobotie is my go-to comfort food in wintry moments (if relatively unknown outside of South Africa), and more importantly, because it goes wonderfully with a wine I like very much. I had lots of fun doing a wine pairing recipe for Cimarone Estate Wines last spring, so when they reached out to me about their 3CV Syrah I jumped at the chance – especially since it meant pairing an old favorite with a new one.

2 lbs ground beef

2 slices whole grain bread

1 1/3 cups milk

2 1/2 Tbs curry powder (mild curry powder is traditional, but a hot version works nicely too)

1 large onion, chopped finely

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 1-inch piece ginger, grated

1/2 tsp ground coriander

1/2 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped

1/3 cup raisins

1/2 cup slivered almonds

3 eggs

salt and pepper

rice cooked with turmeric

chutney (for serving)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl soak the bread in the milk until soft, then gently wring out the bread (reserving leftover milk) and crumble into a large bowl. Mix the bread with the ground meat and 2 Tbs of the curry powder.

In a large skillet or pot, saute the onions, garlic, ginger, and coriander in olive oil until translucent. Add the meat mixture and stir until the meat is nicely browned, then add the apricots, raisins, almonds, half of the reserved milk and one egg. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the mixture to a baking dish, then beat the remaining 2 eggs with the other half of the reserved milk and the 1/2 Tbs curry powder and pour over the top of the meat. Bake in the oven until the egg mixture on top is browned, about 30 minutes. Serve with turmeric rice and liberal amounts of chutney.

fruit and nut scones

There’s nothing like handing out Halloween candy to kids in your old neighborhood to make you feel like a grown-up. Home alone with a giant bowl of Kit Kats and a half-buffered stream of my favorite sitcom, it seemed I’d skipped my twenties and landed squarely in old age. So I threw in the towel and made scones.

And, to be honest, indulged in a little food philosophizing. I mentioned the idea of “good food” in my last post, and it turns out that’s a bit of a topic at the moment (at least if you are, as I am, a shameless slave to New York Times op-eds). But while food can taste good, it can’t be good. Food isn’t moral in that way, because then we’d be expecting it to fill hungers it can’t.

The truth is, you can’t grow a great tomato in a hothouse. The truth is also that genetically modified crops feed farmers and their families who would otherwise starve when ordinary seeds wither in droughts that worsen every year. But when we talk about what food can give us beyond mere nutrition (which is important – we’d die without it) we’re really talking about ritual. Yes, I love walking into my parent’s garden and eating warm figs straight off the tree every morning in summer. But I also loved Thursday nights at JJ’s Place and their suspiciously frothy fro-yo. I loved bottles of Lagunitas IPA on the farm, and driving with my college boyfriend’s mom to Chick-fil-A. I love my family’s flaming Christmas pudding every year on Christmas Eve, and a pot of Five Roses every three hours with my dad when we’re both working from home. It pains me to say it, but I might even be looking forward to gingerbread lattes.

It’s the ritual that gives meaning to the food, not the food that somehow gives us meaning. That’s why we eat those awful frosted, lettered cakes at birthdays and graduations, and that’s why we take communion.  Food tastes wonderful and keeps us alive, but whether you’re a maize farmer in Tanzania or a silly food philosophizer like me, it’s the ritual associated with food that truly makes it meaningful.

Fruit and Nut Scones

I adapted the recipe for these scones and always encourage substitutions – I love almonds and dried apricots in everything from sweets to curries, but feel free to use whatever trail mix mix-ins your pantry offers.

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped

3/4 cup whole wheat flour

3/4 cup oat flour (or all-purpose flour)

1 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

pinch salt

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 1/4 cups rolled oats

1 stick of butter

3/4 cups roasted almonds

1/2 cup sunflower seeds

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

1/3 cup milk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Place raisins and apricots in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for 5-10 minutes, then drain and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, brown sugar and oats. Cut butter into small pieces and rub into dry ingredients with your fingers (trust me – this step is key for that delicious flakiness). Stir in dried fruit, almonds and sunflower seeds, then add yogurt. Add the milk a little bit at a time (using more if necessary) until you have a dough that just holds together.

Place dough on a floured surface and shape into a square that’s one inch thick. Cut the dough into squares and then triangles (you can make them smaller if you’d like), then place scones on cookie sheets and bake for 25-30 minutes.

spicy chicken curry with potatoes, carrots and tomatoes

I’ve been traveling again lately, for work. I know that doesn’t begin to cover my almost two-month hiatus from posting (in all honesty, it covered 10 days), but the weeks leading up to the trip were so consumed with preparations that at the day’s end all I wanted to do was sink into the bathtub with a magazine (I’d like to say the New Yorker, but usually it was an Anthropologie catalog).

When I traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year it was with high culinary expectations: I’d read chef Marcus Samuelsson’s recommendations in Food + Wine, and researched well-known eating spots in Addis Ababa. The food was incredible—fragrant, diverse, a departure from anything I’d tasted—and I came home inspired to track down berbere and ferment my own injera. Going to Tanzania for the African Green Revolution Forum, however, my expectations were somewhat modified. Free convention buffets rarely offer fare worth paying for, and vats of food lack transcendence by definition. I was expecting good coffee (the plantations are lush and widespread) and maybe a trip to Arusha one evening for an adventurous meal.

What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to have my beliefs about food provoked in a new and challenging way. Growing up in coastal region that exalts produce, in a family for whom celebration (even of the daily sort) revolves entirely around eating, I developed strong opinions about “good” and “bad” food at a young age. “Good food” was fresh, healthy, flavorful, and home-cooked or served in restaurants that cost more than your average trip to the grocery store (notable exceptions included “hole-in-the-wall” spots or anything trendy and ethnic).  Conversely, “bad food” was processed, generic, served in restaurants with more than one branch or delivered through a window. The definitions varied slightly (my friends and I went through a mercifully short phase when all “fat” and “sugar” were bad) but the dividing lines seemed fairly straightforward.

The problem is, “good food” and “bad food” only exist in places—or for people—fortunate enough to make the distinction. On a soil-testing field trip to a small Tanzanian farm, I opened my lunchbox and my appetite fell—and then my lunch fell, pried from my hands by a band of children who snatched the warm yogurt and cold fried chicken and left me sitting in the dirt. I suppose I could have felt annoyed, or unfazed since they clearly needed lunch far more than I did, but I was surprised by a stronger, somewhat more sinister response. You didn’t really want that, a voice whispered, it wasn’t “good food” anyway. There it was, exposed in a new light: an entire life philosophy—something I thought of simplistically as “eating well”—that felt silly and selfish in a place where eating itself isn’t guaranteed.

I suppose I could have rejected everything I believe about “good food” then and there, but that didn’t seem like the answer either. And then, on the last two nights of my trip, I witnessed an appreciation of food—both its growing and its preparation—that gave me more to think about. At Gibb’s Farm—an old coffee plantation perched on the Ngorongoro Crater—they grow everything from cucumbers to cauliflower to carrots, and the food they serve is both deliciously simple and far more nuanced than anything I’ve attempted. Sunday supper was a spread of traditional curries surrounded by homemade chutneys, salads, and pickled vegetables, and the aroma of freshly baked breads and rolls filled the modest dining room. Most importantly, everything was served with genuine warmth and pride.

Leaving Tanzania, I hadn’t reached a neat conclusion about what it means to eat well in a world that defies easy answers about anything. Still, there’s one thing I’ll try not to forget: whatever or however you eat, food is a necessity, a privilege, and a joy.

Spicy Chicken Curry with Potatoes, Carrots and Tomatoes

My South African family has been making weekly curries for as long as I can remember, and I recently graduated from the Nice N’ Spicy Masala packets to seasoning mine from scratch. Feel free to experiment with different meats and vegetables, and though roasting the chicken is an extra step I find it makes the meat much tastier and easier to shred.

2 large chicken breasts, or 3-4 thighs

2 tablespoons curry powder (hot or mild)

1 tablespoon Garam Masala

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

small pinch chili flakes

2 large onions, chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1-inch chunk of fresh ginger, grated

2 large carrots, sliced into rounds

5-7 small potatoes, cut into small chunks

1 small zucchini, sliced into rounds

2-3 cups cherry tomatoes, or 1 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes

fresh cilantro

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Rub the chicken with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 20-30 minutes, until cooked through. Cool completely, then shred meat and set aside.

Combine spices and toast until fragrant over medium heat in a large pot. Add several tablespoons olive oil, then add chopped onions, crushed garlic and ginger. Saute over medium-high heat until onions are translucent, then add carrots, potatoes and zucchini. Cook vegetables until softened, 5-10 minutes, then add shredded chicken. Add tomatoes and enough water to barely cover the vegetables with liquid, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until vegetables are cooked through (you can simmer for as long as you need – I like to keep it on the stove until the liquid has reduced and the chicken really falls apart).

Serve with chopped fresh cilantro, chutney, and rice, pita, or toast.

tahini cauliflower with lemon and smoked paprika

After over a year of blogging, I’ve hit a snag: I can’t seem to remember to photograph my food.

The situation has gotten desperate. I’ll identify a recipe, test it a few times, write the post, then plan the photo shoot. Unfortunately, plan the photo shoot roughly translates to “grab a smudge-free bowl and make sure the camera’s in the vicinity.” At dinnertime my artistic attempts are derailed by the fading light, and at lunch I’m just too hungry. I need to shoot this, I’ll think, regarding my plate with twitching fingers. In the battle of the wills, hunger beats out creative vision almost every time.

My family, while supportive in theory, is no help at all. Arranging roasted cauliflower florets in a bowl is the work of a minute, and I manage to snap a few photos before returning to the kitchen to rummage for props. When I return the bowl is empty, resting on the arm of my mother’s deck chair. I try to be upset about the missed photo opportunity, but am far more saddened that she polished off the dish before I could.

Which brings me to the one advantage of being a lazy food photographer: it makes the recipes better. I’ve been making this cauliflower for months (since early June, to be precise), each time growing more anxious to photograph it and each time devouring it warm from the bowl. Granted, it’s a simple dish. But when I made it for the sixth time I realized a longer roasting time was preferable, and somewhere around the eleventh version I stumbled on the “South African Smoke” seasoning my parents picked up at Trader Joe’s. I can now post the recipe with confidence and something close to addiction, albeit after a significant delay. I blame it on the photos.

Tahini Cauliflower with Lemon and Smoked Paprika

If you can find “South African Smoke” seasoning at TJ’s I highly recommend it, but any smoky pepper flakes will do nicely.

1 large head of cauliflower

olive oil, salt and pepper

1/3 cup tahini

juice of 1/2 lemon

smoky pepper flakes or smoked parika

Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut the cauliflower into small florets and toss with a generous amount of olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast for 20-30 minutes, or until florets are nicely-browned on the edges.
Meanwhile, whisk together the tahini and lemon juice in a large bowl. Add the cauliflower straight from the oven and toss to coat, adding a tiny bit of water or more juice if the dressing is too thick. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste and finish with the smoked paprika.

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