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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.

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.

“secret recipe” guacamole

And then, all of a sudden, I had a full-time job.

“You learn the value of wine when you work,” my mom whispered conspiratorially as she handed me a glass. I was at the stovetop preparing the third “work-week dinner” of my life, a stew of canned tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and farro. By the time I’d reached the end of my week I’d learned the value of quite a few things: sleep (hello, 6:30 a.m. conference calls!), well-packed lunches, thermoses that keep tea hot for more than 30 minutes, and cheese (which I now devour straight from the wax paper within 5 minutes of arriving home).

All in all I couldn’t be more thrilled to be working. My first week had me so engrossed I ate only one lunch a day instead of my customary three,  and when I did eat it was with a ravenous craving for comfort food. Of course comfort food carries slightly different connotations here in Southern California, and when the weekend arrived I was ready to make not macaroni or mashed potatoes, but guacamole.

Oddly enough, my South African family has a rich and varied history with guacamole. Sometime after my uncle traveled to Mexico we instituted guacamole competitions at our family reunions, and the culminating event took place last October at my mother’s 50th birthday celebration. While taco meat sizzled and margaritas circulated widely, relatives and friends thronged round the competition table, where each contestant set to work with their allotted 4 avocados. There were the regular ingredients—garlic, onion, lime, tomato—and then there were the heralds of innovation—sriracha, corn, curry powder and Parmesan. The winner enjoyed first pickings from the piñata, not to mention a brief moment of honor in which all the guests reverently (and irreverently) bestowed slaps on the back and applause.

My original recipe—avos from the garden and limes from a neighbor’s donation bucket, with a squeeze of crushed garlic and a bit of chopped tomato—is still a favorite, but I’ve recently adapted it to include a few secrets from past competition winners. Up to now I’ve only held second place, but when the next family gathering rolls around I plan to be ready…

Guacamole with Garlic, Cilantro, Cumin and Parmesan

I love adding cumin to my guacamole (a secret tip from my uncle) and if you’re feeling adventurous give the Parmesan a go as well, courtesy of our family friend Mark.

4 ripe avocados

juice of half a lime

2 cloves garlic, crushed

half a large ripe tomato, chopped

half a medium onion, chopped

handful cilantro, chopped

1 tsp. cumin

salt & pepper

freshly grated Parmesan (optional)

Peel and gently mash the four avocados. Add the lime juice, garlic, tomato, onion and cilantro and stir to combine. Add the cumin with the salt and pepper, then taste and season accordingly. Add the Parmesan if desired and enjoy with chips!

lemon cardamom soufflé

Before I launch into my usual ramblings, I want to take some time to thank everyone who responded on my blog or via email to my Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times last week. As a writer (a title I’m slowly working up the courage to claim for myself) I’ve always felt that no experience is wasted—moments of discomfort or hilarity or tenderness tend to crop up wherever you go. Your job is merely to record with honesty and a bit of panache, and the more I read good writing the more I realize that the things that are true to you are often true to human experience. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about opening myself to the stigma that comes with moving back home, and the piece did provoke a number of spirited retorts on the comments page. But the generous and encouraging messages I received from people of both my generation and my parents’ left me grateful not only for the family I am privileged to live with, but for the comforting knowledge that like-minded friends are to be found around the world.

Everything I learned about throwing a good dinner party I learned from my parents. My sister and I would secretly gripe about my mother’s admonishments to “serve the guests a drink” or my father’s absolute refusal to have anything plastic on the table, but now that I’m older I see the merits of scooping hummus out of its container into a white china bowl. The washing-up into which I was conscripted at the end of the meal felt insurmountable at 10:30 p.m., but it wasn’t long before I equated the soapy water with the pleasure of culinary success, the guests’ laughter echoing from the dining room as my mother and I did the dishes while assembling the dessert.

Making the final course was my first foray into the cooking side of our dinner parties, and I was determined to make my mark. No surprise then that I hadn’t yet learned the foremost truth of dinner party desserts: the simplest are the most impressive. Woefully under the impression that fussy is fabulous, I held up our annual New Year’s feast trying to dislodge miniature chocolate lava cakes from individual rubber molds, bursting into tears when one after the other broke into a pool of gooey chocolate on the cutting board. I took the lesson to heart, and now my dessert repertoire includes a five-ingredient fruit crumble, a delicious no-custard ice cream, and this beautiful recipe for lemon soufflé.

Lemon Cardamom Soufflé

Lemon desserts are very popular with my family, and this soufflé has it all: a fluffy light meringue that tops a velvety lemon curd (feel free to adjust the amount of lemon zest and juice for your preferred level of citrusy zing). The bottom will be quite liquidy when just cooked, but never fear–it will thicken up as the soufflé cools.

2/3 cup flour

1/2 cup sugar

zest of 3 lemons

1/3 cup cold water

2 cups milk

4 eggs

2 Tbsp. melted butter

juice of 3 lemons

1 vanilla bean

1/2 tsp. cardamom, freshly ground

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar and lemon zest. Stir in the water and milk. Separate the eggs and beat the yolks until thick, then add to the flour mixture with the melted butter and lemon juice. Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape into the batter, then add freshly ground cardamom.

Beat the whites until they are just firm enough to hold a peak, then fold gently into soufflé batter until combined. Pour batter into a large ceramic dish (circular or rectangular), then stand dish in a pan filled with an inch or so of hot water. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until top is puffed and golden and bottom is still custardy and gooey. Serve warm.

kale slaw with avocado and almonds

The battle with our raccoons rages on.

I call them “our raccoons” because while I rarely see them staging their attacks, I know their faces from the grainy images my grandparents captured a few months ago with a borrowed night vision camera. There they sat on the back porch, happily munching pellets of dog food after dipping them to soften in Bella the Great Dane’s water bowl. Their most recent offense hit closer to home: having discovered our vegetable garden, they quickly made their mark with paw prints trampling through the onions and mounds of freshly dug earth burying the baby chard I planted just last week. Complaining of their furry wiles to friends from the East Coast, I quickly discovered that my relationship with raccoons was analogous to theirs with deer: one girl’s cuddly critter is another girl’s nemesis.

I’d been warned about their cleverness, but our resident bandits are far craftier than I imagined. The most memorable transgression took place years ago, when my parents purchased a dozen goldfish for a shallow stone pond in the garden. Our vision of a serene little ecosystem complete with lilies was thwarted a few mornings after, when we discovered all the fish had mysteriously disappeared. Not to be deterred, my grandfather constructed a preventative mesh covering, screwing it into the sides of the pond just beneath the water to protect our fish from prying paws. I’d like to end the story there, but several mornings later we surveyed the wreckage of our new system, the mesh skillfully pushed to the bottom of the pond in an attempt to squeeze the fish through. A few days later the lilies were gone.

Since I left the farm in December I haven’t been the most consistent gardener, but I like to consider myself a stalwart defender of the kale. Up to now all this has entailed is rubbing aphids off leaves and harvesting responsibly, but should it be called for I’ll be out there in the dead of night, clanging my pots at raccoons on the rampage and hoping for that one elusive victory.

Kale Slaw with Avocado and Almonds

1 bunch kale (Toscano kale or the young, tender leaves of almost any variety work best)

half a green cabbage

2 Tbsp. lemon juice

1 Tbsp. honey

1 tsp. mustard

2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

olive oil

1 avocado

handful roasted almonds, roughly chopped

Stack the kale leaves in a tight bunch and slice into thin shreds, starting with the tops. Slice the half cabbage into shreds and toss bit by bit with the kale, adding until the amounts of kale and cabbage are roughly equal.

To make the dressing, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, mustard and balsamic vinegar. Taste and adjust to your preference, adding more honey for sweetness or more mustard for increased zing. Add oil bit by bit as you whisk until the dressing thickens. Pour dressing over salad and toss to combine.

Pit and cut the avocado into quarters, then slice into small pieces and toss with the salad (the avocado should blend with the dressing, making the slaw creamy). Top salad with chopped almonds and serve.

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