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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.

grilled fennel flatbread with olives and sultanas

When it comes to cooking, simplicity seems to translate roughly to time is of the essence.  Each food magazine has its “meals in 30 minutes” section, and frankly, there are nights (specifically nights involving a glass of wine, the couch, and saved episodes of Downton Abbey) when egg on toast can be transcendent. One of the key aspects of my college education was developing an entire repertoire of meals that were quick, simple and cheap, from arugula tossed with balsamic and brown rice to peanut butter and fig jam Paninis.

Funnily enough, it was also in college that I discovered the joy of cooking. With my limited budget I quickly found it most rewarding to cook an elaborate meal for six, then guiltily store it in the back of the communal fridge (away from prying eyes and forks) to eat for six meals running. Friday nights I would arrive home from my eight-hour internship and one-hour Trader Joe’s expedition just in time to wish my housemates well on their way out for the night. For the next delicious hours I had the place entirely to myself, and it was then and there that I discovered the pleasures of the unhurried meal.

The things I made were simple—there were no emulsions, no expensive cuts of meat, no kitchen tools fancier than the celebrated Panini press. It was a college kitchen, after all, and in New York to boot: small, grimy, and cheaply installed. After unpacking my groceries I did a thorough clean of the counters and sink, dumping plates in the dishwasher and sweeping up the crumbs that kept the mice our loyal companions. I laid out all of my ingredients and happily set to work with my knife, chopping along to the tinny speakers of my laptop and trying not to splatter the screen with lemon juice.

Surrendering to the sheer time it took for beans to soften or meatballs to simmer became the most comforting experience of my week. Chopping carrots and turnips was methodical and reassuring; peeling butternut squash was a practice in patience. I developed an affectionate reliance on simple recipes with multiple stages, like a warm potatoes gribiche flecked with roasted broccoli and hardboiled egg, or a fragrant African curry with spices packaged for separate additions over the course of two hours.

This flatbread recipe (an instant favorite I’ve made three times this week) is wonderful in its simplicity, easy to prepare but perfect for leisurely cooking. I mix the dough at some point in the afternoon, then make the spread and topping after turning out the dough for a second rise and heating the oven. It’s an old saying, the one about the journey and the destination, but I somehow keep discovering it anew.

Grilled Fennel Flatbread with Olives and Sultanas

The dough for this recipe is adapted from Jim Lahey’s wonderful book My Bread, which has been out on the kitchen counter from the day I got it. I love the aroma of fennel and the salty-sweet combination of olives, feta, and golden raisins, but this dough is a true blank canvas–experiment away!

For the dough:

1 3/4 cup bread flour (I have also been successful with a mix of white and whole wheat)

1 1/4 tsp. active dry yeast

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. sugar

2/3 cups water

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients and then mix in water with your hands to form a moist dough (add a bit more water or flour if dough is too dry or sticky). Cover and let sit at room temp for 2 hours (longer is alright too).

For the second rise, loosely shape dough into a ball (it will have increased in size) and set on a well-floured plate. Cover with a damp towel and let sit at least half an hour.

For the topping:

2/3 cup Kalamata olives

1 small handful fresh thyme

olive oil

2/3 cup Sultana raisins (golden raisins)

2 medium fennel bulbs

red pepper flakes

juice of 1 lemon

1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 large cube feta cheese, crumbled

honey, for drizzling

To make the olive spread, add the first three ingredients to a blender with 1/3 cup of the sultanas and pulse until roughly blended. Set aside. Slice the fennel into thin slivers and toss with red pepper flakes, lemon juice, half the parmesan, the other 1/3 cup sultanas and a glug of olive oil.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Spread out the dough on a well-oiled cookie sheet by stretching it first the full length of the pan and then the width, gently nudging it outwards until the whole sheet is covered. Cover the dough evenly with the olive spread, then arrange the sliced fennel mixture on top. Sprinkle with the crumbled feta and other half parmesan and drizzle with honey, then bake at 500 degrees until crust is crispy and toppings are browned, about 15-20 minutes.

beef empanadas with green olives and raisins

Often when I tell people about the farm, I find myself talking about time. As quickly as my college days went by, they were structured neatly into classes and midterms and semesters, and time works differently as a farm apprentice. Instead of weekends you have ever-changing days off, so it’s easy to go long stretches of time without knowing whether or not it’s Monday. Each workday is structured in much the same way, so everything tends to link together into one continuous stretch of time instead of the usual weeks and months. As Ross put it jokingly, it feels a bit like you’re “trapped in an alternate universe,” one where you wake up at 6:30 every morning and start easing towards bed every night around 10:00.

All that was an elaborate build-up to saying how unusual it is for me to be up until midnight. Visiting my sister in Berkeley on my days off this week (a Monday and Tuesday—but it felt like a weekend) was a bit like stepping briefly into another life, one where I could happily throw on high tops, a chunky sweater I stole from the couch at the cottage, and enormous headphones and wander around the campus with my sci-fi novel pretending to be a Berkeley hipster. And going to bed around midnight was a thrill indeed, especially since it involved all my favorite elements of Barbour sister-time:  eating, trading music, re-watching British tween romantic comedies on youtube, more eating, and Milo (a “chocolate malt beverage” that is ubiquitous everywhere but the US).

Eating is a prominent theme in our family, and Rae and I both took up the mantle with gusto when we chose to go to college in New York City and Berkeley. In my 48-hour visit we hopped from bakery to restaurant to market, our trajectory marked by a fresh honey whole wheat loaf (perfect moistness) that we enjoyed with homemade goat cheese, cardamom rose ice cream, thai bubble tea, fried eggs with thyme, and Dahi Papdi Chaat at my favorite Indian place Viks. And then there were the empanadas, a cooking inspiration that involved just about all my favorite things: pastry, ground beef, briny olives, raisins, and a healthy dose of spice. We ate them hot from the oven and then it was back to part 7 of Angus, Thongs, and Perfect Snogging—just the kind of night to stay up late.

Beef Empanadas with Green Olives and Raisins

(Adapted from SmittenKitchen.com)

for the pastry:

2 1/4 cups flour

1 stick butter

1 egg

1/3 cup water

1 Tbs rice vinegar

for the filling:

1 medium onion

3 cloves garlic, crushed

cumin

cinnamon

salt

thyme

red pepper flakes

1 lb ground beef

1 cup green olives with pimientos, chopped

1/2 cup raisins

1 14oz can tomatoes

1 egg

To make the pastry, cut butter into small cubes and add to the flour, mushing together with your fingertips until the mixture is light and crumbly. Beat the egg with the water and vinegar and add to the flour mixture, stirring and pressing to form a ball of dough. Refrigerate for at least one hour.

For the filling, chop the onion and saute in a large saucepan with olive oil. Add the crushed garlic, then add the cumin, cinnamon, salt, thyme, and red pepper flakes to taste. When the onions are translucent, add the ground beef and cook until browned. Add the raisins, olives, and tomatoes and simmer until most of the liquid has cooked off and the meat filling is thick and fragrant.

Roll out the dough to your preferred thickness and use a small bowl to cut out rounds. Add a large tablespoon of the meat filling to a pastry round and fold closed, pressing the edges with a fork. Arrange the empanadas on a baking sheet and brush with beaten egg before cooking at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes.

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