Sunday, September 18, 2011

Moroccan Dinner Party!

jacket image for Mourad: New Moroccan
In August I got an email from the marketing whiz at Workman Publishing asking if I’d be willing to try out their big fall cookbook, Mourad New Moroccan, by hosting a dinner party for my friends.  How could I say no?  I love cookbooks, I love feeding my friends and I love trying new recipes! 

A few days later, I’d received the book, and I was immediately swooning over delicious-sounding dishes like roasted chickens with preserved lemons and prawn-kumquat skewers.  I had never eaten a kumquat and had no idea what they would taste like, but they’re adorable, and therefore they must be tasty, right? Before I went to bed that night I’d come up with half a dozen dishes that sounded reasonably doable and tasty.  I could hardly wait to get my hands on a finished  copy to see the color photos, and I loved the stories that start each chapter.  The author writes in a friendly voice that expresses a fondness for his native land and an passion for the food he grew up with.  I felt like he would be looking over my shoulder with friendly advice as I attempted his recipes. 

A whole chapter of the book is titled “Dude. Preserved Lemons,” so I started a batch right away.  They would have to hibernate for a month in a cool dark spot, and I wanted them to be ready for whatever I came up with to do with them.  I packed them with loads of kosher salt, cramming as many lemons as I could into the jar, then filled the rest of the jar with lemon juice.  

sleep, little lemons!
I haven’t done much preserving, and I was afraid I’d screwed it up, so I peeked at them about once a week, nervous that something might be wrong with them.  They would be ready a few weeks before I needed them; I figured if something went wrong I could always just change my plans.  At the time I hadn’t finalized the menu, so it wouldn’t be a disaster if the Swamp Thing took up residence in the jar.  It was really quite simple, and I didn't have any reason to be nervous.  I'm just the type of cook who looks through the oven window sixteen times while baking a batch of cookies.  I was pretty excited when I sampled the lemon rind after a month and it hadn’t spoiled. 

spices for ras el hanout

I also got a jump on things by toasting and grinding spices for ras el hanout and harissa powder.  If you’ve never toasted your own spices, you’re really missing out, especially if you’re inclined to torture your neighbors with delicious smells.  The process is quick, easy, and well worth the effort.  All you need is a wide skillet and a clean coffee grinder (I have a separate one for spices, so my coffee won’t taste funny).

mustard seeds & dried rosebuds

The next day I was eager to make something with the spice blends, so I made a batch of Spiced Almonds, which were rapidly devoured.  The heat was just right for my taste.  Each time I ate one, a few seconds went by and I had to eat another. And another. And another.

smoky, sweet spiced almonds
About two weeks before the party, I wrote down all of the ingredients I’d need for the 7 recipes I hoped to try.  Most of the dishes I’d chosen could be made several days in advance, so I wouldn’t have to spend all day in the kitchen.  I could spread my mess-making out over the course of a week, making one dish each evening after work.  This would also leave some wiggle room in case anything went awry.

I scheduled my dinner party for a Sunday night, and I started cooking on the Tuesday before, planning on making one or two dishes each day.  I made the Spiced Almonds again, starting a refrain of “No, James, you may not eat those, they are for the party,” that would be repeated all week.  That same night I made cookie dough for Chocolate Gingersnaps, which I planned to bake on Friday or Saturday.  The dough has to be refrigerated before baking, so it was an easy choice for making ahead.

I made cheese!

Wednesday night I made my first-ever foray into cheesemaking. I'd always known that making fresh cheese was easy, but I had never been motivated to try it.   I took great pride in squooshing the cheese into ring molds to drain, then wrapping each little piece and having them actually hold their shapes!  The recipe made four 3-inch rounds, and I planned to treat each one differently.  One would get smothered in the fresh fig jam I’d made the week before, another would be marinated in olive oil and black pepper, the third would be rolled in crushed almonds and diced dried apricots, and the last one would be left in its naked state. 
yoghurt-herb spread, before mixing 

Thursday night I went to my favorite grocery store to pick up the last of the ingredients I would need.  There were no kumquats to be had, so the prawn-kumquat skewers would not happen this time.  Oh well.   I set up my Greek yogurt to drain in a cheesecloth overnight for the Yoghurt-Herb Spread and took the rest of the night off. 

juiceless cucumber!
Friday morning I put the drained yogurt in a bowl and peeled, seeded, and grated a cucumber, which I then squeezed in the cheesecloth to remove as much liquid as possible.  It was strange to look at what was left of this watery vegetable once all its juices had been dispatched.  With the addition of a few herbs & spices, the Yoghurt-Herb Spread was ready to go, and I stowed it in the fridge and moved on to the next recipe. 

The Sesame Parfait was the most labor-intensive of the dishes I made, but it was worth the effort.  It involves toasting sesame seeds and steeping them in hot cream for an hour, then making a sugar syrup, adding the syrup to beaten egg yolks and softened gelatin.  I overheated the syrup while beating the yolks, and it started to solidify as I carefully poured it down the side of the bowl.  There was some cursing, but the solid sugary chunks stayed at the bottom of the bowl when I poured the mixture into serving dishes.  It all seemed to be going fine, but I was a little concerned that there would be grainy bits in my nice creamy dessert.  It took all of my willpower not to try one later that night.  I figured that if it turned out bad, at least there would be plenty of chocolate gingersnaps.  Note the lack of photos taken during this rather harried process.

Piquillo-Almond Spread
Next I made the Piquillo-Almond Spread, only I cheated and used roasted red bell peppers instead of piquillos, which were $10 for a teensy jar.  I’m sure the fancy imported Spanish peppers would have been better, but no one seemed to mind the substitution.  This was by far the fastest and easiest dish I made – everything just went in the food processor.  Whiz-bang.

brine for the chickens
Saturday morning, after proper fueling with coffee, I made the brine for the chickens I planned to roast.  The birds would need to brine for 8-12 hours before roasting, so I would refrigerate the brine overnight, then add the chickens to it Sunday morning before I went to work.   I forgot to buy olives, so I left them out.  I don’t like olives anyway.  Yeah, I know, blasphemy.  Whatever.  You can have my pickles too.  Ick.

chocolate gingersnaps
Next I baked the Chocolate Gingersnaps.  The recipe includes two options, one for thin crispy cookies that only includes half an egg, and the other for soft, thicker cookies that takes a whole egg.  I went for the soft version, which are rolled in turbinado sugar before baking.  They were delightfully soft, with a pleasant crunch on the outside.  I had to restrain myself; I could have eaten a dozen of these pillowy little guys right out of the oven.  James thought I was being particularly cruel because he only managed to eat two before I stashed them away.

I chopped the root veggies (carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and parsnips) that would roast under the chickens, and I was down to one more task.  I only had to peel the zest from about fifteen little lemons for the double batch of Couscous with Lemon and Parsley that I would make at the last minute.  I took the lemons, bowl, and peeler out onto my deck and sat in the beautiful sunshine to peel.  

fresh cheese with olive oil & black pepper

I got home form work around 5:30 on Sunday, and the first of my guests would arrive around seven.  I removed the flesh from three of my preserved lemons and stuffed the rind under the skins of the chickens with fresh thyme from the plants on my deck.  I filled the roasting pan with the cut up root vegetables, then put the chickens on the rack. The birds went into the oven just before my first guest arrived with a bottle of Moroccan wine.   I set out the spreads, cheeses, and almonds with triangles of toasted pita, and we munched as people started to arrive.

The Yoghurt Herb Spread had a perfect balance of nutmeg and dill, and the Piquillo-Almond Spread made a great counterpart, with its smoky flavor and nutty texture.  The cheese was wonderful, fresh and creamy.

The Couscous with Lemon & Parsley was simple and delicious.  I was skeptical when I read the recipe and saw how much lemon peel went into the dish, but everyone loved it.  The sweetened, cooked zest added just the right amount of tangy sweetness to keep it from being a ho-hum starchy background.  It made us sit up and take notice! 

I had never cooked a rutabaga, and I don’t think any of my guests had ever eaten one either.   I was a little leery of telling them what the veggies were, as turnips and parsnips don’t usually rise to the top of peoples’ lists of favorite foods, but my friends were all good sports, and I think we were all surprised at how tasty those humble tubers turned out to be.  The preserved lemon flavor was noticeable but not overwhelming and blended nicely with the chicken pan juices.

best roast chicken ever!

And oh, the Roast Chicken!  Wow!  Lucious, moist, and beautifully golden brown, this was by far the juiciest roast chicken I have ever tasted.  You should start a batch of preserved lemons now, so you will be able to make a chicken this way. Seriously.  So good. 

The sesame parfait had a light and creamy texture and a wonderful nutty flavor, almost like peanut butter ice cream, but not as heavy.  It was a perfect dessert for a summer evening, cool and refreshing. 

Overall, the party was a smashing success.  The weather cooperated, and we dined on the deck just after sunset.  As we all lingered, nibbling on a few almonds and finishing our drinks, though, I kept hearing, "Are  there any more of those Chocolate Gingersnaps left?" 

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