Thursday, February 14, 2008

Spicing It Up with Ras el Hanout

Today being Valentine’s Day, and me being equally tired of talking chocolate and being quite oblivious to the significant day (well, when we have Valentine, we should celebrate our love everyday; and for those of us who don’t have one, why rubbing it in our faces and flaunting dozens of roses and red lingerie in our faces?!) – I have decided to dedicate today’s post to one of my favourite topics of all – the seduction of the kitchen, cooking with spices and enjoying every moment of it. Whether if you cook for yourself, for your Valentine or for your family, the experience of cooking, in my opinion, seduces all the senses and invites us to enjoy the simplest things in life – and the most precious and important ones.

We tend to confuse love with passion and passion with libido… And so, many love potions are indeed nothing more than libido-enhancing concoctions, AKA aphrodisiacs.
Interestingly enough, the origins of Ras el Hanout, the Morrocan spice mixture that is infamous for its complexity and the creativity it allows for – was as an aphrodisiac. Concocted by skillful spice vendors or market magicians, Ras el Hanout was a display of the store’s most precious ingredients (hence the name, which literally translates to “top of the shop”).

The number of recipes for Ras el Hanout is greater than the number of spice vendors in the world. The reason? Ras el Hanout is often improvised, playing on seasonal availability and the spice master’s whims of creativity. Most recipes, however, call for cardamom, nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, ginger and cloves. Other common additions include chili, turmeric, galangal, cubebs, coriander, grains of paradise, lavender buds, rose petls, saffron, Spanish flies, orris root and even grains of musk…

The spices are first dry-roasted in a cast iron pan to bring out their flavours. Roast each spice separately, as they will require different lengths of exposure to heat. Once roasted, grind them manually in a mortar and pestle for best results. Either a marble or a copper one is best for achieving a fine powder. I have prepared this exquisite Ras el Hanout with one of my aromatic cooking classes, using freshly grated galangal, ginger and turmeric roots (available only through specialty stores such as the Southern Seas Trading Co. in Granville Island), but needless to say the dried version would be exquisite, as long as the roots are freshly ground, rather than those stale powders found in supermarket’s jars.

The proportions are only a suggestion. I think this is part of personalizing the recipe, and you may want to adjust the mixture while cooking. Depending on the dish you are using the recipe for, you may want to accentuate a certain spice, add a few more or even eliminate some. This recipe was made with a couscous vegetable stew in mind – one rich with orange coloured vegetables (carrot, yam, pumpkin, butternut squash…), celery and coriander. It would make a perfect accompaniment to lamb stew as well, resulting in a seductive, festive couscous feast.

2 tsp. Cardamom seeds
4 tsp. Coriander seeds
1 tsp. Cumin
2 tsp. Turmeric
1 tsp. Cinnamon
½ tsp. Cloves
1 tsp. Allspice
½ tsp. Lavender buds
a pinch of Saffron strands
½ tsp. Nutmeg
½ tsp. Mace
1 tsp. Black Pepper
½ - 1 tsp Cayenne (depending on how hot you’d like it)
1 tsp. Ginger
½ tsp. Galangal
1 tsp. Rosebuds
¼ tsp. Ajowan seeds
½ tsp. Ambrette seeds

Roast the spices separately (except for the already ground spices, the rose petals, lavender buds and ambrette seeds). Grind, measure and mix.

Use the Ras el Hanout to top-off rice or couscous, and of course - in soups and stews. This can also be used as a rub for meat and poultry before broiling or baking. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Below I included my recipe for a couscous stew. You may use packaged couscous although I do not recommend it... If you are in a particularly labourous mood, you may also prepare the couscous itself from scratch. It is not as difficult as it may sound, but explaining it in writing is a lot more difficult than demonstrating the process... So I've only included the stew recipe for now.

Couscous with Seasonal Vegetable Stew
The vegetables in a couscous stew are always cut into very, very lage pieces, and in some cases are even cooked whole. Use any vegetables that are in season. Couscous goes really well with everything, as it is rather neutral in flavour and absorbs all flavours it is served with. The following recipe is a classic Morrocan vegetarian couscous stew, very similar to the one my grandmother used to make for us.

3 small onions, cuts into quarters
Olive oil for sautéing
1 small butternut squash (or a big chunk of pumpkin or squash of your choice)
4 carrots, cut into 2-3 pieces
2 large yams, sliced into very thick slices
4 celery sticks, cut into 3-4 pieces each
1-2 zucchinis, cut into 2-3 pieces
4 small potatoes, whole, or 2 large ones cut into 2-4 pieces
Half cabbage, cut into 6 pieces
2 cups cooked, or 1 can pre-cooked chickpeas
2 bunches fresh cilantro (no need to chop – just make sure all stems and leaves are fresh and clean)
4 medium size tomatoes, cut into quarters

Water or soup stock – enough to fill the pot only ½ or ¾ way

- Prepare the vegetables as instructed above.
- Sauté the onions in the olive oil.
- Add 1 tsp. of Ras el Hanout and continue to sauté
- Add all the other vegetables, except for the cilantro and tomatoes, and cook until they start to slightly change their colour
- Add the water or soup stock – fill the pot only halfway through, or no more than ¾ high.
- Cook on high heat until water is boiling, and than lower down to medium heat and continue to simmer until the vegetables are soft.
- Add the tomatoes and cilantro, and continue cooking until the tomatoes and cilantro are cooked as well.
- Adjust seasoning to taste.

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