From the Chronicle Kitchen:
We’re delighted to have Jeff Koehler back as guest blogger this week, giving us more wonderful stories plus a recipe from his recently released Morocco cookbook (for which he also happened to be the photographer). Let us know what you think of this recipe by leaving a comment below. One randomly selected individual will win a copy of Morocco (offer valid in the US and Canada only).
In Marrakech’s Mellah spice souk, a cool, fragrant place at the edge of the old Jewish quarter with dozens of spices shops, some no bigger than closets, I had a blend called ras el hanout ground for my taste—more aromatic than picante, to be used in lamb tagines that contain a sweet element such as prunes or dried apricots. Morocco’s spice box is ample and important, and is key to the country’s sophisticated kitchen (and traditional medicine chest). Ras el hanout (literally “top of shop”) is a spice merchant’s majestic, opulent signature, his pièce de résistance, crafted from seasoned skill and tailored to a client’s preferences.
I came to Café de France—the city’s grand café on Djemaa el Fna square—to sit over a café noir and check the entries for a couple of the 35 or so ingredients that went into my personalized spice mixture in Jamal Bellakhdar’s authoritative Plantes médicinales au Maghreb et soins de base. One spice that intrigues me is kammûn al-sôfi, a “wooly” local cumin so named in Arabic for its texture. In French it is called cumin velu (“hairy cumin”) or sometimes cumin du Sahara (“cumin from the Sahara”), as it’s native to the desert regions in the deep south of Morocco.
For the moment, though, Bellakhdar’s book stays shut. Dusk has fallen on Djemaa el Fna and the extravagant spectacle on the square is getting underway. Numerous food carts have been set up, storytellers are drawing circles of curious listeners into their tales, and hissing lamps illuminate the mysterious remedies spread around folk apothecary men in blue robes. It’s my last night in Marrakech—I am here to fine-tune the private walking tours and tastings that I will begin leading shortly—and, as with other trips, will have my final meal on the square itself. In a moment I will step into the whirl of activity and billowing smoke and join the festive crowds to eat. I have a couple of favorite stalls where I know the food is fresh, flavorful, and, of course, well seasoned from Morocco’s abundant spice box.
Djemaa El Fna Snails in Broth
Snails are a street-stall staple, especially in Marrakech on Djemaa el Fna square, where a line of sturdy carts sells them by the broth-filled bowl. The flavorful broth sipped at the end is said to be a restorative and digestive. But what’s in it? One respected attar (spice seller) in Marrakech gave me a list of more than fifteen spices from thyme and licorice to lavender and tealeaves. “Which are the most important?” I asked. “They all are,” he said. “The balance has to be right.”
Here I have adapted the spice blend of Choumicha, the queen of contemporary Moroccan cooking. It’s a relatively simple one, but flavorful and balanced.
Moroccan snails are white with distinctive chocolate brown whirls, smaller than the classic French escargot. Live snails added to boiling water will retract inside the shell and be hard to remove later to eat. When the snails are first cooked, it’s important to bring the water to a very slow boil. While live snails can be hard to find, many gourmet shops carry preserved ones in cans.
Serves 4 to 6
2 lb/910 g fresh snails or snails in brine
Wine vinegar or other vinegar for cleaning snails
2 sprigs dried thyme
1⁄2 Tbsp aniseed
1⁄2 Tbsp caraway seeds
1⁄2 tsp gunpowder green tea leaves
Peel from 1⁄2 orange, white pith scraped away
Two 3-in/7.5-cm pieces licorice root or 1 tsp ground aniseed
2 bay leaves
1⁄2 tsp dried mint
10 sprigs fresh mint
2 small dried hot red chiles
If using live snails, wash with plenty of water. Use salt and vinegar to scrub clean if the shells are dirty. Repeat as needed. Rinse well. Put the snails in a large pot with about 3 qt/2.8 L water. Bring to a slow boil over low heat—figure about 45 minutes for this—watching to keep the snails inside the pot. When the water reaches a boil and foam comes to the surface, drain the snails in a colander. Rinse the snails well with running water and rinse out the pot.
If using snails preserved in brine, drain the brine and rinse the snails well. In a large pot, add the snails and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat and boil for 5 minutes. Drain the snails in a colander. Rinse the snails well with running water and rinse out the pot.
Return the snails to the pot. Cover with 8 cups/2 L water, and add the thyme, aniseed, caraway seeds, tealeaves, orange peel, licorice root, bay leaves, dried mint, and fresh mint. Season with a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low, loosely cover, and simmer for 1½ hours. The snails should be tender and the broth rich and flavorful. Add the chiles and cook for 10 minutes. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning as needed.
Serve the snails hot in bowls with some broth. Use a toothpick to extract the snails from their shells.
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