Juicy Olive

The quest for “the good life” should never be complete but it should definitely begin now.

Plat du Jour April 17, 2009

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Yesterday’s post about Morocco has me straight back in the medinas. I can’t get my mind off that trip today. So, I figured it may be fun to share a bit about the glorious cuisine in Morocco as a way to channel my memories and tempt your tastebuds.

The interesting thing about Moroccan food is that there are actually a fairly limited number of ingredients, but the way you work with them transforms even the most simple of items into masterpieces. I learned that one day at the charming cafe called Nid’cigogne. Just across the street from the Saadian Tombs, I sat and looked down at the street from the third floor terrace of this simple establishment. After climbing a steep set of stairs, I settled in at the table and gazed out at a couple of storks who were carefully guarding their nests – and potentially engaging in similar people-watching as I.

Storks spectating from above.

Storks spectating from above.

I had read that Nid’cigogne was a good spot for an authentic, yet simple lunch. Boy did it deliver.

Upon glancing over the menu I noticed very affordable salads, and so I assumed that they’d be an appropriate starter. I selected the sampler of Moroccan salads. As a main course, I asked for a beef kabob sandwich.

Seemed basic, and in many ways it was. But this simple establishment was clearly waiting to teach me a thing or two about what makes these basic dishes so remarkable.

First course: moroccan salad medly

First course: moroccan salad medly

The salad sampler was HUGE! Truly, I didn’t need any more food than that. For a mere $3, I received three different salads. One was a sweet carrot mixture – served at room temperature, the carrots were cooked al dente and dressed in a vinaigrette of bright olive oil, cumin, parsley, sugar and salt. Another was a cold rice salad with tuna. I honestly wasn’t sure if there were any other ingredients. As a result, you got the true flavor of the fish and the real texture of the rice. Finally, a classic tomato salad with roasted peppers, olive oil, salt, pepper, cumin and onion. All three were alarmingly simple, yet so flavorful.

Beef Kebab Sandwich with Fries

Beef Kebab Sandwich with Fries

Next up was the $4 beef kebab sandwich. There’s basically one kind of bread in Morocco: khobz. Cooked in a huge, wood-fired community oven, loaves are about 6″ round and 2″ high. They’re crusty on the outside and soft on the inside. At Nid’cigogne, they took half a loaf and stuffed it with perfectly grilled steak (juicy and charred) and shredded lettuce. That’s it. The fries were crispy and not greasy. I didn’t even end up using the ketchup, though I went heavy-handed with the mixture of cumin and sea salt served with it. The earthiness of the cumin and the sharpness of the salt brought out the natural flavors of the beef.
By the time I was about halfway through the sandwich and a few fries in, I was stuffed. And I was amazed. The ingredient list to make this meal was so simple. And yet I had so many flavors coursing through me.
While I’m clearly someone who is willing to go all-out for the meal of a lifetime, it’s critical that we all remember how much simplicity counts when pleasing our palates and getting back to the core of what makes food so good.
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Moroccan Musings April 16, 2009

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Two months ago, I was in North Africa. Two months. I can’t believe that so much time has passed so quickly since that glorious adventure.

A typical hammam in Morocco - pay a surprisingly low fee to soak in the healing vapors in these gloriously appointed steam chambers.

A typical hammam in Morocco - pay a surprisingly low fee to soak in the healing vapors in these gloriously appointed steam chambers.

Two months ago, I was finishing up a hammam at Les Bains de Marrakech – feeling high from the rose oil and steam and orange flowers and sweet mint tea. Upon everyone’s suggestion, I booked the full afternoon of relaxation. For a mere $70, I received the works, including:

* A hammam scrub – wearing just my skivvies, I was soaped up with black soap, then scrubbed me down aggressively with a stiff mitt. This experienced “scrubbing lady” worked wonders: rubbing layer after layer of dead skin away – leaving me pink and clean.

* A 90-minute massage. Heavenly.

* A 30-minute rosepetal bath. Dreamy.

* A 30-minute nap. Indulgent.

* A plate of sticky pastries stuffed with almonds and drizzled with honey. Gluttony.

The way to find yourself in Morocco? Among other things, settle in at a rooftop terrace with a cold lager and a few blank pages.

The way to find yourself in Morocco? Among other things, settle in at a rooftop terrace with a cold lager and a few blank pages.

Two months ago, I was writing in a journal every day – recording thoughts, experiences, ideas and dreams. Within the pages of the journal, I decided to give the Juicy Olive a whirl – resolving that sharing my philosphy of life with others may just make a difference. I wrote about how shocked I was at the drastic misunderstandings we Americans have of the muslim world. I sketched pictures: little boys hammering metal into lanterns, women offering to paint my hands with henna and the old man with pliers and a jar of teeth offering to cure my dental dramas. I tallied the prices of my purchases: $1 for a pair of earrings; $10 for a silk and cashmere scarf; $100 for an antique wedding blanket; $90 for a camel hide pouf. I recorded the way the clear, dry sun felt on my skin and the way the preserved lemon smarted on my tongue. I jotted down words in arabic and wished that I could learn the ancient caligraphy of such a gorgeous language. I rushed to write down the little history lessons I acquired throughout the day. I spent a whole day writing in french and was pleased to realize how quickly it came back to me. I transcribed lyrics from songs that were programmed into my iPod that week – knowing that it was partly music, but mostly their association with that trip that made me so desperate to remember them. I pasted ticket stubs, receipts and business cards; leaves, petals and fabric into the pages – knowing that one day they’d make memories come a little faster, emotions return to me with very little effort.

Two months ago, I left a little bit of myself behind in Morocco – the unsure woman who feels burdened by some of life’s meanness. I came back with a new piece – the woman who is interested in showing the world who is boss and who knows in her heart that the good life is something everyone can have. It may not come in the same form for everyone, but it’s something that everyone deserves if they want it and are open to it.

Two months may have passed already, but I plan never to forget the times I had in Morocco. I want to keep finding new adventures to add to these memories. That’s what Juicy Olive is: a quest to share our pursuit of the good life and encourage each other to go the hell after it.

 

Learn from the Locals March 23, 2009

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During her trip to Italy, my friend Stephanie took a cooking class. For her, it wasn’t so much about learning to prepare a bangin’ bolognese sauce, but rather that she left the class understanding the cultural idioms and nuanced practices that make the Italian people so special. Stephanie said that she’ll always take a class in a foreign destination from now on.

With that tenet in mind and my trip to Morocco around the corner, I began my research and came across Souk Cuisine. The  class promised to convey the intricacies of Marrakchi culture. It did not disappoint.

The day of the class came, and I met seven other tourists at Cafe la France. We split into groups to shop. My team was assigned to buy herbs, oils, grains and vegetables. Remarkably, this simple grocery list became the most unique cultural syllabus of my journey to North Africa. Through the two hour shopping trip, our guide took us to stall after stall of food vendors – each selling something different: preserved lemons, cured meat, fresh mint, giant pumpkins and dried beans – to name a few.

This gentleman sells numerous kinds of mint - each with a different purpose. The green bags hanging overhead contain dried mint - just add water (and a ton of sugar) and you've got yourself "Moroccan Whiskey" (also known as sweet mint tea.)

A mint vendor - each variety with a different purpose. Fresh for cooking and dried for "Moroccan Whiskey" (AKA sweet mint tea.)

We learned that the Moroccan women awake early each morning and make an extensive trip through the markets to buy all of the food for the day.

Lunch is the primary meal. Served in the early afternoon, it is a huge feast and includes multiple courses. The women begin preparing it each morning while their husbands leave the home and their kids go to school.

Moroccan cuisine is based on such few ingredients: cilantro, mint, cumin, paprika, cayenne, salt. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, carrots and onions. Raisins, dates and apricots. Couscous, lentils and bread. Chicken, fish and lamb. Yet do not underestimate the power of such a simple shopping list. The wondrous and varried meals that can be concocted with these items can make any mouth water.

Our shopping continued, and I learned the proper way to barter and the times when you just give in and pay the $1.50 for a huge bag of salt. I learned that butter sits in enormous vats in the open air, and olive oil is dispensed to the truly savvy into the clay vessels they bring to the vendor. 

Grain Souk

Grain Souk

I tasted the salty-bitter tang of preserved lemon and watched in wonder as a man pulled six fresh eggs from a chicken cage (feathers and gunk still attached to the shell!) and plopped them into a plastic baggie for transport. I marveled at the way the spice sellers knew not only how to measure the perfect amount of tumeric onto the scale, but also how to prescribe homeopathic remedies with the same herbs and spices.

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Perfect Pyramids of Juicy Olives

Being a person who is sincerely interested (perhaps obsessed?) with the process of food going from farm to table to mouth, I knew this was going to be fun for me. But it became instantly obvious that this was a special experience for anyone partaking in Souk Cuisine when we joined the other groups in the kitchens. Everyone was abuzz with tales of whom they had met and what they had seen in the labyrinthe-like food souks. We talked about whether we felt we had recieved the best deal on squash and what it was like to watch the fishmonger quickly skin, fillet and mince the sardines right there on the wooden board. We all agreed that witnessing the lamb meat being lowered into the subterranean ovens was fascinating and that the remaining sheeps heads were exciting and repulsive at once.

Over the next two hours, we prepared a multi-course luncheon that included several vegetable salads, including my favorite, Zaalouk – an eggplant puree heavy on olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. We made a couscous with carrots, onions and raisins and sardine meatballs, which were surprisingly flavorful.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

Simple cookies and sweet lemon-mint tea. A lovely close to a gorgeous meal.

And we baked two different cookies – my favorite being a sesame shortbread. Our hard work was rewarded with eating the incredible food on a sun-drenched terrace. We sipped rose wine and lounged on pillows on the warm terracotta tiles.

I learned virtually more in those six hours about life in Morocco than I did throughout the rest of my vacation. I gained an immense appreciation for the concepts of family and commerce and gender roles – just by buying groceries, preparing and eating lunch. I spent time with Moroccan women who firmly imparted their knowledge of good food, cultural mores and simple traditions. I think I shall never forget the image of one woman carrying a steaming tagine full of our couscous royale on top of her head. I’ll probably never chop cilantro again without recalling how another woman scolded me for not being precise with my knife. I may always look at lentils and want to dip my warm hand into the cool underlayers of those smooth, pebble-like legumes.

Should you find yourself in the position to journey to a unique locale, don’t forget to learn from the locals. They will teach you something a guidebook never can, and you will appreciate the destination so much more!

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

Cooking instructor or cultural guide?

 

What’s In A Name? March 16, 2009

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Last month I went on vacation to Morocco. It was glorious. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the people all mesmerized me and put my senses on overdrive. In the coming days, I’ll post more about the trip, but for the time being it’s important to note how influential it was over the decision to start this blog.

For years my friends have told me that I should share my experiences with the rest of the world. I suppose I always felt it was grossly self-important to be pontificating about my daily adventures, when there are so many other groundbreaking issues to learn about. While I was in Morocco, however, I realized that I had found myself in a place where many others never think to voyage, and that’s a shame. It is a gorgeous country full of kind and interesting people. As a woman travelling solo, many were concerned about my safety – however I can confidently report that I felt very safe and secure in Morocco.

What I think made my vacation “successful” was that I was thoughtful about where I was going, what places I would visit and what I wanted to achieve. I had an idea in my head about what would make me happy once I got there, and all of my planning was centered around getting to that ideal.

My lightbulb moment came to me at Cafe Arabe. After a morning of bargaining in the souks, I was ready to have a relaxing lunch. I found my way to this gorgeous, chic terrace that had a cozy lounge-like feel. As I sat down to a chilled half-bottle of Moroccan white wine, the waiter brought me a lovely little bowl of olives. Using the toothpicks provided, I scouted through the bowl looking for the perfect first bite. I wanted it to be flavorful, firm and – yes – juicy. The hard work paid off, and the treat was delicious.

The perfect juicy olive?

The perfect juicy olive?

 

By the time my b’stilla lunch arrived, I had savored a few more olives – each one a delight.

Yeah, yeah…leave it to me to compare my philosophy of life to food, but it’s something to consider, right?  What if we all focused on using our proverbial toothpicks to find the perfect, juicy olive. Attaining our ideal experiences may not be that hard. Great experiences might be had by hunting around for the exact elements that will get you there.