On a Moroccan Beach
Recently, I’ve ended up in several conversations about the new Mediterranean cuisine. My clients, food companies, and I start taking French and Italian cuisine, and before you know it, we’re into discussions about Spanish chorizo, Greek yogurt, and Moroccan spices. About that point in the conversation my mind begins to wander.
Images of a Moroccan beach replace the din of professional chatter. I picture the northern coast, lined with white-washed buildings and white sand. The people sun bathing and splashing in the water are vacationing from Fez. The year is 1999. We are on a family vacation.
My sister, who was 14, and I, at 17, have been left to sit in an open air café and guard the luggage, while our parents look for a place to stay. The breezy town of Moulay Bousselham was the last stop in our four-week Moroccan vacation—and Anna, my sister, and I had learned that the best way to pass the hours while are parents were away is to play cards and decide which of the passing dishes we might order.
We started into a round of 21 and smacked down Jacks, until the tables around us began to fill. It was then that plates of Moroccan salads began to emerge from the kitchen. Plump red beets sliced thick and sprinkled with mint. Meaty purple eggplant charred, chopped, and sprinkled with cumin. Crunchy carrots shredded and tossed with raisins and fragrant rose water. We’d seen salads in other parts of the country, but never as fresh and colorful as this.
When Mom and Dad finally returned, Anna and I lobbed them each a softball. “Mom,” I said to the woman who was ever vigilant about our third-world food safety, “Have you seen the salads? They’re all cooked vegetables.”
Anna turned to my dad, the son of Polish Americans, “Dad, there are even beet salads.”
That settled it. We returned to this café four days in a row, each day with a little more sand between our toes. Some days, in addition to first day’s salads, there was cauliflower sprinkled with parsley and lemon juice. Others there were potatoes tossed with cumin and vinegar. Each tasted as if a loving cook had begun her day in the vegetable market and then mixed the veggies with seasonings and oils, as she’d watched her mother do before her.
Moroccan salads are layered with flavor and tradition—and for me, the brightness of a sunny beach afternoon, too. So it’s no wonder that I start to daydream the moment Moroccan food is mentioned at work. But when I snap back into reality, and our clients are still talking about tagines and chickpeas, I say, in a tone that to the right ear might sound a little like a teenager convincing her parents, “Yeah, but have you tried Moroccan salads?”
Adapted from Epicurious.com
A combo of meaty eggplant, crunchy onion, and tangy vinegar and onion, this salad is both hearty and refreshing. Toasted cumin adds a touch of earthy flavor, as well. This salad makes for a substantial starter or side, with fresh pita bread as an accompaniment.
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 1-pound eggplant
¼ cup diced red onion
2 teaspoons red-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, divided
In a 10-inch heavy skilled (preferably cast iron) toast cumin seeds over medium heat, until fragrant and deeply golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and cool. Using an electric spice mixer or a mortar and pestle, crush the seeds into a powder.
In the same skillet, pan-roast whole eggplant over medium heat, turning with tongs, until tender and blackened on all sides, about 30 minutes.
Transfer eggplant to cutting board, and remove stem and skin. Chop eggplant, and combine with onion, vinegar, sugar, salt, 1 tablespoon oil, 1 tablespoon parsley, and ½ teaspoon toasted cumin.
Serve in a shallow bowl. Drizzle with remaining olive oil and sprinkle with remaining parsley and toasted cumin.
For printable recipe, click here.