If there's one cuisine that I'd love to be able to cook like a native at home, it would be Moroccan. Why? For the seductive spicing that scents the kitchen like a bazaar; the dried apricots and dates nestled up lush and luscious next to slow-cooked lamb; the crisp brik pastries; the fiery smear of harissa; the unexpected matches of sweet and savory, even the delicate, gold-rimmed glasses poured theatrically full of hot, achingly sweet mint tea out of the held-high spout of an intricately decorated silver pot.
I had my first Moroccan meal—a platter of couscous piled with meat and soft-cooked vegetables, ladled over with flavorful broth and shared by everyone at the table—in a small, cozily dim neighborhood restaurant in Paris in 1983. I was a teenager, and no stranger to New York and New Jersey's various ethnic restaurants, thanks to my culinarily-adventurous parents, but the flavors of North Africa were utterly new to me. Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco, which brought descriptions, at least, of tagines, couscous, preserved lemons, and ras el hanoot to American kitchens (getting authentic ingredients was something else), had been published ten years before, but author Paula Wolfert's caftan-wearing bohemian taste hadn't wafted to our corner of the East Coast yet. I had to get to France, with its large post-colonial population of North Africans, to taste scorchingly hot merguez (lamb sausage) and the pigeon pie, called b'steeya, whose savory filling was wrapped in shatteringly crisp, sugar-dusted pastry leaves.
Now, decades later, San Francisco has its own mini-neighborhood of inexpensive Moroccan and Tunisian restaurants along a five-block stretch of Polk Street. And then there's Aziza, the swanky destination with the unlikely Outer Richmond address, as much like these casual couscous joints as Kokkari is to a gyros shop on Telegraph Ave. Run by Mourad Lahlou, the tattooed, Moroccan-born chef who came to San Francisco in 1985 to go to college at SF State, Aziza is a contemporary restaurant first, with Moroccan roots but a menu dedicated to modern techniques rather than classic interpretations. Because, as Lahlou writes in his new book, Mourad: New Moroccan, why shouldn't Moroccan food evolve, just like California cuisine has? As he writes about his childhood memories of growing up in Marrakesh with a large extended family,
But the thing is, I don't long for that world. I cherish it, and I cook from it every day. And so, dish by dish and year by year, my food evolves. I started at Kasbah [his first restaurant, in San Rafael] with a somewhat obsessive attitude about showing people real Moroccan food, done the authentic way. But there we were in California. It's just not possible. The ingredients are different—even the ones flown in from Morocco don't taste the same by the time they arrive...So, before long, I was doing the Moroccan version of what so many inventive northern California chefs have done. I adapted what I knew and loved to make it work with the beautiful ingredients I can get here, and then just followed my nose, my heart and my palate."
Mourad's food here in the Richmond is an expression of both his own and his customers' restless taste. His book, gorgeously photographed in that lavish minimalist style familiar to readers of European and Australian food magazines, in which single items are shot in mouth-watering, brilliantly detailed close-up, surrounded by tons of expensive-looking white space, sells the not-quite-established celebrity appeal of the handsome Mourad as much as it does his food. The book is gorgeous and spot-on contemporary; if you want a chic cookbook to give your have-everything loft-dwelling pals for the holidays, this is it. (And to ensure an invitation to the cocktail party where they try out the recipes for harissa bloody marys and Berbere-cured chicken liver mousse.)
But can you cook from it? For DIY obsessives, the most crucial parts are the opening chapters, which focus on the spice-driven building blocks of Mourad's cuisine. He mentions, casually, that his restaurant staff makes five different ras el hanout blends for different dishes, but putting together the one 23-ingredient version he offers should satisfy, especially if you, the home cook, follow it up with the sexy 22-ingredient vadouvan blend, for which it helps to have a dehydrator as well a tablespoon or so of an additional 10-ingredient curry mix. There is a long, leisurely section about hand-rolling your own couscous from coarse semolina, salt, water, and flour, and an even longer one about making tissue-thin sheets of warqa, Morocco's version of phyllo, with the up-to-date help of a little xanthan gum.
Once you move onto the main dishes, success, as always with chef- and restaurant-driven cookbooks, depends on your affinity and patience for long ingredient lists and multiple sub-recipes. Restaurants, as surely as any TV watcher now knows, spend all day, every day, making the many different items that come together on your plate. One guy makes the stocks. Another guy takes those stocks and turns them into sauces. Someone else chops the onions or toasts and grinds the spice mixes. Even if it looks like you're getting protein, vegetables, and sauce on a plate, do a little real analysis and you'll probably find a dozen different steps (or double that) that went into making your meal. And Mourad, 21st-century chef, likes his drips and drizzles, his frizzled herbs and sudden spice-drenched dabs of infused oils.
Of course, you can strip out the fancy stuff, and just make the still luscious-sounding entrees and surprisingly simple but alluring salads and sides. But if you want to get the full Mourad, you're going to have to do some serious spice-shopping, and get ready to divvy up multiple tasks, probably over several days, to crank out a full menu. To make that Lamb Shank, Spiced Prunes, and Brown-Butter Farro, be prepared to brew up a Red Wine Gastrique Lamb Sauce, make the Spiced Prunes, simmer up some lamb stock, dry your shanks in the fridge overnight, and then tend to them lovingly for at least most of an afternoon, including a nearly 3-hour braising time in the oven. (And if you happen to have some Activa RM around, you can follow the "Chef to Chef" tips and turn the meat into a sliceable log.)
You won't find xanthan gum in Paula Wolfert's clay-pot-lined kitchen. In the nearly 4 decades since her first Moroccan cookbook came out, Wolfert, who lives in Sonoma, has become perhaps the American expert on traditional Mediterranean cuisines. Given the Bay Area's affinity with all things olive-oiled and bay-leaved, it's rare to find a kitchen not stocked with at least one of her cookbooks around here. (Those that don't usually have a few by Joyce Goldstein instead.) Wolfert, now 71, still finds a thrill in capturing authenticity, in ferreting out obscure or lesser-known dishes or methods, often unique to a particular region or place. She's especially drawn to those that she feels are in danger of disappearing, as cooks give up (perhaps with a sigh of relief) traditional labor-intensive methods and ingredients.
Back when Wolfert first started her cookbook-writing career, her books were more for armchair travelers than hands-on cooks. Finding fresh purslane, nigella seeds, or cubeb pepper was almost impossible; there was no busy-mom instant couscous on the shelves at Safeway. But slowly, book after book, Wolfert made a difference. Now, leafing through The Food of Morocco, her decades-later update of that first couscous book, a Bay Area cook would be hard-pressed to find an ingredient that she couldn't source between a handful of well-stocked international-foods shops.
Wolfert's book doesn't look as striking as Mourad's; the design is busier, the serifed typefaces fussy, the colors a little washed out. Still, after all these years, Wolfert still has the enthusiasm to sit down with her readers and start right at the beginning. The first 50 pages are lists, techniques, and explanations that explain all the basics and then some, from The Ten Most Frequently Used Spices (with descriptions), to her own long and enticing description of ras el hanout, and how it can include up to a hundred ingredients, even the poisonous, irritating, supposed aphrodisiac known as Spanish fly. There are questions and answers about how to grate a tomato, why and how to grate an onion, how to make saffron water, even how to peel chickpeas. Wolfert makes no assumptions about the sophistication or hipness of her readers; you can't imagine her labeling a chapter on couscous "Here's How I Roll," as Mourad does. In the recipes, the flavors are familiar, even comforting, rife with almonds, eggplant, cumin, cilantro, turmeric, ginger, olives, lemons, and honey, but the methods just different enough from a typical California sear or grill to twist the results into something altogether different.
So which cookbook will get more spattered in my kitchen? When I'm cooking for myself, I'll trust Wolfert. Cooking to impress? I'll ask the tattooed guy over, and hope he brings a bunch of friends with sharp knives and plenty of time.