30 October 2011

Berber Tea in the Atlas Mountains, Morocco

Former palace and current Museum of Marrakesh

When Hurricane Irene hit the east coast of the US in August, the winds and rain kept my dad from being able to meet us at the family summer house and, as a result, I didn't get to see him at all during the (amazing summer road) trip. He stayed at work and we had to take our hurricane walks and drink our hurricane cocktails without him. A sad state of affairs. Still, it meant that he had unused vacation days and a daughter to visit and that translated into a very happy state of affairs: a trip to Morocco last week with him, my mom and D!

Shop in the souk in Marrakesh

We spent two overwhelming days in Marrakesh taking in the new and different cultural codes, marveling at the stunning traditional architecture, getting lost in the souk, and learning to bargain for our purchases. Then, we left the city and spent three peaceful days in the Atlas Mountains doing a lot of nothing to the sound of braying donkeys and the calls to prayer from a mosque in one of the nearby Berber villages. I won't go into all my impressions of Morocco, which are varied and complex (coming from a Western culture, I found it difficult to reconcile with the visible inequality of men and women, and the vestiges of colonialism), but there were also some absolutely wonderful moments. The mountains are stunning, the highest peaks already covered with snow, and the Moroccan people we met were very welcoming.

Early morning in the Atlas Mountains

Our favorite part was a hike we took with a Berber guide, Mohamed, who took us to the local saffron fields, herb gardens and then, kindly, invited us over to his house. What was supposed to be a simple three-hour tour, turned into a five-hour plunge into the village culture and a lesson on how to make Berber tea!

Mohamed explained that in the Berber culture they do not name their animals. These ones are called "Mohamed's cow" and "Mohamed's chickens" because they belong to him.

Unlike the traditional mint tea drunk all over Morocco, the Berber tea is filled with all kinds of fresh herbs, both a sign of hospitality and a medicinal drink, good for pretty much whatever ails you. I can't really give you the recipe (I don't think there's a fixed one, it seems to depend on what's on hand and personal taste), but here's what the tea ceremony was like:

Ingredients for Berber tea

Mohamed started by boiling the water on a small gas flame that he brought right into the room where we were sitting, and rinsing the teapot to heat it up. Then he added the tea (Mohamed called it "green tea", but the small dark beads didn't look like the Asian green tea we get here).

Mohamed rinsing the tea

He poured about a cup of water over the tea leaves, swished it around and poured the very light-colored liquid out into a glass. He repeated this process and the second time the liquid was dark and cloudy. He kept the first glass to pour back into the tea later and threw out the contents of the second glass.

The tea back on the flame to boil

Then he added seven different kinds of herbs to the teapot - wild mint, thyme, lemongrass, geranium, sage, verbena (which he added especially for my dad who said he loved it), and a hint of absinthe wormwood - and three or four huge clumps of sugar. He filled the teapot with boiling water and then put the teapot directly on the flame to bring it back to a boil.

Once it boiled, he served the tea, pouring the first three glasses back into the pot to make sure it was well-mixed, and then serving around in a circle starting to the right. He served the tea with Berber bread and homemade olive oil to dip it in, a wonderful taste of Berber hospitality!

A door in Mohamed's village - known for its blacksmiths

11 October 2011

Birthday Bouchées

Life is totally crazy right now, up early, to bed late and not a minute's rest in between most days. Even the weekend means running around. I long for a Sunday in pajamas with a good book in my hands or in front of some mind-numbing, silly television show.

This weekend was my birthday and a friend and I had a joint birthday party. One of the best things about it was that we both love to cook and got to make only food we really love to eat. We stuck to finger food that people would be able to eat easily standing up and chatting, like these fancy cheese balls, savory cakes like this cake au thon, made in little individual portions, sushi rolls, mini-sandwiches and lots of veggies and dip like my hummus and Camille's Bacon and Onion Dip. People brought drinks but we also tried out this recipe for White Tea Sangria from that amazing Elle's New England Kitchen.

All and all a good time was had by all, except possibly the cats who hid under the bed the whole time. But they made up for it by being extra cute and affectionate for the rest of the weekend.

02 October 2011

Jamie Oliver and some Seriously Good Grilled Zucchini Salad

I'm going to be honest and I say I was against Jamie Oliver at the start. It's like when the new girl shows up in school and she's popular and pretty and gets good grades AND plays sports, and on top of that she's nice and has an adorable British accent and everyone loves her. You just have to dislike her on principle. Until she wins you over with her perfect niceness too. Okay, this is not exactly like that. Jamie Oliver is not a girl. He's not new on the scene. And he didn't win me over with his niceness. But you get the idea.

For our wedding, one of the families I babysit for, gave us this book full of tantalizing recipes. Everything looked so good that at first it just served to aggravate my jealous dislike, so what changed my mind? Zucchini. Zucchini did it. Every fall, I scramble to find ways to use up zucchini, and while I've certainly found some good ones, like this Zucchini-Feta Tart or this Garam-Masala Salmon with Zucchini, anyone who can get me to actually ENJOY zucchini after the insane amounts of it my CSA foists on me in the fall, is definitely worth a second chance. Besides, I read my classics and I know that it's not good to hold on to prejudice forever. If Lizzy did, where would she and Mr. Darcy be? Not nearly as happy or as well-loved by generations of readers that's where. Not that I'm comparing Jamie Oliver to Mr. Darcy or anything. Oh dear, this is getting out of hand.

I guess what I'm saying is, this salad is delicious. Absolutely delicious. Worth it if you like zucchini. Worth it if you're totally sick of zucchini. Worth it if you want to be in vogue and also if you'd do anything to avoid such a fate. You can make this a bunch of different ways with different accompaniments. This is one version I made and loved.

3-4 zucchinis (depending on the size)
1/4-1/2 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small garlic clove
1 bunch mint
1 cup creamy goat cheese (I used Petit Billy)
sea salt, pepper

Slice the zucchini as thin as possible. Cook the slices on a hot grill or barbecue. (I don't have one so I do this in my oven on the boiler setting, but as a result they come out softer and less crunchy I think than Jamie intended. Still good though.) In the meantime, roughly chop the mint and set aside. Make up a sauce by squeezing the lemon to taste into the olive oil. Press the clove of garlic in a garlic press and add to sauce. When the zucchini starts to brown, serve onto plates. Put a dollop of goat cheese in the middle of each serving. Liberally, sprinkle with mint, and spoon the sauce over. Salt and pepper to taste and serve warm.