Argan Oil

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Much has been written about Southern Morocco’s unique product – argan oil – which has become much sought after world wide for culinary and, more widely, cosmetic purposes. Native to Morocco, the ancient argan tree (argania spinosa) grows essentially in an area covering some 800,000 hectares in the Souss Valley  from the northern slopes of the Anti Atlas Mountain Range to the edge of the Sahara desert  and from the Siroua mountain in the east to the Atlantic coast to the west.  This argan plantation which numbers some 21 million trees was classified by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve Area in 1988.

The Argan , which can live for 250 years, is an important factor in the prevention of soil erosion thanks to its root system which grows deep into the earth and down to below the water table. The leaves and fruit it sheds and the  vegetation that grows in its shade all serve to enrich the soil. It has been used over the millennia for fuel, timber, fruit and fodder, all essential to the development of a traditional agricultural system that has continuously met the needs of a dense population living in an arid region.

During the summer months, from June to August, the ripe fruit drops to the ground and is collected and laid out to dry in the sun for several weeks. Subsequently, the outer peel is removed (and used for animal feed) to expose extremely hard kernels. These are cracked by hand to obtain the oily seeds which are lightly roasted in a clay vessel at a precise temperature to rid them of their natural bitterness. (The cracked kernels are then used for fuel).
The  roasted seeds are ground in a traditional stone mill and the paste obtained is kneaded and pressed by hand with the occasional addition of  lukewarm water.  This process yields the precious oil and a brown pasty residue which is formed into cakes and used for animal feed.  Chemical compounds for use in cosmetic masks can also be extracted from the paste.
Argan oil has a unique, nutty flavour and is used to flavour salads, omelettes, fish and couscous much as one would use extra virgin olive oil. It is also eaten as is with bread or combined with ground, roasted almonds and honey to make a delicious paste known as amlou.
Unroasted kernels are ground to produce oil for cosmetic use.  In traditional Moroccan medicine, argan oil is used to minimise scarring caused by acne, chicken pox etc. and as anti-ageing and moisturising treatments for skin and hair.

Over the past 100 years, the size of the argan plantation had decreased by one third as people had begun to uproot trees and replace them with what they considered to be more profitable crops and trees had been severely damaged by the herds of goats and camels which grazed on their leaves and fruit.

Between 1985 and 1991, scientist Zoubida Charrouf prepared her doctoral thesis on the argan tree and subsequently worked to help the local Berber population to exploit and preserve this precious resource. In 1996, Dr Charrouf began to organise the local women into a cooperative called Amal (hope) and other cooperatives followed. This enabled the local women to earn enough money to enable them to attend literacy classes, to educate their children and to become more aware of environmental issues. Membership in the cooperative is dependent on ownership of at least 1 hectare of argan trees. Women who do not own trees, work for the owners and receive a quantity of argan fruit in exchange for their labour.

The marketing of argan products, while helping countless families, has also created a huge demand and keen competition from industry which is, in fact, harming the plantation.  Instead of collecting only fallen fruit, the trees are being beaten with sticks to make the fruit fall before it is quite ripe. Inferior and stale fruit is also being sold in rural markets.
Argan trees are hard to cultivate and apparently, most attempts at propagating saplings in laboratories and nurseries result in failure. It is therefore necessary to conserve and exploit this precious resource without risking it being irreparably depleted.

The increased wealth created by sales of argan products mean that the locals can buy larger herds of goats which also harm the trees through overgrazing. As the lower branches of the argan tree grow out from the base horizontally, goats find it easy to climb to access the leaves and fruit higher up. Tourists have found this fascinating and, as a result, the ever resourceful goatherds along the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, have taken to tying them high up on the trees on little platforms and charging tourists to take their photographs.

Westerners are also fascinated by the myth that the argan kernels are collected after having been swallowed and subsequently excreted by goats.  Many women who earn their living from processing argan products have told me that they would never use excreted kernels as they have a strong and offensive smell and can therefore not be used to make oil.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad – Goi Ga

A few weeks ago, Anna Diep invited me to lead an amazing culinary tour of Vietnam for her company Red Packet Tours. How exciting, I thought! What a trip to look forward to!

My history with Vietnamese food goes back some 25 years, from the first time I tasted Pho in 1987, to writing “The Vietnamese Cookbook” published by Viking Books in 1995, accompanying thousands of people through the Vietnamese precinct of Victoria Street in Melbourne and holding Vietnamese cooking classes in my studio until just recently.

Vietnam is a stunningly beautiful country with a wonderful, refined and tasty cuisine including  “salads” featuring chicken, seafood, prawn and pork.

Over the years, and during my trips to Vietnam I have eaten many versions of  this chicken salad made with different vegetables such as cabbage, cucumber, lotus stem or simply with onion and baby Vietnamese mint. The recipe below is my favourite, quick and easy to make, fresh and delicious!

If you would like to come with me to Vietnam and try other versions among countless other delicacies, contact Anna and book in for the May 2013 Tour.

_MG_1299

GOI GA

2 chicken breasts (or an equal quantity of boiled chicken  eg from soup)

1/2 cup rice vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3 tablespoons sugar

1 white onion, cut into halves and thinly sliced

1 large cucumber, cut in half and thinly sliced

1 large carrot (shredded)

2 tablespoons shredded Vietnamese mint

1 tbsp shredded shiso

1/2 red chilli, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 cup chopped fried peanuts

1 tablespoon crisp fried shallots

Bring the chicken breasts to a boil in some salted water and cook until just cooked through.  Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle.  (If using boiled chicken from soup, simply shred.)

While the chicken is cooling, mix the vinegar with the salt, pepper and sugar and marinate the sliced onion in this mixture for at least 30 minutes.

Pull the cooled chicken into shreds with your fingers and mix with the cucumber and carrot.  Add the marinated onion slices together with their juice.

Add the shredded herbs, chilli and peanuts tossing to combine.  Season with some nuoc mam to taste and put onto a serving plate  Garnish with the crisp fried shallots.

Serve with some  prawn crackers.

NUOC MAM

1/2 fresh red chilli
1/4 clove garlic
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
8 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons fish sauce

Chop the chilli and the garlic together finely.  Dissolve the sugar in the water in a saucepan over a low flame and then stir in the vinegar and the fish sauce. Bring to the boil and then turn off and allow to cool

Transfer to a serving bowl and add some of the chopped chilli and garlic to taste.

Moroccan Mint Tea

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be heading off to Morocco again to lead another of my culinary tours. One of the highlights of the time spend travelling around the Kingdom of Morocco is the drinking of tea infused with different kinds of mint and other aromatic herbs – a gesture of hospitality and a way to engage with the people we meet along the way.
Mint is the most common herb infused in Moroccan tea but it is often accompanied with seasonal additions, fresh Seville orange blossoms in the spring and Wormwood in the winter.  The desert people like to add marjoram whereas I have tasted tea brewed with thyme and sage in the Atlas Mountains.  Marrakech is known for its “atay m’khalet” or mixed herb tea containing a selection of herbs including two kinds of mint, lemon scented verbena, rose geranium, sage, wormwood and marjoram and very delicious it is!  The Moroccans use loaf sugar which I have described in a previous post entitled “Moroccan Sugar Cones”.

Aromatic herbs for Infusion in tea
Common Mint           Mentha viridis                       na’ana
Spearmint                  Mentha spicata                           “
Peppermint                Mentha piperata                  menta
Pennyroyal                Mentha pulegium                 fliou
Lemon Verbena        Lippia citriodora                   louisa
Marjoram                    Origanum marjorana          merddedouch
Rose Genranium      Pelargonium roseum           laatarcha
Sage                            Salvia officinalis                   salmiya
Wormwood                 Artemisia absinthium           shiba

The tea is prepared very carefully and a tea service is used which comprises a tray, teapot, containers for tea, mint and sugar and decorative glasses.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

MOROCCAN MINT TEA

1 heaped teaspoon Gunpowder Green tea (loose leaves)
lump sugar
1 bunch mint, well washed

Bring the kettle to the boil.
Scald the teapot and put the tea leaves into the pot.
Pour in 1/2 glass of boiling water, swirl the pot and immediately pour it out into the glass. This is the “soul” of the tea.
Pour in another glass of boiling water, swirl it around and then pour it out into another glass.  This will be dark and cloudy and should be discarded.
Put a handful of mint into the pot, add the “soul” of the tea and fill the pot with more boiling water.
Add sugar to taste and allow to draw for about 2 minutes (over a low flame for the best result).

Pour the some of the brewed tea into a glass and then pour it back into the pot.
Repeat this process  to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved and then pour out a small glass of tea and taste it.  Add more sugar if required.
Pour the tea into the glasses to only 2/3 full. If poured from on high, the tea will be more aerated and will be topped with a layer of fine bubbles known as r’za (turban in Moroccan Arabic).
This will allow the aroma to develop.

According to tradition, each guest should be offered multiple glasses of tea.

Orthodox Christmas in Lalibela

In January this year, I was lucky enough to experience the annual pilgrimage to Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia for the Orthodox Christmas celebration.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church dates from the 4th century and Lalibela, formerly known as Roha, was built as the new Jerusalem by King Lalibela of the Sagwe
dynasty in the 12th Century. I travelled with a wonderful group of people and we spent 6 whole days exploring the town and photographing the pilgrims, the services at the rock hewn churches, village life and the various markets.  All of the population of Lalibela are devout Christians and many pilgrims had walked for three weeks and more to get to the pilgrimage site.  The piety and devotion of the people touched me deeply. Here is a collection of my favourite images from this amazing trip. For more images click here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I would like also to mention my assistant and friend Mulugeta Asfaw, pictured below,  and express my gratitude to him for looking after me, serving as interpreter  which enabled me to connect with the villagers and some of the pilgrims and making the trip so special.He is currently completing his guide diploma and I am sure that he will succeed.

Gefilte Fish

I am now back in Melbourne after an amazing two months in Jordan and Israel followed by a photographic trip to Lalibela in Ethiopia to witness the Orthodox Christmas pilgrimage.Apologies to those of you who follow my blog and have been waiting for a post. It has been far too long since the last one. Here’s hoping that I will be much more conscientious in 2102.

It is almost the end of February and, looking at my calendar, the Jewish holiday of Passover is fast approaching.  This is one of our two most important family festivals and my sister and I prepare all the dishes we enjoyed as children.  One of the highlights is our mother’s gefilte fish that we only prepare twice a year, for Passover and Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year). Preparing the fish and its accompanying jelly takes the best part of a day and we  prepare a large amount so that we can share it with our uncle and aunt and their extended family. Since we live in Melbourne, Australia and are blessed with wonderful fish, the traditional Polish recipe using carp has been adapted to make it, (to our palates, at least) even more delicious and much lighter in colour and more appetising .  The great Gefilte Fish divide is whether the fish should be sweet or not.  If you are not keen on the sweet version, just leave out the sugar!

Each year, I receive requests for our recipe and so, here it is:

GEFILTE FISH
2kg skinless Murray Perch fillets (the fatty nature of this delicious fresh water fish is perfect)
500g flathead fillets (or other white fish)
300g skinless sea perch fillets (to ensure the light colour of the mixture)
1 whole small flathead
heads and bones of the filleted fish
2 litres water
4 tbsp. sugar
5 white onions
5 eggs
2 large carrots
1 large slice egg challah or 1 egg matzah (if making for Passover)
Vegetable oil
Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

For the Stock
In a large stockpot, place the fish heads and bones, 1 peeled white onion, the whole flathead and 2 tbsp sugar with the water and simmer for about 30 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Strain this stock and set aside to cool, discarding the solids.

For the Fish Patties

Peel and slice the remaining 4 onions and fry them lightly in a little vegetable oil until soft but not brown. If they start to brown, add a little water to the pan.  This will allow the onions to cook without browning until all the water has evaporated. Soak and crumble the challah or matzah.  Mince the softened onions together with the fish fillets and challah or matzah.

Add the eggs, salt, pepper and remaining sugar to the mixture.  Mix very well  (you can mix with an electric mixer using the K beater) then refrigerate for about 1 hour. This will help the mixture stabilise, making it easier to form into firm patties that will hold their shape during cooking.

When you are ready to cook the fish, bring the strained stock to the boil.

Form the fish paste into slightly flattened ovals and drop them into the boiling stock.

Peel and slice the carrots into rounds and add them to the stock.

Cover and simmer gently for 1 hour.

Allow to cool slightly. Remove the fish balls to a serving plate and top each one with a carrot slice. Strain the stock and ladle a little over the fish and carrots to glaze.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.  Cool the stock, pour it into a serving bowl, cover and refrigerate. It will become a firm jelly.

Serve the gefilte fish accompanied with a little of its jelly and “chrain” (kren – red horseradish available commercially).

Daphne

It’s a cold rainy Monday morning in Melbourne and I’m sitting at my desk preparing my recipes for cooking class tomorrow.
Over the weekend, my lovely niece gave me quite a few sprigs of daphne from the bush by her front door and I am drinking in the exquisite scent of the small but strongly fragrant blooms.
A native of China and Japan, this bush, also known as winter flowering daphne,  grows well in cool climates which enables it to flourish and flower prolifically in Southern Australia. The most common varieties have pink and white flowers but there is also a white variety, often with yellow and green variegated leaves that has a more citrussy perfume…  If you can get your hands on a sprig of either variety, put it in a vase near your work space or next to your bed and enjoy it during its brief season…. definitely one of life’s little pleasures!

 


Moroccan Preserved Lemons

There are so many lemon trees thriving in the gardens of Melbourne and they are at their peak at the moment. Just last week, I took a wrong turn and as I wove my way through the back streets of Richmond to get to my destination I was amazed by the number of heavily laden boughs hanging over onto the footpaths… just begging to be picked. Two icons of the Melbourne back yard are the Hill’s Hoist and the prolific Eureka lemon tree that bears fruit all year round with the heaviest crop ripening in our winter season.  A friend brought me a huge bag containing about five kilos of the shiniest, most fragrant lemons last week and, as my supply of preserved lemons was dwindling, I set about making a new batch to see me through the next twelve months or so.

I admit that I can’t really be bothered sterilising jars so I use a glazed cylindrical container with a perforated lid that I have had for more than ten years.  It was designed to pickle olives and has proved the ideal container for my lemons. I pack them in really tightly, filling the container right up to the brim and then place the lid and my heaviest mortar and pestle on top to press down on the lemons until the juices run and the level goes down.  I then change the mortar for my smallest one until the level goes down some more and then replace it with a well washed building brick so that the lid keeps pressing down on the lemons and the juice starts to seep through the holes in the lid.
I then leave the container in a cool place for 2 or 3 months… or even longer.  The way to tell if the lemons are ready is to take one out and see that the lemon juice and salt have turned into a viscous salty “syrup” and the lemon flesh comes away from the peel easily.  If the lemons are not properly cured, they will have a bitter, “pithy” flavour.  I prefer using only lemons and salt… with no added extras like cinnamon or, perish the thought, bay leaves which completely denature the fragrance of this wonderful Moroccan ingredient.. irreplaceable in tagines and salads.. divine with sardines!

PRESERVED LEMONS

whole lemons
fine sea salt
coarse sea salt

Wash the lemons well and soak in a tub of cold water overnight.  If the lemons are very thick skinned, replace the water each day for 3 days.
Drain the lemons, remove any stems and cut into quarters, but not cutting right through, leaving the bases intact.
Pour a thin layer of fine salt into the bottom of your container or jar.  This will help to draw out the juice from the lemons.  Pack each cut lemon with coarse salt and pack into the container.
Continue this process until all the lemons are salted and packed tightly into the container.  Sprinkle with another thin layer of fine salt and weigh down with a heavy weight.
Store the container in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 months when the lemons will be ready to use.  They can then be transferred to sterilised jars.

To use, rinse the lemons and remove the flesh, using the peel as a garnish in tajines or cut into tiny dice for use in salads.
A restaurateur I know uses the diced peel with chardonnay vinegar as a dressing for oysters… delicious!

Below are pictures of the thin skinned “Beldi” or local Moroccan lemons that are pickled whole

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 49 other followers

%d bloggers like this: