Harira Bidaouia

Just a short two weeks till the start of Ramadan!  Melbourne is not a bad place to be in August for those who are fasting this year… chilly short days…and for those who do not observe Ramadan… the perfect weather to cook and enjoy this delicious soup. A few years ago, I spent time in the Casablanca home of dear friends during this month of fasting.  Each day we would prepare the Harira and the other dishes that would be enjoyed by the family as part of the ftour or breaking of the fast.
As soon as the first star was spied in the sky, a siren would sound and people would gather to break the fast with a date or two and a glass of milk or juice. This was invariably followed by a bowl of Harira accompanied by dates, bread, hard boiled eggs and the famous Moroccan chebbakieh pastries, formed into rosette shapes,  fried in oil, drained and soaked in honey.
This meal was a prelude to an evening of chatting, snacking and enjoying each other’s company.
Here is the recipe and pictures of the ingredients for those who are unfamiliar with some of them.

Ingredients 1

HARIRA

1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chickpeas, soaked and peeled
1/3 cup small red lentils
1 tbsp smen
1 tbsp vegetable  oil
1 bunch Asian celery (krafes) chopped very finely
250g stewing beef cut into small cubes
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp turmeric
2 small pieces cassia bark
2-3  l water
1 kg fresh peeled and chopped tomatoes, or 1 can Italian chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato concentrate
salt
2 tbsp flour
50g vermicelli (shaariyeh) noodles
1 bunch fresh coriander,  finely chopped

 
Put the chopped onion, chickpeas, lentils, smen, oil, chopped celery and beef into a deep pot and heat over a low flame until the onion is translucent.  Add the spices and water and simmer  for an hour or two or until the chickpeas and meat are tender.
In the meantime,  cook the tomatoes in a separate saucepan until all their liquid has evaporated and they have reduced to a thick puree. Add to the first pot together with the tomato concentrate and the salt.
Dissolve the flour in a little cold water and add to the simmering soup, stirring until the soup thickens and any foam that has risen to the top has dissipated.
Add the vermicelli and coriander and cook for a further 3 minutes.
Serve hot with lemon wedges, dates and figs and, if available, chebbakieh pastries.



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Saffron

At this time of the year, I am usually in Morocco. I love Autumn in the Maghreb. The date harvest is in full swing as is the olive harvest and the pressing of the new season’s oil. But the absolute highlight for me, is the 2 week saffron picking period. We get up at dawn to drive for the hour or so from Marrakech to the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. The young girls of the area arrive at about 7am, warmly dressed against the biting cold, to pick the saffron crocus flowers before the sun rises and the flowers open. The girls are all in their teens and supple enough to bend from the waist, plucking the crop and filling their baskets. The bright purple flowers contain just three red stigmas each – the part of the flower that, once sorted and dried, will constitute the most expensive spice in the world!

It takes 140 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron.

As the flowers are picked, they are transferred to the sorting room where older, more experienced ladies  (no longer able to bend from the waist as easily as their daughters and granddaughters) remove the stigmas from the flowers and send them to the drying room where they will give up their moisture and develop the exquisite flavour and colour that make them such a prized commodity in the culinary world.

True saffron (zaafran horr)  is used in many Moroccan dishes, and is often combined with ground ginger and black pepper, and sometimes a little  cassia bark, in the most lavish of tajines and celebration couscous  preparations.  Those who cannot afford it resort to zaafran roumi (yellow  food colouring powder) to emulate the appearance if not the flavour of these extravagant dishes.

In the saffron growing area of Taliouine in the High Atlas Mountains, I have been lucky enough to have been served saffron tea, brewed with a scant spoonful of green tea leaves, a pinch of saffron and sweetened with pieces of cone sugar!

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