I recently had the opportunity to visit Marrakech for an exciting new venture – I am a content writer and editor for a new business that focuses upon telling the stories of a particular city’s culture and offering a collection of curated locally-made goods for sale. Our first location was Marrakech, and while there I had the opportunity to visit the food stalls in Jemaa el Fna, eat freshly caught fish chosen from the market in the coastal town of Essaouira, take a Moroccan cooking class, and experience the hospitality of Friday couscous in the home of a local (although in this case it was the shop of a talented caftan designer). With locals as our guide, we ate in dusty roadside lunch spots (where I experienced my first, but hopefully not last, “avocado juice”) and high end restaurants putting out creative local cuisine (where I watched a man light the candles of a ten-foot wide chandelier by hand). Throughout these meals, what I noticed most was the earthy pungency of the spices and the depth of flavor in the sauces.
The tagine as cooking instrument is helpful in creating this flavor profile, as are the Arab-influenced combination of sweet and savory ingredients. And of course, good quality spices and produce always elevate a meal. I had neglected to bring home a tagine from my trip however (my bags were too full!), and my first efforts to try a beef and vegetable tagine in a slow cooker fell flat, despite my Marrakech-bought spices.
But then I was asked to recreate Ana Sortun’s recipe that she provided for A Curated World’s magazine. It seemed so simple – just chicken thighs, a little bit of spice and well-cooked onions. How could this produce the same richness of the tagines that slow-cooked on the stove top for hours? But there is a reason that Ana Sortun is a master at her craft. (For those who don’t know, she is a nationally renown, James Beard-honored chef with restaurants in the Boston area.) This recipe was so simple – and so delicious. The sauce was thick and just sweet enough, thanks to the cinnamon, honey and orange flower water (which caters more to the sense of smell than taste) but still grounded in the earthiness of the thighs and turmeric. The use of vermicelli (or, in this case, linguine) rather than couscous – although more frequently in Marrakech this type of dish was served only with a side of bread as a starch – makes it a bit more familiar to an American palate. As this dish cooked, I recognized the distinctive smell as the scent that wafted through the spice market so many months ago. And the taste was unmistakeable – I was back in a sunny, tile-lined courtyard in Marrakech, soaking up the December sun.