Moroccan cookbook challenge

Some weeks ago, a colleague at Workman Publishing  offered ten booksellers a cooking challenge, and I was brave and foolish enough to accept the challenge!  To help promote Mourad New Moroccan (published by Artisan), Workman sent an advance copy of the cookbook and offered to reimburse us for $75 worth of groceries if we would host a dinner party using recipes from the cookbook.  I started reading the book as soon as it arrived, and enjoyed the biographical section at the beginning, which includes Mourad’s childhood memories of Morocco, including long conversations about what’s for dinner, and trips to the outdoor market with his grandfather.  It’s a look into a culture that, while very different from ours, has a wonderful sense of the importance of family and food that everyone can appreciate.

My husband and I started planning the menu for our dinner party and quickly decided that we needed reinforcements.  We invited three couples and offered each of them the chance to make something from the book if they wished.  Two couples took us up on the offer, so we were off the hook for appetizers and part of dessert.  Joe and I went on vacation shortly after the book arrived, and thus missed the opportunity to make our own preserved lemons, a process which takes 4-5 weeks.  Fortunately for us, our local grocery store carried them (who knew?), so we weren’t limited in the recipes we could make.

Our part of the menu included Spiced Almonds, Corona Beans with Tomato Sauce and Feta, Roasted Peppers with Preserved Lemons and Garlic Confit, Roast Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Root Vegetables, Couscous with Meyer Lemon and Parsley, and Plum Sorbet.  Karin made Charred Eggplant Puree and Chickpea Spread, and Jana made Chocolate Gingersnaps to go with the sorbet.  Joe & I shopped on a Friday night and got up early on Saturday to start cooking.  Our kitchen is small, so we had to time everything carefully, with many pauses to clean up.  The house was filled with wonderful smells all day long!  Joe is really the chef in our family, so while I made the Corona Beans and Garlic Confit on my own, I was mostly on duty to peel and chop root vegetables, prepare the plum mixture for the sorbet, and otherwise act as chief bottle-washer and organizer.

Two of the couples we invited had actually been to Morocco, which added to the challenge, but they loved the food!  Lisa brought Moroccan incense to add authenticity to the dinner, and we finally sat down to eat about 12 hours after we had started cooking, having snacked on green olives and Karin’s wonderful appetizers for a while.  Most of us were surprised at the taste of the preserved lemons — the salt rather than the citrus flavor is dominant, and the flavor is bright and intense.  They’re an ingredient in both the roasted peppers and the roasted chicken, and both were fabulous!  The roasted peppers were smoky, salty and garlicky, while the chicken was the tenderest I’ve ever eaten, and again, the preserved lemon flavor was unique and perfect.  The Corona beans (I used cannellini beans) were described as Moroccan baked beans, but were less sweet and more complex than any baked beans I’ve ever eaten.  The dessert was perfect — the plum sorbet was cold and sweet, and the chocolate gingersnaps were the perfect accompaniment.

It was fun to have a theme to our dinner party, and even the non-cooks took a look at Mourad’s cookbook.  We all agreed that it would be a great idea to have “cookbook dinners” more often!  Many thanks to Craig, Workman and Artisan for this wonderful opportunity!

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