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A look at Peta Mathias' Moroccan cook book

Tuesday 9 Nov 2010 9:21 a.m.

Peta Mathias

Peta Mathias

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Adventures in Marrakech

It’s early days yet but I’m starting to dream of the summer holidays. Ever since reading Culinary Adventures by Peta Mathias, Morocco keeps popping into my head as a great place to go. She paints a vivid picture of an exotic location, tantalising food and colourful markets and amazing places to stay. Sounds like a tourist Mecca.

Peta chose Marrakech for one of her Fete Accomplie Culinary Adventures in which she takes her gastronomads on a weeklong culinary and cultural adventure. It’s the capital of South Morocco, a city both medieval and ultramodern.

Peta sees it as “lush, affluent, Euro-influenced chic, outrageously exotic nightclubs, designer kaftans, tagines, crab sushi, sexy North African cool and drop-dead stylish accommodation.” But it is also the “most African of Moroccan cities, a place of sweet rosebuds and honeyed dates, pungent olives, aromatic spices, dust and heat.”

She is captivated by the famous Djemaa al Fna Square, one of the busiest and most colossal town squares on the planet, much loved by the locals and “a cheap gourmet paradise, of piping hot snails and ignoble bits of innards, entertainment and musical appreciation.”

But she’s not afraid to say how it is and tells of hundreds of Moroccans having a ball slurping up on boiled sheep’s heads, which they slice crosswise for everyone to admire.

This is not the only graphic description of meat as the book proceeds and anyone with a tendency to be queasy may well want to skip quickly over such bits. The fact is however that Marrakech, as Peta says, is very much about meat and there is no point in pretending that animal carcasses are not hanging in front of you in the souk.

Peta and the gastronomads make their base at Dar Tasmayoun, the country home of a Frenchwoman, Florence Verley. It’s a rammed earth mansion with an organic garden and a menagerie of birds, rabbits, ducks and lambs.

Their lavish welcome dinner is served by the pool around which rows of flickering candles have been placed. It includes garden salads, harira soup, lamb tagines with prunes and fruit from the garden and a plentiful supply of gin and tonics. Local Berber musicians provide the music. Sounds amazing!

The cookery sessions at Dar Tasmayoun are only a part of the gastronomads culinary adventures. Peta also takes them to markets, picnics and parties, and kaftan shopping for a spot of retail therapy. One day they are persuaded to fling off their clothes and have a scrub in a traditional massage parlour. They love it.

But the highlight of the whole week’s activities is the day they are welcomed into the home of Mohammed and Latifa and their family who live in a traditional Berber village. It touches their hearts that a village family, who Peta has got to know, welcomes them into their home. They are “blown away by the abundance, simplicity and freshness of the food that they prepare for them.” Making a connection in this way is something the average tourist seldom gets to experience

Fifty recipes are also included in the book. They are Peta’s interpretation of traditional Moroccan food. They are carefully recorded and easy to follow. And she uses ingredients which are available in New Zealand.

The soul of Moroccan cooking is its spices which arrived as a result of an ancient spice trade. Spices such as coriander, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, paprika, and saffron and turmeric are essential ingredients in many of the recipes.

Peta explains how to make couscous from scratch but this is time consuming and would require years of practice before perfection is reached. Better to start with her easier recipes such as pomegranate and yoghurt dip, olives with orange blossom water and artichokes, or an eggplant salad.

I was delighted to also find some recipes for staples of Moroccan cooking such as preserved lemon, harissa and ras el-hanout. These are expensive to buy but here they look easy to make.

For a main course I’d like to make a tagine, but unfortunately I don’t own one of the special earthenware pots they are cooked in (would definitely bring one back if I did go on that Moroccan adventure!) There are several recipes for these and they all sound good.

So instead I’ll make a pastille, a large, round flat pie. Not the complicated pigeon pastille which Peta was served at a friend’s house. This was filled with ground almonds, pigeon, eggs mixed with lemon juice and spices enveloped in layers of wark pastry and dusted with cinnamon and icing sugar.

This Seafood Pastille is her recipe for a lighter dish, filled with prawns, fish and rice vermicelli and redolent with chili, paprika and coriander. It’s not hard to make and would make a very inviting centrepiece for a special summer lunch.

Culinary Adventures in Marrakech by Peta Mathias. Published by Penguin Group (NZ). RRP $50.00.

Seafood Pastilla

For this recipe, you’ll need a 30-cm low-sided baking dish, like a pizza or paella pan.

Serves 12 as a starter. Recipe can be halved.

100 g rice vermicelli

500 g shrimps or prawns, shelled and deveined

500 g firm white fish

2 tbsp butter or olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

¼ tsp chilli powder

½ tsp paprika

1 tsp salt

freshly ground black pepper

2 bay leaves

2 tbsp parsley, chopped

2 tbsp coriander, chopped

12 sheets warka or filo pastry

melted butter or oil in a spray can

lots of lemon wedges

1. Soak vermicelli in boiling water for five minutes until soft. With scissors, cut into little pieces.

2. Chop shrimps or prawns into small pieces and cube fish. Heat butter or oil in a pan and sauté onion and garlic for about five minutes. Add the chilli, paprika, salt, pepper and bay leaves. Continue cooking for five minutes.

3. Add shrimps or prawns and fish to the pan, along with parsley and coriander. Stir in and cook gently until just done – maybe five minutes.

4. Add vermicelli, remove from the heat and allow to cool.

5. Preheat the oven to 180 °C (355 °F).

6. Keep pastry sheets covered in a slightly damp cloth while you are working. Grease baking dish and line with six pastry sheets, brushing each one generously with butter. Arrange them so they overlap the sides and hang over.

7. Pour in seafood filling. Fold the overlapping sheets over. Now butter the remaining sheets. Place them on top, overlapping, then tuck them in under the pie. Brush the top with butter or spray with oil.

8. Bake in the oven for about half an hour or until golden.

Moroccans dive into the centre of the pie with their fingers.

Otherwise it can be cut into slices and served with lemon wedges.

Copyright details

Reprinted with permission from Culinary Adventures in Marrakech by Peta Mathias. Published by Penguin Group (NZ). RRP $50.00.

Available nationwide. Copyright © Peta Mathias, 2010.

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