A Moroccan Oven That’s Open to All

THE best way to understand this fortress town, on the Atlantic coast about 30 miles south of Tangier, is to let your eyes and your nose lead you through the narrow streets where only foot traffic is allowed. While visiting here for a few days, I sniffed my way through the warrens of the medina, built in the 14th century by Portuguese and inhabited later by Muslims and Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Today the town’s population is international, with people from Spain and France buying quaint apartments as second homes.

Morocco, at the end of the spice route in Africa, developed a fine cuisine known for its pungent spice combinations. In Assilah, as in much of the country, people eat seasonally, shop at the outdoor markets, buy live chickens to have slaughtered on the spot, feathers flying helter-skelter. (In the big cities, where health inspectors and supermarkets are taking over, this is a dying custom.) At one market I saw eggs gathered the same morning, carefully protected by strands of hay; lemons preserved in salted water; black and green olives from nearby orchards.

As everywhere else in Morocco, the home cooks make the most flavorful food. But not all of their cooking is done at home.

One morning, I happened upon a crowd of women, along with a few men and small boys, all balancing boards on their heads piled with rounds of dough. I followed them into a small stucco building where smoke poured from the chimney. Inside, a baker stood calmly underneath a portrait of the Moroccan king, Mohammed VI. He carefully placed the mounds of shaped dough on long wooden paddles and slid them into a brick oven fueled with eucalyptus branches.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, customers arrive in a steady stream, pay a few dirhams — about 25 cents — and then leave. About 20 minutes later, they return to pick up their golden rounds of bread.

In three other towns in northern Morocco I found similar ovens, all contributing to the heartbeat of the city. Communal ovens have been a part of Mediterranean life for thousands of years. People in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, in French country towns and in Middle Eastern medinas baked their bread in them, and later, when the ovens were cooler, cooked casseroles and other dishes.

Today many people have gas stoves or propane cooktops at home, and the communal ovens are disappearing. In my travels I have found them only rarely: in Jerusalem’s old city; in Arab villages in Israel and the West Bank; on the Caribbean island of Montserrat.

In Assilah, as in other Moroccan towns, the ovens are in transition, still in use even though many people have their own stoves. ”These bread ovens are a link with the past,” said Paula Wolfert, the author of ”Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco,” who lived in Tangier for seven years. ”It was part of the community, an extension of the home.”

Traditional cooks in Assilah wake around dawn each morning to knead and shape the dough. They let it rise for a few hours before carrying it to the public oven, known as a ferrane. Called khubz, the bread is about the size of pita but much denser. Sometimes it is made entirely with white flour; sometimes barley or coarse whole wheat flour is mixed in, and semolina is sprinkled on top.

Somehow, with dozens of loaves on the floor of his oven, the baker always knows whose bread is whose. But just in case he forgets, most people make an identifying mark on their dough.

”My housekeeper put a special stamp on the bread made out of iron with a design, a sort of family mark on it,” Ms. Wolfert said. ”She didn’t sleep well unless there was a sack of wheat in the house to make bread.”

Bread isn’t the only food cooked in the ferrane. I saw metal plates filled with green peppers and tomatoes, ready to be quickly charred and then peeled for salads. Clay pots covered with tinfoil or parchment paper also waited their turn. Inside were tagines of fish — sardines, swordfish, snapper — rich with tomatoes, potatoes, cilantro and spices. Family secrets work their way into these tagines: the way the vegetables are cut, the ratio of spices, the kind of fish, even the shape of the clay pot.

The public oven is also where families announce weddings, anniversaries and other special occasions, whether they want to or not. When someone brings a b’stilla, one of the jewels of Moroccan cooking — a chicken or pigeon pie made with nuts, sugar, cinnamon and orange blossom water — everybody knows that a big celebration is on the way. After all, no one would take the trouble to make b’stilla on just any old day. This delicious pie is topped with warka leaf, a thin dough somewhat like phyllo that is made by bouncing fistfuls of wet, pasty batter on a hot grill until it miraculously comes together.

Other celebratory foods also appear at the ferrane, like crisp Moroccan cookies. Also made from warka, they are first baked in the oven, then taken home and soaked in honey.

Later that day, I ate lunch at the home of Mohamed Benaissa, the town’s mayor and an old friend from the time he was the Moroccan ambassador to the United States. The round bread and the fresh sardine tagine, the centerpiece of our magnificent meal, was assembled at the Benaissas’ home by their cook, Halima Sella, and baked in the same public oven I had just seen, only steps away from the house. The Benaissas have two gas ovens in their kitchen, but they prefer to use the ferrane.

”The oven is a social equalizer,” said Mr. Benaissa, who is also the foreign minister of Morocco. ”It also creates jobs and is economical, especially in the summer, because we use little energy for so many people.”

After lunch Ms. Sella showed me how to make her chicken couscous with onions, ginger, cinnamon and saffron, a dish I had adored at the Benaissas’ home in Washington. She simmered it over the stove in a large couscousier, a double-layered pot.

The chicken stewed in the bottom of the pot, producing steam that seeped through the holes of a sieve and cooked the couscous in the top layer. Plastic wrap helped seal in the steam. Patiently frying almonds in hot oil, Ms. Sella insisted that the couscous be steamed three times, something that cooks rarely do in the United States.

As I tasted the Benaissas’ food and reflected on the different varieties of tagine and bread I had seen at the oven, it occurred to me that Moroccan recipes are proud secrets embedded in families, transferred by word of mouth from generation to generation. A little more cumin, a little less cinnamon? Should the vegetables be diced in rounds or squares?

These secrets are not revealed even to the man at the ferrane who does the cooking.

Chicken With Couscous
Adapted from Halima Sella
Time: 1 hour

1 4-pound chicken, skinned and cut into chunks (thighs in half, breasts in thirds, drumsticks and wings left whole, and backbone discarded)
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 onions, diced
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (lightly packed) parsley sprigs
1/2 cup (lightly packed) cilantro sprigs
1 pinch saffron threads
11/2 cups blanched whole almonds
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound couscous.

1. Rub chicken pieces with lemon juice, and season lightly with salt. Place a Dutch oven over high heat, and add olive oil and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. When oil is hot add onions, and sauté until beginning to soften. Add chicken pieces, and sauté until seared on all sides. Pour off all oil in pan.
2. Add ginger, 1 tablespoon cinnamon, black pepper, parsley and cilantro. Mix saffron with 1 cup water, and add to pot; then add 2 cups more water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until chicken is cooked, about 30 minutes.
3. While chicken cooks place a skillet over medium-high heat, and add remaining 1 cup vegetable oil. When hot add almonds, and stir until golden brown. Remove immediately, and drain on paper towels. In a food processor combine almonds, sugar, butter and remaining 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Pulse until there is just a tiny crunch to almonds.
4. To serve, cook couscous according to package instructions. Add almond mixture, and toss to blend. Spread couscous across a large serving platter, and mound chicken on top. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Tagine of Fish
Adapted from Halima Sella
Time: About 1 hour, 15 minutes

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large red onion, thinly sliced into rounds
1 large potato, boiled until tender and thinly sliced into rounds
1 green bell pepper, roasted, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons ground cumin, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
21/2 pounds sardine, swordfish or red snapper fillets, cut into slices about 3 inches long
2 tomatoes, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Harissa, for garnish (see note)
Thinly sliced preserved lemon, for garnish (see note).

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Smear bottom of a tagine, clay pot or Dutch oven with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Layer slices of onion, potato and roasted pepper in pan. In a small bowl, combine cilantro, parsley, paprika, salt, black pepper, cumin, thyme, garlic, lemon juice and 2 remaining tablespoons olive oil; mix well, and sprinkle about 2 tablespoons over vegetables in pan.
2. Rub all sides of fish with some spice mixture, and place on top of vegetables. If using red snapper fillets, sandwich two pieces of fillet together before arranging them.
3. Smear tomato slices with spice mixture, and place on fish. Top with lemon slices and any remaining spice mixture. Sprinkle with more salt, if desired, and drizzle with 1 to 2 tablespoons water.
4. Cover with a lid or foil, and bake until fish is cooked through (30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on type of fish and pan used). Garnish with harissa and preserved lemon, and serve.
Yield: 6 servings.
Note: Available in Middle Eastern and specialty shops.

Moroccan Anise-Flavored Bread (Khubz)
Adapted from ”Paula Wolfert’s World of Food” (Harper & Row, 1988)
Time: About 11/2 hours, plus 2 hours’ rising

1 package active dry yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup stone-ground whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 to 3 tablespoons semolina flour, as needed.

1. In bowl of an electric mixer combine yeast, sugar and 2 cups warm water. Stir, and add all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt, anise seeds and sesame seeds. Mix with dough hook until smooth and elastic.
2. Divide dough in half, and shape into two balls. Let stand 5 minutes. Lightly oil surface of each ball, and roll around inside a wide mixing bowl until smooth. Flatten each ball into a disk 1 inch thick and 6 inches in diameter, slightly thicker in center.
3. Sprinkle a baking pan with about 2 tablespoons semolina flour. Place loaves on pan, and sprinkle surface of loaves with additional semolina flour to keep them from being sticky. Cover loosely with a damp kitchen towel, and let loaves rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until a finger pressed in the side of the dough leaves a deep indentation. Prick each loaf deeply 6 or 7 times with a fork to release gas.
4. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake loaves 12 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 300 degrees, and bake about 20 minutes longer or until bottom of bread sounds hollow when tapped. Remove loaves from oven, and let cool before slicing into wedges.
Yield: 2 loaves.
(Tags: Morocco, Food, Recipes)


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