Monday, November 30, 2015

A Grand Tour via Soup: Morocco, Spicy Squash Soup with Meloui flatbreads

The Grand Soup Tour enters Morocco and this is my first stop off in a country I have never visited. In fact a whole continent I have never seen first hand, as Africa is a place I have yet to travel to and know very little about. I  know so little of this area that until I did some reading for this blog post I was convinced the whole of Morocco was hot desert. That the magnificent Atlas mountain range crossed the country had completely passed over me and I had never heard of the Rif mountains which are in the northernmost area of Morocco. So those living in cold mountainous areas need warming food and a gently spiced squash soup seems ideal.

This recipe is taken from  Paula Wolfert's 'The Food of Moroco', a huge and engaging book written by one of  my favourite authors on Mediterranean and North African food.

I have a few of her books and they are all written in a scholarly but highly accessible style, and from first hand experience. The recipes are packed with notes on how to achieve the same results as native cooks working with traditional tools and ingredients.

The main spicing for this recipe is a Moroccan spice blend called La Kama:
1tsp ground ginger
1tsp freshly ground pepper
0.5tsp ground cinnamon
0.5tsp ground cubeb pepper (optional)
large pinch ground nutmeg

Cubeb Pepper (Piper cubeca) is a member of the same family as the familiar black pepper, and is a vine like plant that grows in the tropics.The stalk gives the pepper its common name of tailed pepper. Arab merchants traded cubeb peppers as early as the seventh century and from North Africa they moved into Europe via ports such as Venice. They are not often seen in modern  European cuisine but have remained a part of North African traditional spicing of dish like tagines The flavour is quite distinctive and reminded me a little of the intense aromatics of green cardamom. I bought my cubebs from a UK online supplier The Spicery

I don't think you should make this with halloween type pumpkins, which can be quite a watery and have an off flavour to them; much better to get a sweet and nutty flavoured winter squash or butternut squash. I hate peeling squash as the rinds are so hard, and would welcome any tips on this problem if you have solved it. If I can get away with baking them and scooping the flesh away from the skin when cooked, I do.
I love this bowl for serving squash soups but of course you cannot see the pattern until you get to the bottom of your bowl.
Squash Soup with Feta Style Cheese based on a recipe by Paula Wolfert
1 yellow onion chopped
pinch sea salt
1 tbs olive or vegetable oil
1kg squash peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
2 tbs tomato paste (level, not rounded)
1 tsp of La Kama spice blend (above)
1 litre water or light vegetable stock
2tsp rose harissa paste or to taste (plain harissa paste is fine)
1-2tbs of creme fraiche (optional)
roughly 80g feta cheese crumbled
salt & pepper
mild chilli flakes to garnish

  1. Gently cook the onion with the salt in the olive oil in a covered large pan. This is to steam cook/sweat the onion rather than browning it. Cook until the onion is soft stirring as needed to cook evenly.
  2. Add the cubes of squash and cover again to gently cook in their own moisture for 10-15 minutes.
  3. Add the tomato paste and a tsp of La Kama spice mix. 
  4. Add the water/stock, cover and cook gently until the squash is tender.
  5. Take off the heat and using a stick blender puree the soup.
  6. Add the harissa paste to taste along with any additional salt and black pepper. Remember the cheese is quite salty too.
  7. Rewarm the soup and pour into bowls.
  8. Garnish each bowl with a portion of crumbled feta cheese and a light sprinkle of mild (aleppo pepper style) chilli flakes.
I served my soup with some Moroccan flat breads called Meloui which are fried rather than baked. The dough is a mixture of normal bread flour and fine semolina flour. I managed to track down some fine semolina in an international deli in my nearest city Exeter. I suspect the slightly coarse durum pasta flour is very similar. The dough is rolled into thin discs (blobs in my case) and then spread with melted butter and more semolina flour is sprinkled on.
Then there is a tricky folding and rolling process for each disc and finally you end up with a flattened 'pancake' ready to fry in butter (or a mixture of oil and butter to prevent rapid burning)
 The dough is quite simple but the rolling and folding was not so easy so I will link you to this quite detailed Meloui Recipe rather than try to explain what to do. 

They are a lot of work but rather good. Freshly cooked the outside is quite crispy and inside the dough is relatively light and well flavoured. Some of the recipes I looked at suggested eating these for breakfast dipped in honey.

So the Grand Soup Tour now crosses back into Europe and of course to Spain where the area of Andalusia/al-Andalus and much more of modern Spain and Portugal at various times were governed by Arab and Berber rulers from Morocco. Eventually pushed back they left behind their cultural influence in the architecture and food of Spain. Saffron and almonds both remaining in popular use and cultivation. Although there is a delicious Spanish almond soup, ajo blanco, that I was tempted to try I will stay with the more wintery theme of a chestnut soup spiced with saffron.

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