Begin your meal the Moroccan way with an extensive spread of salads

Jeff Koehler

Until you've eaten Moroccan-style vegetables, you've not tasted what a vegetable can become. For me, everyone who loves to eat should know how Morocco cooks. Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes, a book by Jeff Koehler, is a good start. Koehler roamed the country for a decade, especially the little-known regions like the Berber villages high in the Atlas Mountains.  

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You've traveled to parts of Morocco that we don't hear very much about. Can you give me some idea of the kinds of vegetable dishes you've found and where you've found them?

Jeff Koehler: Morocco is essentially an island; you have the Atlantic on one side, you have the Mediterranean to the north and you have this sea of the Sahara around it. But in the middle is this incredible variety of four mountain ranges, an oasis, some desert and river valleys. You really find a pretty big variety of vegetables.

My favorite place is probably south of Casablanca along the coast called El Jadida. This is really the heartland of different kinds of squash and pumpkins. Just driving on the back roads, they're able to mound up squash and pumpkins in really interesting stacks. I just saw them on the roadside -- they're really quite large types of squashes. These you find absolutely as a salad or in couscous. A pumpkin couscous is a great middle-part-of-the-country dish. This is one of the most typical meals that you can find.

LRK: When I think of a Moroccan meal, I think of it beginning with this incredibly colorful spread of salads.

Carrot and Cumin Salad
Koehler's recipe: Carrot and Cumin Salad

JK: Absolutely. This is one of the great things about dining in Morocco -- the selection of fresh and cooked salads. You have a combination: the cooked ones are served chilled in the summertime, and maybe in the winter warmed or room temperature. You get everything from beets to a different kind of green peppers to cucumbers, and you get this spread.

After you prepare a couple of them -- three or four or five or six -- you serve them in small dishes. These will last a couple of meals. But you begin by just nibbling. When you see this spread laid out, it's always impressive because of the colors and the design elements.

I've been in meals where I've been served 10, 12, even at one place 15 different types of small little salads to open the meal. But of course for me that was the whole meal. Often my favorite part of the meal are the salads along with some of that really great, round flatbread.

Spicy Shrimp Tagine from Morocco
Koehler's recipe: Spicy Shrimp Tagine from Morocco

LRK: What kind of spicing is done with salads in Morocco?

JK: You find a lot of fresh herbs -- it seems like almost everything has fresh cilantro and fresh parsley. These are usually mixed together, finely chopped up. It's almost rare that you're going to find one or the other, they're often together.

For spices cinnamon is very typical, making an interesting mixture with the savory flavors; cumin; sweet paprika -- usually not spicy, some dishes have a spicy paprika, but often a little bit of sweet paprika; and freshly ground black pepper. Other things have very specific ingredients, but those are the main ones.

LRK: I'm remembering something specific that I've had in a restaurant -- it was carrots done with orange.

JK: One of the great salads with carrots is very finely-grated carrots with fresh-squeezed orange juice. You very finely grate the carrots so they can absorb the juice, and this should be soupy enough for you just to need a spoon to eat it. You chill it, then you sprinkle it with cinnamon and maybe a couple of drops of orange flower water. It is a fantastic combination of this freshness with the fruitiness and then you get the cinnamon -- it's often hard to pinpoint what exactly is in it.

Grated Carrot and Orange Salad
Koehler's recipe: Grated Carrot and Orange Salad

You could have on the same spread another great carrot salad, the cold chilled salad. You boil the carrots usually. They're a little bit sweet -- add a pinch of sugar -- then you put plenty of cumin in them, a little pinch of sweet paprika, a little bit of lemon juice, and then you chill them. That is one of those dishes where you get this interesting combination of the earthiness of the cumin, then you get that lemon and you get that sweetness of the chilled carrots.

When you have four, five, six or eight of these different little salads, you don't know quite where to begin or where to stop. In the summertime it's great -- the carrots and orange dish is equally served as a salad and also as a dessert. It's a fantastic way to end the meal. With that touch of cinnamon, it's really interesting, original, refreshing and absolutely perfect.

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