GUEST POST: COOKING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY

March 24, 2012

Lauren Bernstein and I attended the same high school in Memphis; thanks to the magic of Facebook, we’ve been able to keep up with each other’s lives over the last few years. I have watched in admiration as she and her husband Justin (see picture at the end of this post) quit their jobs in New York and joined the Peace Corps, heading to Morocco to teach English.  

You can follow Lauren and Justin’s adventures in teaching, travel, and adapting to a brand new culture on Lauren’s blog, Life is calling.  Her pictures (especially of food!) are wonderful, as are her explanations of the sights they’ve seen and the work they are doing.  

Below, Lauren talks about what it’s like to cook in Morocco, as opposed to cooking back home, and shares a recipe for Moroccan-style white beans and homemade tortillas.  When we made the white beans, we served them with this recipe for Moroccan-style roasted vegetables.  Many thanks to Lauren for taking the time to share with us!  –NJM

Last week, my husband and I decided to make dinner for our family who hosted us when we first moved into our community in Morocco. We wanted to make an American-style meal, so we settled on fajitas and apple pie. As I undertook the process of planning and making the meal, I thought back upon how much has changed in my cooking since I came to this country. For fun, I compared the process that went into this meal to what it would have been in America:

AMERICA

Night before:
–    Research and choose recipes, make list of ingredients needed .

Morning of:
–    Go to the grocery store and buy everything I need: pre-packaged chicken breasts, vegetables, pre-made pie crust (if I’m being lazy), bag of tortillas, some packaged pre-shredded cheese.

Afternoon:
–    Cut up and saute meat and vegetables, prepare pie and set it to bake at the oven’s standard temperature, set the timer, walk away and have a glass of wine!
–    Take tortillas and cheese out of their packages when ready.

MOROCCO

Night before:

–    Research and choose recipes, make list of ingredients needed .
–    Figure out what ingredients are actually available here (no brown sugar for the apple pie!) and adjust with substitutions.
–    Make sure I know how to say or write everything that I need in Moroccan Arabic (still don’t know how to ask for nutmeg, though I don’t think I could find it here anyway!).

Morning of:
–    Go to the local market and visit each individual stall to get what I need: the onion guy, the peppers guy, the cheese guy, the spices guy, the egg guy, the oil guy (squeezed fresh from olives!), the flour guy, the butter guy… and let’s not forget the chicken guy. I choose my chicken and they slaughter and clean it for me.

Afternoon:

–    Wash and clean the chicken to remove excess feathers. Take out the innards (most of which I am still unsure of what they are exactly). Then break down the chicken and cut into small pieces to be sautéed.
–    Prepare pie crust (from scratch) and refrigerate.
–    Prepare tortillas (from scratch) and put aside.
–    Cut up and sauté meat and vegetables and grate cheese.
–    Prepare apple pie, put in oven and check it obsessively because the oven here doesn’t have regulated temperatures and I have yet to get it totally right yet. The top burns a little but easy enough to scrape off.

Total meal prep in America: 4 hours

Total meal prep in Morocco: 10 hours

As you can see, it’s quite a different experience! Each meal here is a challenge in learning how to plan, buy, and prepare foods in a totally new way. But I have already learned some valuable lessons that I will bring back with me when I return to the U.S.:

* Food tastes better fresh! None of this pre-packaged nonsense. Make the below tortilla recipe and you will never eat the packaged ones again

* Knowing where my meat comes from: You always hear in the U.S. about being separated from the source of your food but you don’t realize it until you see it the other way. While it’s tough to deal with an animal being killed in front of you for food, it makes you think much harder about what you choose to eat.

* Less meat, more beans and vegetables: In Morocco, meat is a lot more expensive than most other food items and families tend to eat a lot of beans instead. I have rediscovered my love for white beans and I will never be the same!

* New methods and tools for cooking: I am going to single-handedly bring the pressure cooker back into fashion in the U.S… why more people don’t use it, I don’t know! But every Moroccan household uses it and it is truly amazing.

In my cooking experiments here, two of my most favorite recipes have been some of the simplest. I hope you enjoy the below recipes; when you make them, think about how your experiences might be different if you were cooking somewhere unfamiliar or in a new way. And be happy you don’t have to learn how to say each ingredient in Arabic!

MOROCCAN-STYLE WHITE BEANS
Adapted from About.com
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

This recipe calls for dry beans and uses a pressure cooker (I told you I am bringing the pressure cooker back into style!). You should soak your beans in water overnight before you cook them. And if you happen to buy them from a big sack in the market like I do, you may need to spend an hour or so pulling out the twigs and rocks and thoroughly cleaning them!

ingredients:

1lb. dry white haricot or Cannellini beans, soaked overnight and drained
3 ripe tomatoes, grated or diced
1 medium onion, grated or diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 T chopped fresh parsley
2 T chopped fresh cilantro
1 T salt
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp cumin
2 teaspoons ground ginger
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup olive oil
2 quarts water

Mix all ingredients in a pressure cooker. Cover and cook on pressure over medium heat for about 40 minutes, or until the beans are tender. (Note: “On pressure” here means that you start timing it once the top on the pressure cooker starts spinning around).  Run the cooker under cold water before opening the lid carefully.  If the beans are still submerged in sauce, cook uncovered for a bit to reduce the liquids until the sauce is thick (just keep an eye on it to make sure that the beans don’t burn). Adjust the seasoning if desired, and serve.

Editor’s note: If you don’t have a pressure cooker or don’t want to use it, I recommend using a slow-cooker instead.  You can sauté the onion & garlic in a saucepan on the stovetop first, then toss them, along with the rest of the ingredients, into the slow cooker and let them cook on “high” for several hours, or until the beans have reached the desired tenderness. You can also cook in a covered pot on the stove top for several hours, but the convenience of a slow-cooker means you can walk away while the beans cook!

HOMEMADE TORTILLAS
Adapted from Peace Corps Morocco’s “Kitchen Guide,” provided to all new volunteers
Yield: 8-10 small (6-inch) tortillas, or 4-6 large (8-10 inch) tortillas

Editor’s note: We have also, in my house, become obsessed with homemade tortillas.  I tend to make mine with lard, using this recipe, but when cooking for vegetarian/non-pork-eating friends, I plan to use Lauren’s recipe below.

ingredients:

2 cups flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder (optional)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp olive or vegetable oil
¾ cup warm water

Preparation:
Sift flour, baking powder (optional), and salt together (for larger tortillas, omit baking powder, which will keep them from stretching). Work in oil and mix well. Slowly add water and knead until dough is springy. Divide dough into 8 balls for small tortillas, or 6 balls for large tortillas, and place on a clean surface; cover and let rest for 20-30 minutes. After the dough has rested, one at a time place the dough ball on a lightly floured surface, pat it out to about a 4” circle, and then roll out from the center to create thin circles (6” across for small tortillas, 8-10” across for large tortillas). Bake on a hot un-greased griddle until speckled brown on both sides (keep a close eye on them or they can burn). If tortilla puffs while cooking, just press it down.

Let tortillas cool before storing in an airtight container or plastic bag in the refrigerator.

Lauren’s note: I made this recently with 1cup semolina flour and 1 cup regular white flour and it has a less floury, more corny taste (but not super corny). I also varied the thickness of the tortilla when I rolled it out, and I found that I liked them really thin. The more you play with it the more you’ll love them!

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6 Comments »

  1. Thank you Lauren for taking time from your busy schedule to write on Nishta’s blog. I very impressed that you are making things from scratch. You two look really happy. I wish you all the best. I love beans so I will try the bean recipe and eat it with chapti that I make. I will be checking out your blog soon.
    Veena

    Comment by Veena Mehra — March 25, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

  2. I’m so happy your recipe is already pressure cooker-ready. I’m curious about the 40 minutes of pressurizing. Do your beans usually take that long to cook? The longest cook-time I have with my pot is 20 minutes for barley. My chickpeas take 11 minutes, and fava beans take less than 10.Is there a certain texture you’re looking for with that long cook time?

    Comment by Molly — March 26, 2012 @ 7:55 am

  3. homemade tortillas! how awesome! we bake our own bread a lot, but never tortillas, which we eat at least once a week. definitely going to try these recipes – thanks!

    Comment by Lauren — March 26, 2012 @ 9:01 am

  4. Nishta, thanks so much for posting, and I am so happy that the magic of the interwebs has allowed us to stay in touch while so far away!!!

    Molly, it’s possible that the Moroccan pressure cooker that I use is slower than American versions (as maaany things in Morocco are slower than America!!). But the texture that I have eaten in households here and make for myself is pretty soft – squishes immediately. Certainly you could cook less if you would prefer a bit harder. Please let me know if it takes less time for you!

    Comment by Lauren Bernstein — March 26, 2012 @ 9:18 am

  5. what a great guest post! and I too am so grateful that the internet let’s us all keep up with each other like this!

    Comment by mary-kathryn — March 26, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

  6. I’m so happy you SMS girls stay connected! Nishta – this is a great Blog – well done! And Lauren – such a good post! I feel so bad because I had Grandma’s pressure cooker from like 50 years ago, but hadn’t used it for so long, I don’t think it made it in the move. I will double check though in the attic! I do want to try these recipes for sure!

    Comment by Arlene Weinrich (Lauren's mom) — March 26, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

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