Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Moroccan New Year's Eve

After a few months of many things pointing towards Morocco- posts from Big Girls Small Kitchen, re-watching that favorite scene from Sabrina when Julia Ormond and Harrison Ford go out for Moroccan and eat with their hands, and yes the Real Housewives of New York "Ya habibi" filled getaway-- I decided the best way to spend New Years Eve-into-my birthday would be with a Moroccan inspired celebration. With all the buzz around Paula Wolfert's The Food of Morocco I knew just where to look for menu planning inspiration and fool-proof recipes. 

For the party I wanted my guests to feel transported to a lush Moroccan getaway- walls draped with fabric, colorful pillows and mood lighting. With a limited budget I went with some small, multi-colored fabrics hung in one corner of my petit apartment and saved on pillows by sewing covers for my throw pillows from scrap fabric in great prints I found at Jo-ann's. I ordered Wolfert's book in November and immediately started figuring out my menu. There would be at least 8 guests and as I figured correctly, probably more once the day neared. The feast I came up with perfectly fed all 15 people who showed up with hardly any leftovers. Everything I made, following Paula's recipes, came out just right and with complete ease. I did very little prep during the week and had a day of cooking on the day of the party with very limited stress. 

The Menu

Rather than start with non-Moroccan appetizers, I selected recipes from The Food of Morocco that would be easy to eat without fork and knife, but tasty bites to get my guests warmed up for the main dishes. We were having a truly wonderful evening the whole night through, so there are unfortunately not photos for each dish. Feel free to use your  culinary imagination.

Kefta Meatballs
Page 399
From the kefta brochette recipe I made lamb meatballs. Instead of skewering and grilling the meat I made them appetizer friendly by rolling the meat mixture into average sized meatballs that I popped in the oven to cook as guests started to arrive. The recipe involves simply processing the ingredients together in a food processor then preparing them for the grill. I will definitely use this recipe again for parties-- but I will be sure to multiply it to allow 3-4 per guest- the ones I made vanished in a matter of moments! 
Photo courtesy of Khalilah Ramdene 

Eggplant smothered with Charmoula
Page 429
This eggplant was hands down my favorite of the night. For one, I really love eggplant and have eaten a lot more of it over the course of the past year. This eggplant gets roasted in the oven then fried on the stovetop and covered with an herbaceous, flavorful charmoula (also my favorite word of the night). The dish should then be allowed to sit out for an hour, then enjoyed. The early preparation makes this a great party dish and the intense flavors make is so satisfying. Vegetarians and vegans should take note and everyone else should start thinking of possibilities for what other things would enjoy a charmoula smothering.  
Photo courtesy of Khalilah Ramdene
Blood Orange, Lettuce and Toasted Almond Salad
Page 63
This lovely salad was probably the most surprising dish of the night. Many of my friends remarked: 'It didn't look like much- just lettuce and oranges- but then when I tried it, it was soo good!' The surprise came from the gentle dressing of lemon, olive oil, honey, fresh ground Ceylon cinnamon and orange flower water. It is a very elegant salad-- one I will be sure to serve again and again in the future. The leaves of Romanie were laid out on a white platter, the peeled sliced oranges arranged on top and then a sprinkling of toasted coarsely chopped almonds that are dressed with that orange flower scented liquid. 

Chicken smothered with Tomato Jam
Page 289
This chicken dish is very easy to make and elevates chicken thighs to a deserved status of delectability. A friend at the party exclaimed "I don't normally like dark meat but this is soo good!" (he then ate 3 plates of everything!) The recipe involves marinating the chicken overnight then cooking it in its marinade with a little water and eventually adding the tomatoes. Tomato Magic (page 41) is called for in the recipe, so I made it, but the recipe in the book yields more than is necessary for the dish so I suggest just using tomato paste the first time. Were I serving this at a dinner party I would give everyone a piece of chicken. Since it was a tableless party, I took out the bones and served the chicken with a spoon, making it easy to serve and easy to eat standing up. The meat is so tender that this extra step takes a mere moment.

Beef Tagine with Roasted Cauliflower
Page 358
Between this and the chicken, my guests found the beef to be the favorite of the night. This tagine requires time to cook on the stove but it requires hardly any effort at all. The stovetop and tagine do all the work for you! I cooked both the chicken and the beef in a deep sauce pot with a glass lid, which worked well but a tagine would definitely be better. Since me and Wolfert's book are now bff I will likely scoop up a tagine of my own, like this one, within the next year. The beef breaks down into flavorful strands and the bones from the short rib cuts that are used fall right out. The reason I suggest a tagine especially is because the bottom bits of the dish burned too much in the pan to make the sauce that the recipe details. To compensate I added a little stock and saffron water (page 48) to the meat and cauliflower to keep it extra moist. The cauliflower roasts on its own and gets added at the end to give a more toothsome texture to pair with the beef.

There are full instructions on how to make couscous in The Food of Morocco, naturally. I was planning to steam my own and be as authentic as possible, even making a special broth, but I cheated. Time was running short on party day and I didn't want to spend too much time on the couscous when I could simply boil water, add the couscous and let it absorb the liquid then fluff with a fork, as I have always done making couscous. I used a fine Moroccan couscous which came out very nicely. I added some saffron water and chicken stock to flavor it and the delicate quality played nicely with the tender meats. Someday I will properly steam couscous!

Marrakech Tagine Bread
Page 101
I love this bread. For the party I made two batches of this bread, worried I wouldn't have enough of the main dishes to satisfy all my guests. The first batch was made a few days before the party and I kept it in the freezer and defrosted it on the counter with a paper towel in the freezer bag to absorb any moisture. This worked out very well. The second batch was made using fresh, fine semolina flour (the first was made with old coarse semolina) and came out fluffy and soft. Both batches were delicious, but I definitely recommend using fresh, fine semolina. I purchased mine at International Grocery (I LOVE this place!). To serve I ripped the bread into 2-3 bite chunks, perfect for soping up all the fragrant sauces of the evening. I plan on making this bread regularly from now on.
Photo courtesy of Angela Caputo
In all, I had a wonderful welcome celebration of 2012 and my 25th birthday (on New Year's Day) spent with excellent company and equally excellent cuisine. This was my first time really throwing a good party where I actually made all the food and it was a definite success. The entertaining bug is running through my blood now. This party will be the first of many more to come. 

Paula Wolfert's book was obviously indispensable to the triumph of the party. Cooking from one book was a really eye-opening experience, I felt as if I had Paula in the kitchen with me, guiding me in my Moroccan cookery. I look forward to spending more time with her via The Food of Morocco for years to come. So thank you Paula, for a great book, dependable recipes and being with me in spirit! 

I also need to thank my kitchen and party helpers- Ann, Angela and Khalilah! When the minutes to party time were ticking away at turbo speed they were busy doing dishes, washing lettuce, plating eggplant and most importantly keeping me calm. Thank you so much for all your help! May we share many more parties in the near and far futures!

Thank you also to Jocelin who provided a delicious chickpea salad to bring more food to the table and Marlie for stepping up to dessert last minute with cardamom cupcakes with an orange flower water Italian buttercream- both which were very welcome additions.  And a special thank you to Khalilah and Angela for their stunning photography skills and remembering to snap some shots of the finished products when I was busy paying attention to greeting guests and keeping food hot. 

Entertaining doesn't have to be difficult and with the right recipes, guests and friends it can be a breeze! 

Happy New Year! 
Ya Habibi!

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