Morocco is a country full of color, noise, bustle. It’s a vibrant, bold, beautiful country and just so happens to be the one place I’ve had a hard time explaining to people when they ask how our time there was. In many ways, it’s different from most places I’ve traveled because there aren’t a lot of definitive restaurants or cafes you ‘must try’ nor did we have a long list of tourist must-sees. Sure, in the cities we visited there are beautiful mosques and madrasas and gardens and museums — and we saw many of them. But really, we spent most of our time in Morocco wandering, people watching, letting ourselves get lost within the markets and souks and streets. The answer to the question, ‘what should we do today?’ was usually met with the sentiment that we wanted to get out and just see it all. And despite all the ways that the days were frenetic and impossible to plan or predict, there were a few constants: the prayer call that would sound over loudspeakers on top of the minarets throughout the city a number of times a day, and a spicy bean and noodle soup that was often served with lunch or dinner.
The simple, rustic and hearty soup that Moroccans eat with deep, generous wooden spoons was something I came to look for on restaurant menus: this was my Moroccan comfort food, often served with herbed olives and the ever-present white, crusty discs of bread. When we first arrived in Marrakech, I recall staying away from the bread thinking it was really just white flour and wouldn’t taste like much, but after a few days I came to love dipping it in soups and stews and using it to sop up all that briny, herbed olive juice.
Now, harira isn’t always good. I had some pretty marginal bowls of soup while eating out in Morocco, but I also had some perfectly seasoned, comforting bowls of soup with assertive warm spices, soft lentils and chickpeas, ripe tomatoes, a good hit of lemon and a sprinkling of herbs. Harira is traditionally the dish that breaks the fast during Ramadan, so it’s much beloved by Moroccans too, and often served with a range of simple accompaniments. Sometimes when we ordered the soup, it had little bits of chicken in it, and I know it’s often made with lamb or even an egg. It was often the cheapest thing on the menu (less than $1) and the servings were quite generous so it made for an easy, inexpensive lunch (and allowed us to save room for those honey-drenched pistachio sweets they sell in the streets: YES).
The best bowl of harira was at one of the restaurants on the Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech. This is the square you’ve possibly seen photos of — busy with the snake charmers and women selling argan oil during the day and transformed at night into a bustling, loud street food extravaganza. I’d read that you can’t help but to find yourself at the square at least once a day, either as you pass through on your way elsewhere or just to people watch, mail a letter, or have an afternoon pot of tea. We found this to be true, and used the square as a landmark when we were lost; at night, especially, you could see the smoke rising from the square thanks to all of the grilled meat vendors.
On our last night in Marrakech, Sam and I managed to snag a seat on the terrace level of one of the restaurants on the square and could watch all of the bright activity from above, the evening punctuated with the call to prayer and the small crowds of men and women rushing towards the mosque. While I admittedly knew little about the history behind the call to prayer before traveling to Morocco, I was fascinated with the ritual and repetition of it immediately. I didn’t understand the words being broadcast throughout the city, but I loved that it was a reminder to pause during the day, and that the reminder was so repetitively woven into the tapestry of daily life. While I don’t frequent church here in Seattle, my time in Morocco did leave me wishing we had something similar — a built-in time-out to be thankful and hopeful and present. A true constant, regardless of what the day may bring.
I took a time out all day yesterday to work on this soup and enjoy the rainy weather and crisp, falling temperatures. And in truth, I’m a bit hesitant to call it Harira because it’s really not (although it’s pretty similar) as I’ve taken some liberties to satisfy my own curiosities and tastes. I started researching it when we came home and landed on a recipe from The Splendid Table which looked promising. I then started to flip through Louisa Shafia’s beautiful book, The Persian Kitchen, and came across a recipe for a Bean, Herb and Noodle Soup which shared many similarities with the Moroccan soup I’d come to love. The recipe I’m sharing with you today was inspired by both sources and shares many attributes, but is ultimately quite different thanks to my obsessive tweaking.
I remembered the soup in Morocco being slightly pureed yet still chunky, so I ended up blending part to get the consistency that I like. I also didn’t want to rely too heavily on cinnamon, wanted lots of brightness from the lemon and loved the idea of a creamy hit of yogurt on top. Do know that this recipe makes a lot of soup. We had this for dinner a few nights in a row (perfect for this rainy spell we’ve fallen under here in Seattle) and I just froze a bunch to pull out on a evening sometime in the near future when the thought of making dinner feels like a challenge. This has been happening more and more around here lately, so I’m thankful to have this boldly spiced souvenir, now always at the ready.
Note: For my next post, I’ll share some more specifics about where we stayed, ate and visited while in Morocco. While there, I shared quite a few photos on Instagram, so you can find a peek into our trip there.
This soup is really best the second day, so if you have the forethought to make it before you plan to serve it, you’ll be all the happier for it. Feel free to use any dried beans you’d like here: fava or cannellini beans would be really nice. Next time, I think I’ll mix in some hearty winter greens or a generous handful of chopped Italian parsley for color. If you’d prefer to use canned chickpeas instead of dried, choose one 15-ounce can and go ahead and add the canned chickpeas along with the tomatoes and lentils and cook the whole soup together for 45 minutes-1 hour. The initial simmering step is just to give the dried chickpeas a chance to soften as they can take awhile to cook.
Cover the dried chickpeas with cold water and soak overnight at room temperature. Rinse well with cold water; Drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and cook for about 8-10 minutes, or until transluscent. Add the carrot and cook until softened, about 5-6 minutes. Add dried/soaked chickpeas, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and paprika. Add the broth and bring to a low boil. Decrease the heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered for 45 minutes (if using canned chickpeas, skip this initial cooking step; it’s just to soften the dried chickpeas. Proceed immediately to step below instead).
Add the lentils and tomatoes and 3/4 cup water. Bring the soup to a low boil and decrease again, partially covering and simmering for an additional 45 minutes- 1 hour, or until the lentils and chickpeas are both tender. Ladle out 4-5 cups soup into a blender or food processor and blend quickly until smooth. Return to soup pot.
Add the noodles and 1 cup water, and stir well so the noodles don’t clump together. When the noodles have softened into the soup, squeeze in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper, as needed. Feel free to add a bit more broth or water if you feel the soup needs thinning.
To serve: Top with a spoonful of yogurt and a sprinkling of parsley.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.