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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.