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.
Healthy Comfort Food
People describe raising young kids as a particular season in life. I hadn't heard this until we had a baby, but it brought me a lot of comfort when I'd start to let my mind wander, late at night between feedings, to fears that we'd never travel internationally again or have a sit-down meal in our dining room. Would I ever eat a cardamom bun in Sweden? Soak in Iceland? I loved the heck out of our tiny Oliver, but man what had we done?! Friends would swoop in and reassure us that this was just a season, a blip in the big picture of it all. They promised we'd likely not even remember walking around the house in circles singing made-up songs while eating freezer burritos at odd hours of the day (or night). And it's true.
Oliver is turning two next month, and those all-encompassing baby days feel like a different time, a different Us. In many ways, dare I say it, Toddlerhood actually feels a bit harder. Lately Oliver has become extremely opinionated about what he will and will not wear -- and he enforces these opinions with fervor. Don't get near the kid with a button-down shirt. This week at least. He's obsessed with his rain boots and if it were up to him, he'd keep them on at all times, especially during meals. He insists on ketchup with everything (I created a damn monster), has learned the word "trash" and insists on throwing found items away on his own that really, truly are not trash. I came to pick him up from daycare the other day and he was randomly wearing a bike helmet -- his teacher mentioned he'd had it on most of the day and really, really didn't want to take it off. The kid has FEELINGS. I love that about him, and wouldn't want it any other way. But, man it's also exhausting.
I just finished washing out Oliver's lunchbox and laying it out to dry for the weekend. My favorite time of day is (finally) here: the quiet of the evening when I can actually talk to Sam about our day or sit and reflect on my own thoughts after the inevitable dance party or band practice that precedes the bedtime routine lately. Before becoming pregnant for the second time, I'd have had a glass of wine with the back door propped open right about now -- these days though, I have sparkling water or occasionally take a sip from one of Sam's hard ciders. Except now the back door's closed and we even turned on the heat for the first time yesterday. The racing to water the lawn and clean the grill have been replaced by cozier dinners at home and longer baths in the evening. You blink and it's the first day of fall.
I'd heard from many friends that buying a house wasn't for the faint of heart. But I always shrugged it off, figuring I probably kept better files or was more organized and, really, how hard could it be? Well, I've started (and stopped) writing this post a good fifteen times which may indicate something. BUT! First thing's first: we bought a house! I think! I'm pretty sure! We're still waiting for some tax transcripts to come through and barring any hiccough with that, we'll be moving out of our beloved craftsman in a few weeks and down the block to a great, brick Tudor house that we wanted the second we laid eyes on it. The only problem: it seemed everyone else in Seattle had also laid eyes on it, and wanted it equally as much. I'm not really sure why the homeowner chose us in the end. Our offer actually wasn't the highest, but apparently there were some issues with a few of them. We wrote a letter introducing ourselves and describing why we'd be the best candidates and why we were so drawn to the house; we have a really wonderful broker who pulled out all the stops, and after sifting through 10 offers and spending a number of hours deliberating, they ended up going with ours. We were at a friend's book event at the time when Sam showed me the text from our broker and I kind of just collapsed into his arms. We were both in ecstatic denial (wait, is this real?! Did we just buy a house?) and celebrated by getting chicken salad and potato salad from the neighborhood grocery store and eating it, dazed, on our living room floor. Potato salad never tasted so good.
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Porridge is not the sexiest of breakfasts, it's true. It doesn't have a stylish name like strata or shakshuka, and it doesn't have perfectly domed tops like your favorite fruity muffin. It doesn't crumble into delightful bits like a good scone nor does it fall into buttery shards like a well-made croissant. But when you wake up and it's 17 degrees outside (as it has been, give or take a few, for the last week), there's nothing that satisfies like a bowl of porridge or oatmeal. It's warm and hearty and can be made sweet or savory with any number of toppings. The problem? Over the years, it's gotten a bad rap as gluey or gummy or just downright boring or dutiful -- and it's because not everyone knows the secrets to making a great pot of warm morning cereal. So let's talk porridge (also: my cookbook comes out this month! So let's take a peek inside, shall we?)