A Moroccan passover
Kindness of strangers: An invitation to Passover meal leads to Moroccan feast
Moroccan feast: The meal would have been enough even without Moroccan meatballs, above, with the slowly unrolling flavor of liver. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
We were two Americans traveling through Morocco, no tour, no guide, my daughter Zoe and me in the back seat of a wild-man driver who aimed to pass every car in front of us for the nine hours from Marrakech to Fez. He swerved, he sped, he called it magnificent driving. "Driving safe is like art," he bragged. "You know? Like painting."
We slid down low in the rear seat and, thanks to Zoe's iPod and episodes of "This American Life," sweated out the ride.
Landing in a city with no discernible center of town, where the main roads were slivered like alleys and the alleys were nothing but halved sidewalks, we dodged stray cats and clusters of smokers with live rabbits for sale. We took refuge in doorways when scooters fumed by.
This made it all the more unusual, and so all the more uplifting, to receive a call the following morning at our hotel from a woman who invited us to her home. It was Passover, and we had no plans.
The caller was Danielle Mamane, Sephardic cookbook author of "The Scent of Orange Blossoms." Weeks before, I'd emailed her co-author, Kitty Morse, to see if Kitty still led culinary tours of her homeland. She did not. But that's how Danielle knew we were American Jews traveling to Fez, and that we were staying at Riad Le Calife. I'd never met either woman.
Although she was hosting 18 for a second night Seder that evening, Danielle said how rude it'd be to know there were Jews here in Fez, sent by Kitty Morse, and though it was such a busy day of the year she just had to invite us, even if it was for lunch. "And don't bring anything."
A Moroccan host prepares all the food. There is no potluck meal — my custom at home — so Danielle hired extra help for the day.
Her wildly printed blouse and large black glasses are still etched in my mind. As well, the tidy salon where she served glasses of mint tea with orange blossoms and platters of sauteed fava beans sprinkled with a pinch of cumin, a characteristic spice of North Africa.
This was a Sephardic home. The Jews from Spain, Portugal and the Middle East permit eating beans during the holiday but the Ashkenazic Jews do not. They are strict about legumes because they puff up and grow when water is added to them. The table was set for seven: Danielle's husband, Jacques, and their daughter Helene, who had come from Paris with her 3-year-old and 8-year-old. And us. The air was drenched with the aroma of freshly picked orange blossoms.
A dozen little tastes made me fall for this lunch: Egg souffle with spinach and herbs. Baba ganoush. Tomatoes with lemon, beets, cucumber, carrots and lettuce. A phrase from our Haggadah ran through my mind: It would have been enough. But an entree followed. Meatballs with the gradually unfolding distinct taste of liver. A side of peas and carrots. Matzo from Holland.
The cake with poppy seeds was smothered with candied oranges that were pressed and flattened, cooked with pounds of sugar until a dark amber syrup was released. Bittersweet, my weakness.
Our conversations skidded through how we teach Hebrew to talk about modernist cuisine. They wondered, did we like molecular gastronomy? Why shouldn't food look like it is? What is meatloaf? CSAs (community supported agriculture)? You guarantee the farmer his income? What's a cookie sheet? Oh, and what is Spandex?
And so it went for the next three hours. Strangers from two continents forging a new friendship, crystallizing what it is that makes traveling and the kindness of strangers so memorable.
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 1 hour
Servings: 8, about 40 meatballs
Note: This recipe, adapted from chef Ayelet Danino, comes from her Moroccan mother-in-law. You can grind the liver in a food processor (or use 2 pounds ground beef if you prefer to omit the liver).
5 to 7 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup olive oil
1 ounce chicken bouillon cubes
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika
1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree
2 cups hot water
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound ground calf's liver
3/4 cup matzo meal
1 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/2 cup water
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon each: paprika, ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs, beaten
1. For the sauce, cook the garlic in the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat, 1 minute. Add bouillon cubes, crushing them in the pot. Add chili powder and the paprikas. Add tomato puree, water and salt. Heat to a boil; lower heat to a simmer. Allow to simmer while preparing meatballs.
2. For the meatballs, combine beef, liver, matzo, parsley, onion, water, garlic, paprika, cumin, salt, turmeric and cinnamon in a bowl, mixing with your hands. Add eggs; blend well. Shape mixture into 1-inch balls.
3. Heat about 1/4 cup oil in a skillet; brown meatballs, in batches without crowding. Gently slip meatballs into simmering sauce. Cook, partially covered, over low heat until meatballs are cooked through and sauce is thick, 45 minutes.
Per serving: 360 calories, 18 g fat, 5 g saturated fat , 123 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 27 g protein, 1903 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.