I don’t think I am saying anything original here, but I’ll state it nonetheless: much of the magic of Moroccan cuisine comes from the spice mixtures, marinades, flavoured oils and other homemade condiments that make up some of the staples in a North African larder. It goes without saying that this is evident throughout Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco, the book under review by The Cookbook Guru for March and April.
The most famous (or as Wolfert indicates – infamous) mixtures include Ras el Hanout, meaning “top (or head) of the shop”, a name given to a number of elaborate mixtures from a selection of the spice seller’s best (i.e. “top-shelf”) spices, or the popular hot chilli and garlic paste known as Harissa. These are now common ingredients in many kitchens, even though they may be store-bought and pre-made in little jars and tins. Cooking from Wolfert’s book, however, brought home to me the real taste difference in creating your own mixtures. There is something rather thereputic about grinding and pounding, releasing the aromas of the spices and creating a complex of flavours. And, of course, you are assured it is fresh! As Paula Wolfert points out, as soon as you grind the spices, they begin to die. They slowly loose their flavour, becoming ghosts of their former vibrant selves.
But, much as I love the taste and aromas of roasted cumin seeds, garlic and other spices in chermoula marinades and the freshly chooped herbs in the za’atar mixtures, it was the simple condiments made with single spices that made a big impression on me as I cooked my way through The Food of Morocco. First, there was the saffron water which I described in my post, A Most Unusual Tagine, and then it was the bright paprika oil that I discovered imbedded within the recipe for Tagra of Fresh Sardines. Both of these condiments are not only incredibly versitile, but beautiful in clear jewelled colours like topaz or rose gold.
Hot Paprika Oil
Paula Wolfert explains that this is a sepcialty of northern Morocco, where it is produced by boiling the spice and oil with a little water. Although most of the water evaporates in the process, there is always a little left which settles at the bottom. I’ve adapted the recipe to reduce the amount of water. The water is, however, essential in preventing the paprika from burning in the oil, so do not be tempted to omit it.
- 2 Tablespoons sweet paprika
- 1/4 teaspon cayenne pepper
- 60ml water
- 160ml extra virgin olive oil
Place the olive oil in a pot and heat until just shimmering, at that point just before boiling. Add the spices and water and stir. Keep it at this simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and let it cool in the pot.
Once cool, filter the oil through a sheet of kitchen paper or through a coffee filter, leaving the sediment in the bottom of the pot. Be patient as it drips very slowly. Discard the sediment. Or, find ways of cooking with the paprika sludge – such as in a Paprikás, a Hungarian stew, the sauce made with a paprika based roux. (By the way, it worked beautifully with my leftover paprika sediment!)
Bottle the filtered oil. It is best to make in small quantities and used before more is made.
- Rubbed into the skin of roast chicken
- Coating on baked chicken or fish – especially paired with citrus and green olives
- Drizzled in soups
- Added to hummous or other dips
- On roast potatoes or other root vegetables
- Brushed on grilled meats and fish
- On pasta
- In salad dressings
- Anywhere olive oil is used – be inventive!