I’m a dreamer. I play make believe. I have an over active imagination and I go on mental field trips. Yes, I’m an artist, so my daydreams are pretty colorful, but I think we all have this part of us that needs expressing, no matter the color. When we engage our imagination, we expand our reality. We increase our bandwidth to experience life around us. We sweeten the pot of our normal day, day in and day out.
One of my favorite places to conjure up these adventures is in my kitchen. Every dish is its own culinary field trip. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate to travel to a number of places on the globe, so I have a deep point of reference when I am cooking. But the world of food is BIG. Even if we cover all the ground this big blue marble has to offer we couldn’t possibly cover all the options of what to eat. In the kitchen, it doesn’t matter if you have a full passport, it matters whether you have a full spice rack. Getting to know food traditions of other countries connects us to the wide, wide world.
For me, travel (not unlike playing make believe) is about possibility: the possibility of encountering something completely new, something beyond the territory I move through day to day. As travelers we become more flexible. We are tuned in to our surroundings in a more mindful way. We tune in to stay safe, but also to take in the sights, smells, and sounds. Another thing travel and daydreaming have in common is freedom. I have the freedom to be more like myself in both of these situations because I’m in a place where no one knows me so their judgments carry less weight.
In 2008 I had the opportunity to go to Marrakech in Morocco with one of my all time favorite travel partners and friends, Randle. When I think of our time in North Africa, I remember this as one of the most exotic and sensual places I’ve ever been. There’s romance in the spirituality there, laying down carpets multiple times of the day wherever you are to bow down and pray. The haunting call to prayer that blares from mosque to mosque. The riads, or hotels, are all built around an open-air courtyard with a pool in the middle. The architecture and tile work- it's obvious that actual hands of artists did that work, not machines. The hammams, or baths, where every square inch of you is scrubbed by a complete stranger! There was a sense of mystery around every corner. And within that mystery, there was possibility. I loved it.
Whenever I travel I seek out the bazaars, the souks, farmers’ markets, even plain old grocery stores. As a cook, it all begins with food shopping and the hunt for ingredients before I get in my kitchen. So to see where others gather their food is a special treat for me. The winding pink clay pathways of shops and stalls in Marrakech were mesmerizing, but the highlight of this fascinating city is the night market. If you look up the word chaos you might see a picture of Jemaa el Fna. It was like a circus!
Jemaa el Fna is delightfully intense and the market happens at night, so the excitement it provides is heightened. The energy made me feel alive and like if I blinked I might miss something. Snake charmers, dancing monkeys, motorbikes zipping around, every imaginable kind of meat being grilled, ‘ladies of the night’ who just happened to be men behind layers of veils and draped clothing. Raise your hand if you’ve been in Times Square in New York City, - it might be similar to that. Crowded, something to see in every direction, noise, tourists, entertainment. Now imagine you’re sitting in the middle of that chaos eating and the people at the table next to you are sharing the brains of a sheep eating them right out of the skull. To say we were mortified is an understatement. Randle and I have done and seen a lot but that was something we couldn’t unsee.
Whenever I go someplace new I seek out the special ingredient or spice of that region. Preparing for my trip to Morocco, I knew about their signature spice ras el hanout. It means ‘head of the shop.’ Randle was a trouper going to every spice stall with me to find the perfect blend. We found it, I brought it home and it’s one of my favorite spices in my cabinet. Through the years I’ve learned that living in New York City I don’t need to go anyplace else to find exotic ingredients. And neither do you! With the internet we can transport ourselves anywhere. We can go to Morocco or India via Instagram or share a friend’s trip to Iceland via Facebook. We can order any global ingredient imaginable and then go on youTube to learn how to use it. (Hint hint: here’s a video of me cooking the Moroccan tagine recipe from this post!)
My friends at Stoneridge Orchards asked for another batch of recipes and videos to promote their dried fruit this year. I immediately thought of tagines that I ate in Morocco. There was always a dried fruit element, golden raisins or dried apricots stewed in with the meat and vegetables. I got the idea to swap in some of Stoneridge Orchard’s Montmorency dried cherries and they added the perfect chewy, tart, sweetness this exotic stew needed.
Close your eyes, pretend you're at a waterfall in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. (Or on a beach, or playing with your kids, or in a cathedral, or with a secret lover, or eating ice cream - you can pretend to be anywhere!) Be a daydreamer, play make-believe and use your imagination. I guarantee it will enrich your daily life. Go on a culinary field trip right from your own kitchen and computer. My one stop shop for any foreign ingredient is Kalustyan’s. (If you're traveling to New York City and care about food, I would recommend going here over going to the Empire State Building. I love this place that much. But you can go online right now!)
My friend Khadija of KENZA comes from Casablanca, Morocco and has a line of hair, body, and face products using all ingredients from her country. She has generously provided a discount code for my All Good Things readers. Talk about transportive! I've used these products and they would make special Mother's Day gifts! The code is valid until May 18th, 2016 and is good for 15% off. Type in AGTNYC15 at checkout. Treat yourself or someone you love to these luxurious items.
Cherry Moroccan Tagine
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 3 inch pieces
- 1 1/2 teasoons ras el hanout***
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- 1 medium onion peeled and sliced
- 2 medium Idaho potatoes, chopped into 1 inch pieces
- 8 small carrots, peeled, trimmed and chopped into 2 inch pieces
- 1/2 cup Stoneridge Orchards Mont Morency dried cherries
- 3/4 cup chicken stock
- 1 can drained and rinsed chickpeas
- 1/2 cup pitted green olives
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- 2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
I have a tagine so I start this in a skillet on the stove top and then transfer to my clay pot for the oven. You can also just use an oven proof casserole dish or dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat, and add chicken. Add the dry spices, stirring. Cook for 5 minutes until the chicken starts to brown and the spices have cooked out their raw ‘dusty’ flavor. Add the garlic and onions stirring until coated with oil and spices.
Add vegetables and cherries. If you have a tagine, gently transfer the mixture to the pot and pour the stock on top, cover with the lid and place on a sheet pan in the oven. If using the casserole dish or Dutch oven, add the stock, cover, and place in the oven. Let it ‘stew’ for 40 minutes. Once out of the oven, stir in the chickpeas. Top with herbs and almonds. Serve over couscous.
***If you can’t find ras el hanout, make your own!
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 1 tablespoon ground ginger
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoom cardamom
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flake