Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Ramadan Chronicles, Part III: Recipes

There is a saying that each of the countries in the Maghreb (North Africa region) specializes in one of the five pillars of Islam. Tunisians, for example, are very good at zakat- or paying their alms to the poor. Libyans are very faithful about going on the hadj- because ‘ol Uncle Al-Gaddafi pays for everybody to be a good Muslim. Moroccans are the best at observing Ramadan, goes the adage, because their Ramadan recipes are so delicious. It’s not difficult to fast all day when you have a Moroccan iftar (break-fast) waiting for you at night.

While celebrating the Eid al-Fitr (literally, the "Holiday of Breakfast") to mark the end of Ramadan, my Moroccan friend asked me, “What do Americans have for iftar?” I immediately thought of Mickey’s Dairy Bar in Madison, which was the favorite (ahem…hangover) breakfast spot for students, known for its epic skillets and pancakes the circumference of a basketball. And, of course, a strawberry milkshake for breakfast. It is Wisconsin, after all.

But without further ado, the moment you’ve all been waiting for: the Ramadan Recipes!

The fast should be broken slowly, with dates and a glass of water, followed by hydrating juices and soup. The dates come from a belief that the Prophet Mohammed used this fruit to break his fast. In many countries, after the initial dates and soup, Muslims pause to say the evening prayers. Then iftar is served- a nightly feast, with meat dishes accompanied by numerous salads, side dishes, and bread. However, in Morocco, iftar means a plentiful meal before prayers, then a feast in the middle of the night, followed by suhuur, the final meal just before sunrise. Then, a food coma for the better part of the next day.

Starting with a date, saying “Bismillah” (In the name of God), you break your fast with a classic Moroccan iftar meal that could be composed of the following:

-mint tea or coffee or milk

-various fruity juices (banana, strawberry, peach, almond, or my favorite, avocado…blended with fresh goat yogurt, almond milk, a little sugar and vanilla)

-hard-boiled eggs

-Chebakia- a fried sesame cookie coated in honey

-Harira- tomato and lentil soup, famous during Ramadan

-Sellou/Sfouf- a grainy sweet powder made from sesame, nuts, and toasted flour eaten with a spoon. Packed with protein, also served to women who have just given birth.

-Msemen- square pancakes folded many times to have a croiss

ant consistency. Served dipped in melted butter and honey (heart attack on a plate, anyone?)

-Bghrir- yeast pancakes cooked on one side only, so the other side resembles a honeycomb. Drizzled with butter/honey.

-And, of course, the cigarette that you’ve been pining for all day.

Ramadan ends with a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr, which coincided this year with the 9th Anniversary of the September 11th Terrorist Attacks. I had plenty of interesting and spirited discussions with Moroccan friends with whom I celebrated the Eid in Fes. As per my last post, I could say much about the conversations, but I’ll just say this- it seems that most people across the world are just trying to find a little peace and healing, and it’s the fringe extremists who are ruining this for everyone.

I digress. After a month of fasting all day, Muslims are able to cut loose and return (albeit slowly) to a normal daily routine. The Eid is much like Christmas- a time of good cheer, dressing up, exchanging small gifts, visiting friends and family, calling people you haven’t contacted in a while. Spirits are up. “I'm not a Muslim, but I love the concept of Ramadan," says (dreamy) Chef Marcus Samuelsson. "It's about resetting your clock—bringing some spirituality to eating." I love that idea, even if there is some debate as to how much intentionality goes into the excess of Ramadan.**

So, check out the recipes below. Brew some strong mint tea. Invite your friends/family over and have a spirited discussion about whether 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy or a Wag-The-Dog-esque media stunt. Er, better yet, avoid politics altogether and just stuff yourself silly.

Eid al-Fitr Mubarak Saiid!!

This website is an awesome resource for recipies such as the following

I also highly recommend May S. Bsisu’s book The Arab Table.

**Marcus Samuelsson's quote from: www.epicurious.com/articlesguides/holidays/ramadan/africanrecipes#ixzz0wbv11U4S

I know, geez, ready for the recipes already?


  • 1 tablespoon Green Tea leaves – try the Chinese Gunpowder variety
  • 1 large handful fresh spearmint leaves, washed
  • 1/2 liter (about 2 cups) boiling water
  • 1/4 cup sugar (or less. Moroccans like their tea veeeery sweet)


Boil at least a liter of water. Rinse a small tea pot with about 1/4 cup of the hot water.

Add the tea leaves and another 1/4 cup boiling water. Swirl the pot to wash and rinse the leaves, and pour out the water.

Add the mint leaves and the sugar, and fill the pot with 1/2 liter (about 2 cups) boiling water. Leave the tea to steep for five minutes or longer, or set the tea pot over medium-low heat and bring the tea to a simmer. Remove from the heat, and allow to steep several minutes more.

Gently stir the tea, pour into small tea glasses and serve.


These cookies are way too complicated to explain here. But this website has an excellent recipe and video tutorial. Sorry, my internet is too slow to post it here, though.


  • ½ lb. uncooked meat (lamb, beef or chicken), chopped into 1/2” pieces
  • several soup bones (optional)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 bunch cilantro (coriander), finely chopped to yield about 1/4 cup
  • 1 bunch parsley, finely chopped to yield about 1/4 cup
  • 1 or 2 celery stalks with leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 1 handful of dry chick peas, soaked and then peeled
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric or ¼ teaspoon yellow colorant
  • 6 large tomatoes (about 2 lb. or 1 kg), peeled, seeded and pureed
  • 2 to 3 tbsp dry lentils, picked over and washed
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste, mixed evenly into 1 or 2 cups of water
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons uncooked rice
  • 1 cup flour (use Gluten-free flour or corn starch. That’s my PSA.)

Step 1 - Ahead of Time

Make sure you have all the ingredients. Do the following before you begin cooking the soup.

  1. Soak and skin the chickpeas. (You might want to soak them the night before you cook.)
  2. Pick through the lentils and wash them.
  3. Peel, seed and puree the tomatoes in a blender or food processor. Or, stew the tomatoes and pass them through a food mill to remove the seeds and skin.
  4. Pick the parsley and cilantro leaves from their stems. Small pieces of stem are OK, but discard long, thick pieces with no leaves. Wash the herbs, drain well, and finely chop them by hand or with a food processor.

Assemble the remaining ingredients and follow the steps below.

Step 2 - Brown the Meat

Put the meat, soup bones and oil into a 6-qt. or larger stock pot. Over medium heat, cook the meat for a few minutes, stirring to brown all sides.

Step 3 - Make the Stock

Add the cilantro, parsley, celery, onion, chick peas, tomatoes, and spices. Stir in 3 cups of water.

Cover tightly, and heat over high heat until boiling. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 1 hour. Remove from the heat.

Step 4 – Make the Soup

Add the lentils, tomato paste mixture, and 2 quarts (or about 2 liters) of water to the stock.

Cover the pot and heat the soup over high heat until boiling. Reduce the heat to medium and continue cooking.

If adding rice: Cook the soup for 1 hour. Add the rice. Cover, and cook with pressure for an additional 30 minutes.

Step 5 – Thicken the Soup

While the soup is cooking, mix together the 1 cup of flour with 2 cups of water. Set the mixture aside, and stir or whisk it occasionally. The flour will eventually blend with the water. If the mixture is not smooth when you're ready to use it, pass it through a sieve to remove balls.

Once the rice has cooked, taste the soup for seasoning. Add salt or pepper if desired.

Bring the soup to a full simmer. Slowly — and in a thin stream — pour in the flour mixture. Stir constantly and keep the soup simmering so the flour doesn’t stick to the bottom.

You will notice the soup beginning to thicken when you've used approximately half the flour mixture. How thick to make harira is your own preference.

Simmer the thickened soup, stirring occasionally, for five to ten minutes to cook off the taste of the flour. Remove the soup from the heat.

Serves 6 to 8.


  • As harira cools in the pot, it’s common for a skin to form. Simply stir to blend the skin back into the soup.
  • A small wedge of lemon may be served as a garnish; its juice may be squeezed into the bowl of harira.
  • When reheating harira, don’t bring it to a boil. Heat over medium heat and stir frequently to avoid lentils sticking to the bottom.
  • Thickening with Egg- Gluten-Free!: In place of flour and water, two or three beaten eggs may be used to thicken harira. (If desired, beat the eggs with 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice.) Add the eggs in a thin stream to the simmering soup, stirring constantly. You will see some cooked strands of eggs in the soup as it thickens.


  • 1 kg (2 lb. 3 oz.) unhulled golden sesame seeds
  • 1 kg (2 lb. 3 oz.) almonds and/or peanuts
  • 1 kg (2 lb. 3 oz.) flour (Use gluten-free! Use gluten-free! Like brown rice flour or millet)
  • 1/4 kg (about 2 1/4 cups) powdered sugar
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons ground anise
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon Xantham gum (or Arabic gum or mastic)
  • generous 1/2 kg (1 lb.) butter, approx.
  • vegetable oil (for frying the almonds)


Clean and toast the sesame. Several days before you plan to make the sellou, wash the sesame seeds to remove dirt. Drain the sesame, spread them out on a large baking pan, and leave to dry for a day or two. When dry, pick through the sesames to remove any sticks, stones or other debris that didn't wash away. In batches, spread the sesame in a single layer on a large baking sheet, and toast the sesame in a 400° F (200° C) oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until crunchy and nutty in flavor. (Or, toast the sesame in batches in a skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.) When the sesame is cool, store in a covered container until needed.

Brown the flour. The flour needs to be cooked before it can be used in the recipe. Place the flour in a very large baking pan and put it in a 400° F (200° C) degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until light-to-medium golden brown. Stir every five minutes to prevent burning and to help the flour color evenly. When the flour is cool, sift it several times to remove any balls. Cover and set store until needed.

Skin and fry the almonds. Drop the almonds in boiling water and blanch for a minute or two. Drain the water, and skin the almonds while still warm. (Pinching the almonds between your thumb and forefinger will help pop the almonds out of their skins.) Spread the almonds in a single layer on a towel, and leave them to dry thoroughly.

Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, and fry the almonds in batches, stirring constantly, until light to medium golden brown. The almonds will continue to darken to a richer golden brown once they're removed from the oil. (Be careful not to let the oil get so hot that the almonds brown too quickly and take on a burnt flavor; the frying should take about five to 10 minutes for the almonds to color properly so that they are cooked inside as well as out.) Drain and cool the fried almonds.

Clarify the butter. The day before you plan to mix the sellou, clarify the butter. Melt the butter over low heat in a large pot until the milk solids separate to the bottom of the pot and a foam forms on top. Carefully skim off and discard all the foam. Place the pot in the refrigerator and leave overnight. In the morning, the butter will be hard and the milk solids can be poured off. Save the clarified butter in the fridge until ready to use.

Mix the sellou. Melt the clarified butter and set aside. In a very large mixing bowl, sift the browned flour, powdered sugar, spices and salt through a fine sieve. Discard any tiny balls of browned flour that remain in the sieve. Use your hands to toss and thoroughly blend the mixture.

Finely grind the toasted sesame seeds in a food processor until almost paste-like. ( reserve a bowlful of unground sesame and nuts to mix into the sellou for crunch and texture.) Add the ground sesame to the flour mixture. Next grind the fried almonds (I grind half the almonds to a smooth paste, and the other half just until the oils are released.) Add the almonds to the mixture as well.

Next, use your hands to toss and thoroughly blend everything together. Gradually work in enough of the melted, clarified butter to form a glistening mixture that is moist enough to pack into a ball or mound. Knead the sellou for a few minutes to ensure everything is mixed thoroughly before transferring to a plastic container. (The sellou will continue to absorb the butter and dry a little bit as it is stored.) Leave the sellou to cool, and then cover.

Store and serve. Sellou keeps well for two months or longer in an airtight plastic container; it can also be frozen for up to six months. Allow newly prepared sellou to sit for a day or two before freezing. To serve, shape a mound of sellou on a small plate. Decorate with sifted powdered sugar and/or fried almonds. Serve a wee bit on a saucer next to coffee or sea.


  • 1 1/2 cups fine semolina (ground corn meal)
  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour (Do I have to say it again? Use any GF flour blend that you’d use for baking or pancakes. They turn out the same, but be sure to add ¼ tsp Xantham Gum too)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 3 cups plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon yeast


Make the Batter

Mix the flour, semolina, salt, sugar and baking powder (and Xantham, if GF) in a mixing bowl. In a blender, measure lukewarm water to just over the 3-cup line.

Add the yeast to the blender and process on low speed to blend. Gradually add the dry ingredients.

Increase the processing speed and blend for a full minute, or until very smooth and creamy. The batter should be rather thin, like crepe batter.

Pour the batter into a bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave to rest for 30 minutes to one hour, or until the top of the batter is light and a bit foamy.

Cook the Beghrir

Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat. Stir the batter, and use a ladle to pour batter into the hot skillet. Pour carefully and slowly into the center and the batter will spread evenly into a circle. (Do not swirl the pan as you would for a crepe; the batter should spread itself.) Make the beghrir as large as you like.

**I have seen Moroccan ladies cook this on just a broken piece of terra cotta set over hot coals. Amazing.

Bubbles should appear on the surface of the beghrir as it cooks. Don't flip the beghrir!! It only gets cooked on one side.

Cook for about two to three minutes, or until the beghrir doesn't appear wet anywhere on the surface. It should feel spongy, but not sticky or gummy, when you touch it lightly with your finger.

Transfer the beghrir to cool in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel. Once they are cool, they can be stacked without sticking.

Repeat with the remaining batter.


· If the bubbles don't form properly, the batter was probably too thick. Try thinning it by stirring in an additional tablespoon or two of water. Leave the batter to rest for 10 minutes before using.

· Beghrir are best served with a mind-blowing syrup made from butter and honey, (which begs the question: “Heavens! Why don’t we eat this on everything?”). Heat equal portions of butter and honey until bubbly and hot, and then dip the beghrir carefully and quickly in the syrup. Roll them up or layer them on a serving plate.

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