Tearing off a hot piece of the freshly baked Berber bread, we dove in with gusto. Green, red, orange, and purple colors danced on the plates put down before us. Mounds of airy grated carrots, heaps of perfectly diced tomatoes and fire grilled bell peppers, glistening chunks of earthy purple beets–all displayed at once–were the starters for our first lunch in Morocco.
Wait. What just happened? Hadn’t we ordered “the Moroccan salad” appetizer? Yet, it felt like a parade of salads had just made its grand entrance into our meal. I love the way Paula Wolfert describes these sensory delights in my favorite of her many beautiful cookbooks, The Food of Morocco:
Moroccan salads are not like ours, mixtures of greens doused with dressings. They’re closer to Italian antipasti, served at the beginning of a meal to inspire the appetite and excite the palate: spiced or sweetened, cooked or raw, or pickled or stewed vegetables, as well as cubed and grilled meat or fish.
Our appetites were inspired…and excited. This was a side of Moroccan cooking I had never experienced stateside. We were all too familiar with tagine and couscous but had yet to relish in the glory of these heavenly treats at the beginning of every meal. You see, the area of Morocco we started our trip in, around Rabat, Meknes and Fez, is known for their agricultural delights–from grapes for wine to artichokes, beets, tomatoes, olives and a whole myriad of vegetables that make this part of Morocco the culinary capital.
And then I wondered. How do families really do this in their own homes? Was this a restaurant show or really a part of their food culture? As it turns out, most Moroccan families will have their three or four go-to salads, usually prepared a day in advance that can be pulled out of the refrigerator and served quickly at the start of a meal.
Both simple and seasonal, the brilliance of the Moroccan salad spread is the reliance on a few seasoning combos that you see repeated in numerous variations of the same salad–from the basics of olive, salt and pepper, to spices like cumin, paprika, and coriander to fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro. So when I got back home and tested out my own version of this glorious buffet of salad bites, I kept to the same principles. And some salads were pre-made things I picked up, like an amazing artichoke hummus at our local farmers market and some harissa brined olives from Bi-Rite Market.
Others, I made up as I went along, making a game of seeing what flavors would work together. Diving into Paula’s cookbook, I grabbed ideas from here and there. For example, she has a beautiful carrot and orange salad that’s as simple as mixing together grated or peeled carrots and tossing them with a tiny splash of orange blossom water (I use the Sadaf brand that’s about 2 bucks), a few tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, cinnamon, and a pinch of sugar. You just can’t imagine how refreshing grated cucumbers are with that same flavor combo!
But the one recipe I must share with you that’s pure summer Moroccan love is from my buddy, Chef Tarik Ait Yahya at Atelier De Cuisine. Recreating his “favorite” summer salad was so easy and delicious–even back on my home soil. The only thing that takes a little planning with this salad is roasting the bell peppers, which I chose to do in my oven since I don’t have a charcoal grill in my small city apartment. At 400F, flipping them after 20 minutes per side (40 total),it was an easy and foolproof way of roasting them enough to extract those rich flavors.
Being rebellious, I chose not to peel my tomatoes as is suggested by any good Moroccan cook–I just couldn’t bring myself to do it with the juicy dry farmed Early Girls I’d bought that morning at the farmers market. I was afraid I’d lose too much juice and good bits…and it worked out just fine!
Literally, 1, 2, 3–with the tossing of diced onion, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and the tomatoes and roasted green bell peppers–the MOST heavenly summer salad came together. Take your own family on a culinary adventure this summer, and start a new tradition of Moroccan Salads to start your meals that are sure to surprise and delight your appetites!
I hope you’ll also enjoy exploring my post on chicken tagine and my six favorite things I learned about Moroccan food and culture on our blog from July. And as I explore and continue to learn about Moroccan cooking, I can not begin to tell you how in love I am with Mourad Lahlou’s cookbook, Mourad: New Moroccan. From Marrakech to San Francisco, Mourad cooks from his childhood memories but in his own Northern California style–full of love, flavor, and the beauty of Moroccan flavors.
Special thanks to Elle Wildhagen, our photographer and videographer, for this beautiful shoot.
- Tomatoes, 4 medium (Early Girl variety works great)
- Green bell peppers, 2 medium
- Red onion, ¼
- Lemons, 1
- Olive oil, 2 TBS.
- Salt, ½ tsp.
- Black pepper, ¼ tsp.
- Take 5 minutes to get out all your ingredients, measuring and cooking equipment needed, and place them on a cookie sheet within easy reach.
- Wash all produce.
- Chef Tarik recommends roasting the green peppers over charcoal. If this is not an option, what we did was to roast them for 40 minutes at 400F in our oven, flipping them mid-way through cooking time.
- As they are roasting, juice your lemon, dice the red onion, and measure out your spices and olive oil into a bowl.
- For fresh summer tomatoes, I do not recommend peeling them, even as this is the traditional Moroccan way. In Morocco, we used a tomato that appeared to be a paste tomato variety (Roma) and with a small pairing knife, starting at the bottom of the tomato, we worked our way around the skin, peeling slowly. Later, we made roses with our tomato skin!
- Dice peeled tomato and add to the bowl.
- When the peppers have finished roasting, place them into a bowl and cover with saran wrap. Let them sit at least 5-10 minutes. This will help the skin to release. Peel the bell peppers, dice them, and add to the salad.
- Toss all of the ingredients together. Taste to make sure you have enough seasoning. Enjoy with fresh bread or your favorite Moroccan main dish.