Jews from Morocco are the largest ethnic group in Israel and it is not surprising that elements of their cuisine have become popular throughout the country. Typical of the melting pot which Israel had become, one of my first introductions to Moroccan food was at my Kurdish Aunt’s house. She had married a Moroccan man from Casablanca and according to tradition was taught the secrets of Moroccan cooking from her mother in law.
This same Aunt and Uncle, upon hearing I didn’t intend to have a henna ceremony before I was married decided to organize a small celebration at my grandmother’s house. Here’s the thing, since he was the one organizing he wanted to do it Moroccan style, but my grandmother was hosting and that side of the family thought it only respectful to do a Kurdish ceremony. As a compromise, half the evening I was adorned like a Kurdish princess, the other half like a Moroccan. I don’t remember exactly what we ate, except for the extraordinary variety of colorful cookies flavored heavily with almond and rosewater but I do know that dressing and being treated like Moroccan royalty suited me very much.
But that was wishful thinking and I was soon scrambling and bewildered in Israeli society where I had become a permanent resident. As the years passed I began to learn more about Moroccan culture through the aromas of their cooking and the festivals they held at nearby parks. Along with couscous, chicken with olives and preserved lemons (Djej Emshmel) is one of the earliest Moroccan dishes I remember eating.
Marcelle selling homemade warka leaves at the shuk
Moroccan Style Meatballs with Olives and Preserved Lemon
Here is an adaptation using meatballs instead of chicken based on a recipe by Israeli cookbook author, Benny Saida. The Moroccan picholine (picholine marocaine) is Morocco’s most prevalent olive cultivar and according to Paula Wolfert is the preferred olive in dishes such as these. These are not available in Israel and instead I use manzanillo, after I boil them a few times to reduce the bitterness.
600 grams ground beef or lamb
1 large onion, coarsely grated
2-3 tablespoons breadcrumbs or 2 slices of bread without the crust, soaked in water and squeezed dry
1 small bunch mix of coriander and parsley leaves (about 1 cup)
1 flat teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4-5 tomatoes, crushed (I usually peel them by making an x at the bottom and covering them with boiling water for a minute or two before peeling)
1 tablespoon tomato paste (if tomatoes are not completely ripe)
200 grams (about 1 can) of manzanillo olives, pitted
1/4 cup olive oil
6 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon spicy Moroccan paprika
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ginger
4 preserved lemons (in Israel limequats are usually used)
1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves for serving
In a bowl combine all the ingredients for the meatballs and knead well until the mixture is homogenous. Make about 16 meatballs and fry in a small amount of oil, until golden brown, flip and fry the other side. The meatballs will continue to cook in the sauce and do not have to be completely cooked at this point.
In a small pot, cover the olives with water, bring to a boil and discard the water. Repeat. Drain and reserve.
In a pot add the olive oil and fry the tomatoes and garlic for several minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the tomato paste, spices and mix well. Add the meatballs, olives and one cup of water. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Add the preserved lemons and continue cooking for an additional 20 minutes. Serve over couscous, sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves.
Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco, Paula Wolfert