I was very fortunate to have traveled to Paris twice for week-long jaunts, first in May 2005 and again in March 2006. My parents and I went over together in ’05 and and my older sister and my parents went in ’06, but both times we stayed in an absolutely charming converted farmhouse in Louveciennes, which is maybe five miles north of Versailles. A former boss of my father lived there with his family, and the Gruner home was quintessentially French and exquisite in both beauty and comfort. Even though our last trip was over three years ago – three lifetimes ago and far too long, in my forcible opinion – I vividly remember every sight I saw and every morsel that passed my lips. I love everything to do with Paris, especially its history, architecture, museums, chateaux, and lifestyle, but mostly I love the food. And cafés. And markets. And anything to do with any of those three…..
To wit, all of my meals during those trips from the Air France meals to every restaurant course were recorded in handwritten journals I kept, religiously scribbling my day’s recollections every night before I konked out, exhausted from walking from sight to sight and painting to painting (without regrets, of course). This was just in case I forgot any of the details – and certainly I haven’t forgotten any of the meals! Most of the best meals we had were cooked in the Gruner kitchen … succulent braised duck, buttery roasted beef in tomatoes and red wine, a tear-inducing charcuterie spread from the Sunday Versailles market, a life-changing beet salad, and an unforgettable creamy fruit and avocado salad with nutmeg, just to name a few … but my favorite meal was eaten – sorry, devoured – at Le Chamar, a tiny and perfect Moroccan restaurant in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I can’t find it on the internet now, but I think it was on Rue Saint-Benoit, which is parallel to Rue Bonaparte and runs north of Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The place was small and unassuming enough to be missed, but it was a hidden gem (too hidden, apparently) thankfully known to our hosts.
Our prix fixe meal began with a stunning pureéd vegetable soup, with just enough heat to let our mouths know we were dealing with authentic North African cuisine, but the real star of the meal was a chicken tagine. Richly flavored and so deep we knew it had been cooking for hours in a traditional cone-shaped clay tagine. It was flecked with slivers of green olives and preserved lemons, filled with moist chunks of chicken and tender haricots verts, and spiced with an array of savory and sweet jewels that tricked my tongue into thinking a symphony had mistakenly taken residence in my mouth – it was that good.
Henceforth began my love affair with Moroccan food, and it’s second to French food in my book. I adore all the trademark flavors of that cuisine: cumin, cinnamon, cardamom, red pepper, coriander, harissa, preserved lemon, ginger, lentils, chickpeas, lamb, and eggplant, just to name a few. One of my favorite quick weekday dinner is a sauté of diced onions, garlic and some other vegetable (yellow squash, zucchini, celery, carrot, whatever is on hand), then I brown some ground lamb or cubed chicken breast, give it a dusting of a few of those spices (coriander, cumin, and cinnamon, or maybe ginger, red pepper, cinnamon, and paprika), throw in some canned tomatoes and the sautéed onions/garlic/veggies, and let it simmer for a bit until it thickens and melds the flavors. Served over brown rice, couscous, or zucchini noodles, it’s a reliable winner. It manages to warm me in winter and while keeping me pepped up in summer. Miracle meal!
One ingredient I haven’t used until now – and I have no good reason why not, save laziness and a bit of trepidation – is preserved lemon. This secret ingredient adds as much kick as candied ginger can lend to other dishes, but the effect is more tart and savory than just using plain lemon zest or juice. I put up a jar of preserved lemons a few months ago, but it’s taken me until now to actually use them in a dish! Again, laziness? Anyway, it was worth the wait! Use fresh, cubed lamb meat here – leg did well for a short cooking time, but I would avoid a shoulder cut here – although a rough crumble of ground lamb would do in a pinch. I didn’t cook down my little stew for more than 25 minutes, but it can certainly benefit from bathing for an hour or more. In that case, feel free to try cubed shoulder meat – and you might as well add in some carrots or other chunked vegetable while you’re at it. Whatever you do, make sure you use preserved lemon but add it in the last 5-10 minutes of cooking so you maximize the flavor and keep it from getting bitter. And finally, the spices I chose can be altered: if you want more cumin and less cinnamon or coriander, or you want to add a dab of harissa or cayenne, go for it. Bon appetit!
Moroccan-style lamb and tomato quick stew with preserved lemons
- 2/3 lb leg of lamb, trimmed and cubed
- 1/2 medium to large white, Spanish, or yellow onion
- 2 stalks celery, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, diced
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- ~1/2 tsp paprika
- dash cumin (more to taste, per your mouth’s felicity with burning!)
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp coriander
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 pint jar canned tomatoes or 14-oz can diced tomatoes
- 1/4 preserved lemon (see recipe below), rind only, sliced into short matchsticks
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a medium nonstick pan over medium-high heat. While the pan heats up, toss the cubed lamb with the paprika, cumin and salt and pepper. Add it to the pan and let it brown for about 4 minutes. Using tongs, turn the lamb to brown the other side, cooking for 4 minutes longer. Turn the meat as needed to cook it through and generate an even brown. Remove the lamb from the pan and set aside.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and reduce the heat to barely medium. Add the onion and celery, salt the mixture, and cook, covered, until softened. Stir occasionally. Add in the garlic during the last two minutes to gently sauté. Dust on the ginger, ground pepper, coriander, cinnamon, and an extra dash of cumin if you like. Stir this until a sort of fragrant paste develops, then put the lamb back into the pan. Mix everything together well, then pour in the tomatoes. Once everything starts to simmer, reduce the heat a little; you want the surface to bubble a bit, but you don’t want so much heat to build up on the bottom of the pan that things start to stick or burn. Simmer the stew for 20-25 minutes, so the flavors can meld and the lamb can soften a bit. Stir in the preserved lemon no longer than 10 minutes before serving, and preferably 5 minutes. Feel free to let this cook longer – perhaps up to an hour. Serve with warm bread, brown rice, or lemon-scented couscous.
Preserved lemons (adapted from Suzanne Somers)
- 3-4 lemons, washed well
- kosher salt, at least 1/4 cup
- 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
- pint-sized glass canning jar
Reserving one lemon, quarter the lemons, but don’t cut all the way through; you want to be able to open up the lemon on end like it’s a flower without it splitting completely. Rub the inside with salt and fill the cavity a bit, then close up the lemon and fit it into the jar. Cram as many lemons in as you can; you may have to actually put in some of them halved lengthwise. Make sure there is about half an inch of room between the top of the lemons and the top of the jar. Juice the reserved lemon and pour the juice into the jar. Sprinkle in some extra salt, about two tablespoons, then pour in water just until the lemons are covered. Gently pour in the olive oil so that there is a top layer of oil above the water. Tightly screw the lid onto the jar and store at room temperature for at least two weeks so the rinds “cure.” When the lemons are ready, eat only the rind (peel and pith). The lemons will keep for about a year or so, but they should be eaten by then – out of sheer desire, not necessity.