Mourad: New Moroccan is essential reading for the international cook who has moved beyond recipes, but wants to participate in a modern conversation about food, and channel the techniques and thought processes of one of our most gifted and visionary chefs. Today that conversation includes other self-taught-with-influences chefs like Heston Blumenthal, or Chad Robertson of the Tartine bakery.
For me the first "conceptual" books in this vein were Tom Colicchio's "Think Like a Chef" and Paul Bertolli's "Cooking by Hand". Perhaps one recipe from Colicchio or Bertolli has made our regular rotation, but we haven't opened a can of tomatoes since Colicchio's book came out and we simplified and fixed his tomato conserve, to freeze each summer's crop. We grind our own flour for everthing, ever since Bertolli's book came out and we simplified and fixed his fresh pasta recipes. I expect a similarly profound influence from Lahlou's book. To be honest, I want to continue to make fairly traditional Moroccan dishes, but employing modern techniques and available ingredients. I don't need to convince restaurant diners to melt their credit cards over beautiful skyscraper plates, but the thinking that goes into these more formal dishes will be invaluable for executing the classics. As a rule I reject books about traditional cuisines that are too interpretative, including various other Moroccan tomes that I've seen, but Mourad: New Moroccan is a keeper.
The first, biographical introduction is a riveting, tears and laughter affair, an account of a life growing up around food in his traditional family home in the Marrakesh medina. One comes to understand why he shaved his head on his grandfather's passing. (And yes, the book offers several opportunities to confirm this, but no matter.) We're all vulnerable to the food-as-religion idea that adopting exotic, traditional food practices will unlock the secrets of the universe. I thought that I had fully recovered from this conceit, with an honest focus on "it's the ingredients!" when this introduction sucker-punched me. Now the 1970's Moroccan medina is another mythical place lost to time for me. Yet at the same time Mourad is completely about "it's the ingredients!"
The second, fundamentals introduction may come partly as review for anyone who's been following these other books. What a relief to have measurements also in grams, but have you joined the inner circle of home cooks with two digital scales, one for precise small measurements? And here is another chef, part of a modern conversation but not a molecular gastronomist, who considers xanthan gum to be a legitimate and natural ingredient. I didn't know that Israeli couscous was extruded. I've made fregola from scratch; apparently, he doesn't know that fregola is hand-rubbed. That was the first point I could score in a 55 page onslaught of information.
The strength here is spices. Even if one has 50 spices bought bulk from Vik's, the unnamed Berkeley source that started Mourad down this road, and knows to refresh one's stocks, to pan-roast before freshly grinding, first for Indian cooking and then for everything, there is much to learn here about spices. I love his account of a vendor's description of the ideal ras el hanout, followed by the realization that the whole spice mixture for sale was missing most of the exotics, all as setup for Mourad's recipe that includes various exotics. It has 23 ingredients including grains of paradise, and looks incredible. I have variant recipes available to me for most of the other blends, but in every case his blend looks superior, and worth the trouble.
I didn't know how rare it was to make harissa from scratch; he gives a good recipe, and homemade harissa makes a profound difference. This is a bit like Thai cooking, as no one in Thailand goes to the trouble we go to here, when an open market with prepared pastes is steps away. I was in stitches when Jacques Pepin makes an appearance in the section on warqa, to announce he's actually figured out how to make the stuff. I thought I had Jacques pegged. Who knew!
Chicken with preserved lemons and green olives is one of the top dishes of all time, and should be in anyone's rotation. The Momo cookbook version is one of the better ones, though the traditional step of optionally blanching the olives just robs the final dish of flavor. Here, the fundamental difference is the use of duck fat. A great idea, ducks aren't prevalent in Morocco but all traditional cuisines used to render their own fats as part of using and respecting the entire animal. Various lards (pork, duck, goose) should be home fridge staples, and one's Chinese cooking can benefit enormously from tossing out the wok, and using small amounts of flavorful lard in a high-end nonstick pan. Same here, skip Momo's olive oil and just use less fat, but use fat.
It wouldn't surprise me if the only recipes I adopt are the spice blends and the basics, as I return to more traditional Moroccan recipes with a reinvigorated sense of purpose. One can really cook a cuisine when one can improvise and pass off the results as traditional, and Mourad's thinking throughout his recipes could help anyone make this transition. I take his recipes in this spirit, improvisations appropriate to a restaurant, but perhaps not to my table. Nevertheless, just as one pulls only tiny pieces from "The French Laundry" to apply at home (big pot boiling, lobster confit in butter), Mourad: New Moroccan is an essential read.