I’m blessed that I get to travel to some pretty fantastic locations work. But as anyone who travels a lot for work knows, you often spend more time in a hotel, meeting rooms, and conference space than you do actually exploring the city. Overseas trips often mean 18-hour workdays with little to no time to experience the city. But if you’re really lucky – and so far I have been – you’ll find a wonderful friend with a fast car, who knows the city, and doesn’t mind the company of a zombie.
And that is how I found myself in an old Mercedes convertible, top down, with the Moroccan afternoon sun casting a deep golden glow on the dusty Rabat roads. Adib is the young man at the wheel who has graciously volunteered to take me into the medina to buy spices. I suppose I should have been slightly nervous by the throngs of people and the fact that I don’t see any Westerners in this particular part of the medina. But truth be told, seconds before climbing into the car I had polished off a glass of vodka on the rocks – the celebratory drink signaling the end of yet another successful conference. Thus, blessed with an ambiguous ethnicity and a solid vodka buzz, I’m feeling pretty comfortable in the crowded market.
Adib skillfully navigates the medina. He occasionally pauses to shake the hand of a friend or exchange a few friendly words with a vendor, but he’s always quick to glance around to make sure the crowds haven’t swallowed me up. In no time we find our way to his favorite vendor whose piles of spices mimic a range of yellow, green, and red mountains. Turmeric, cumin, paprika – all excellent but I’m only interested in what I can’t identify. If I can recognize the spice by its smell, I pass. Embracing the challenge, the two men in the little stall begin excitedly pulling down containers of complex spice mixtures. There are hints of the familiar, but most of it is new and enchanting. They begin weighing and filling little bags with my selections. They write poisson in big black letters on one bag, kefta on another. The others they leave blank – ready for a cook’s imagination.
On the way back to the car, Adib introduces me to a local favorite – freshly pressed sugar cane with lime. A simple concoction made by stabbing a couple chunks of lime with the sharpened end of a stick of sugar cane, then feeding everything into a giant juicer. Within a few seconds we’re holding little plastic cups filled with sweet juice, balanced by the acid from the lime.
Once home I share my spice loot with the most amazing chef I know – a peace offering for having been so absent from the restaurant world since returning to foreign policy. I don’t know what marvelous creations Chef has devised but I’m hoping they will be the subject of a future post. As for me, one quick and delicious use is a simple dish of glazed carrots with roasted nuts. It’s not a traditional Moroccan dish. But, the smell that is released when these exotic spices come together in a simple butter sauce, serves to remind me that even if you’ve been working 18-hour days for a week straight, sometimes you just gotta down a glass of icy vodka, find a friend, and go for a ride. Because let’s be honest… sleep is so overrated!
5 medium carrots
1 cup chicken stock
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon of your favorite spice blend (would be beautiful with a Vadouvan curry mix)
1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts or halved pistachios
Salt to taste
- Peel the carrots. Slice into uniform pieces about one inch in length. My preferred method is to slice the carrots on a diagonal, rotating a few degrees after every slice until I reach the top of the carrot.
- Place carrots, sugar, a pinch of salt, and chicken stock in a skillet over medium high heat. Cover and allow the carrots to come to a full simmer. Once the carrots begin to cook, but still maintain their firmness, remove the lid and allow the stock to reduce by half. (check the doneness of the carrots with a fork. You want to be able to stab the carrot but there should still be resistance)
- Meanwhile, roast the nuts over medium heat and in a clean, dry skillet. Once fragrant and golden remove from heat and set aside.
- Once the stock has reduced to the desired amount, add the butter and spice blend to the pan. Toss throughly to glaze the carrots. Turn the heat down if you find that the sauce is reducing too quickly. You can also add an additional splash of chicken stock or water if necessary.
- When the carrots are cooked to your desired doneness, add the roasted nuts and toss to incorporate.
- Plate and serve immediately