16 February 2013

Moroccan Dinner: Part II - Moroccan Tomato Sauce

This tomato sauce hits all the high notes; it is laced with cumin and cinnamon and studded with dried apricots, chickpeas, and preserved lemon. The zesty, sweet, and warmly spiced flavors are harmoniously pulled together in a rich tomato sauce.

For our Moroccan-inspired dinner party a few weeks ago, I baked lentil falafels separately and added them to the tomato sauce right at the end. Alongside was steamed couscous with toasted almonds and creamy tzatziki sauce.

The best part about this tomato sauce is that it is extremely versatile and can be used in many different ways. Here are some other ideas.

  • Omit the falafels, double the amount of chickpeas, and right before serving scatter around chopped pistachios or slivered almonds and feta. Serve over couscous, rice,      quinoa, or polenta.
  • Spoon the sauce into shallow bowls and top with baked fish, grilled shrimp, or scallops. Add a few dollops of Greek yogurt dressed with lemon and serve with warm naan or pita.
  • Make a flatbread pizza. Top grilled flatbread with sauce, sprinkle over crumbled feta or another cheese of your choice, and place under the broiler for a few minutes.

Ras el Hanout
I added a few teaspoons of Ras el Hanout because I like the complex and unique flavor it adds to the tomato sauce. It is a fragrant Moroccan spice blend that can be found in larger super markets or whole foods markets. Literally translated, the name means "head of the shop", and is customarily a blend of the best spices the seller can offer. Recipes may include dozens of spices, but common ones are cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, clove, ground chili pepper, and turmeric.

This is a fun spice mix to play around with. It works well in tagines and tomato-based soups and stews when you want to add flavor for minimal effort. If you have a well-stocked spice pantry you could make your own blend. I use this recipe

However, if you don't have the spice mix for this recipe, you shouldn't worry. Specific substitutions are mentioned in the notes below, but simply omitting the Ras el Hanout and using the remaining spices will still make a very flavorful Moroccan sauce. You can also be creative crafting together your own spice blend with the spices listed in the spice mix recipe that you do have on hand.

Moroccan Tomato Sauce
Serves 6

Notes: If you do not have Ras el Hanout, add an extra 1/4 teaspoon to the additional spices in the recipe plus 1/4 teaspoon each allspice and cardamom.
Preserved lemons are a special flavor. But in a pinch you can instead add the zest of 1 lemon while the sauce cooks and squeeze the juice of the lemon in at the end of the cooking process. If you have some briny, green olives on hand, throw them in as well.
Like spaghetti sauce, the longer this sauce cooks the richer the flavor will be. If you have the time you can simmer this for 45-60 minutes, covered, periodically stirring and making sure the bottom is not sticking. Add an additional 1/2 cup of water if the sauce gets too thick.

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red chili, sliced (or couple big pinches red pepper flakes)
Spice mix
1 tsp. tomato paste
1-2 tsp. Harissa paste, depending on level of spiciness (optional)
2 tsp. preserved lemon, flesh and skin finely chopped (~wedge the size of 1/4 lemon)
1 15 oz. can stewed tomatoes
2 15 oz. cans chopped tomatoes (use 3 cans chopped tomatoes if you cannot find stewed)
1 1/4 cups water (fill up empty tomato can)
1 15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Handful dried apricots, thinly sliced (~8-10 apricots)
3/4 tsp. salt + pepper to taste
Handful fresh cilantro, chopped

Spice Mix
1 1/2 tsp. Ras el Hanout
1 1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. paprika
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 small cinnamon stick (~2-3 inches long)

Mix spices together in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a large, deep saute pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic, chili, and spice mix. Stir to combine and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until onions begin to soften and spices are fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices.

Mix in tomato paste and harissa, if using, then stir in the next 5 ingredients (through chickpeas). Let the  sauce come to a low boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Taste sauce and adjust for seasoning, then add apricots and simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes.

Take the dish to the table and sprinkle cilantro all around.

Baked Lentil Falafels
Adapted from Sprouted Kitchen

Serves approximately 16-20 small falafels

2 cups cooked lentils (~1 cup uncooked)
1 large clove garlic
Small handful fresh cilantro
2 eggs
3/4 cup ricotta
2 tsp. Harissa paste
1 tsp. preserved lemon, chopped
1 tsp. each salt and Pepper
2/3 cup breadcrumbs (fresh or panko, preferably)

In a food processor, process the lentils, cilantro, and garlic into a mush. In the bottom of a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Add the lentil mixture and mix all together. Let the mixture sit for 20 minutes to firm up.

Preheat the oven to 400', set the rack in the top 1/3 of the oven, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. With wet hands, roll the mix into small balls and press down slightly with the palm of your hand to make round disks. If the first falafel does not hold together stir in a few extra tablespoons of breadcrumbs. Line the falafels up on a baking sheet and brush the tops with olive oil so the outside will get crispy.

Bake in the top 1/3 of your oven for 15-20 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Turn the falafels over halfway through baking. If the outside is not crispy enough after cooking, run them under the broiler for a few minutes. Remove from oven, let cool slightly and add to the tomato sauce right before serving. 

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