Thursday, December 13, 2007


Those of you who know me must know how distressed I feel at not having been able to write for weeks. I could say I have been letting those of you who fell behind catch up, but it is I who fell behind and will catch you up! I went for a run this morning (first of those in a while) and ate some pasta (first time I had made food by myself for myself in a while, and it tasted great) and I will swiya b swiya (little by little) fill you in.

This week, Kristina has been here for workshops with the rock-carver. She is a stone sculptor back home and has insights into the art and technique, whereas I have had a business approach with him. She arrived on Sunday and we reviewed the marketing materials Lee, Nam and I had made for him, my spring PACA interviews, the Rabat Craft Fair results and other observations I have had. On Monday we met with my counterpart to review our plans for the week. She had set up three days’ worth of interviews and exercises; I helped with some of the questions and took notes and provided enthusiasm and support.

First we interviewed him on his products, process, customers etc. A lot of this I knew and there was some new learning. For example, I guess I could have figured this out but now I know - he doesn’t actually carve the products. A partner of his in Midelt cuts the shapes – he finishes them and drills holes for lamps and puts the mineral and fossil collections together. This explains why all I have ever seen him do is finish off the lamps and put the collections together. Similarly, the wood-carvers don’t make everything they sell in their shops – they carve the simple trays and finish animals that others start and then sell a lot of products that are actually made by other artisans. That’s okay – buying from them is still supporting them and Azrou – but in all cases (and specifically apropos to this workshop) it potentially limits what he can do in terms of new products or product improvement – which is a lot of what Kristina was planning to talk about. She did anyway – the second workshop was a brainstorming session. She had brought art magazines with photographs of contemporary sculpture, talked about common shapes that tourists buy that he now doesn’t make (such as tagines) and jewelry. The third day she went into creative thinking – dynamic shapes, thinking outside the box, and other exercises. I would like to have her come back and do the same workshops for the metal worker and anyone else interested! I think it helped to have an outsider come in with a new approach, and to team up – I talk to the artisans all the time but having her join me and spending time with one person three days in a row gave the discussion more focus. We went to a cyber and showed him what I have done on the web site, and he was excited about that and eager to work with me on enhancing his section, maybe even as soon as next week. In her site, she works with a jewelry artisan, and there are possibilities for more collaboration – either with him using some of the stone for jewelry, or simply displaying and selling his current products at the artisana. All in all this was a great collaboration, and I hope for more – either having other experts come in or sharing my expertise in other sites.

As you know, I hadn’t been at home for a while, and when we weren’t doing the workshops, Kristina accompanied me on my rounds. We went to the post office, visited my counterpart, had lunch with the new Timhadite volunteer and saw the environment volunteers, most of whom I hadn’t seen since they left for their IST in the beginning of November. We had tea at Abdou’s and looked at carpets, we had tea at my host family’s, we had tea as well as lunch with the rock-carver, we had coffee at Bilal with pastries from the Escalade, we had iced coffee in the iced coffee café (the days have been warm and sunny), we ate at Mina’s, we had bisara (the fava bean soup), we had tuna sandwiches – in other words, in three short days we hit most of my frequent and/or favorite haunts; maybe this is why it was such a joy to finally cook for myself. Kristina had good timing on another question, too – she had never had pastilla, one of my favorite Moroccan dishes, and wanted to try it here. I texted Youssef to find out where you could get it in Azrou and he said he would make it for us. I told him fine, except he had to teach us how to do it. There is a recipe in the Peace Corps Kitchen Guide, and Kristina had copied it to try to make it for her family when she goes home for the holidays, but the recipe is complicated and not user-friendly. Youssef’s method (which is by eye and feel, not by measurement, so if you make this add or subtract to taste) is time-consuming but not as complicated as it looks, and the pastilla was great! I’ve included it below. A note on cooking, over and above the recipe. I have gotten used to taking the skins off of peanuts and to taking the twigs out of the oregano (not in this recipe but just for illustration) but I didn’t realize that when you open a walnut there’s a middle part that you have to throw away. As Youssef said, Americans are used to everything being clean. I was lamenting that I did not have powdered sugar and he said yes I did. I said no, I have only regular sugar and he again said that I did – and put the sugar in the nut-grinder part of the blender and sure enough, I had powdered sugar! I am definitely going to use that newfound knowledge in the future!

This week I’ve also been trying to help Youssef with has plane ticket – charging it to my credit card. We thought there was a problem with my Visa but it may be that he doesn’t yet have his visa – something got lost in translation! We’re close though. He found out while we were away that his interview is December 19 – which also happens to be his wedding anniversary. Credit cards are not part of the culture here, but I am happy to charge it to mine in order to save him a two-day trip to Casablanca or Rabat just to get the ticket. And this afternoon I am going to the police to renew my carte de sejour – it expired while I was away and I had gone last month to get the process started, but they told me to just come back when I returned. A real sign of the passage of time and the halfway mark!

I should also mention a new addition to Dar Shereen. I have been cold for a while, but I hadn't brought out the space heater until my guests from the states came. This week I broke out my hot water bottle, and it is a wonderful thing - so nice, in fact, that I went out and bought two for guests! I often have more than two guests at a time, but I also have only two guest pillows, so two seemed like a good number. The picture is of Azrou just as you crest the mountain and start coming down on the way from Meknes. I always enjoy coming over the top and seeing Azrou nestled in the valley (towards the back of the picture). It's not easy to stop on the road there, but on the final day of having the car, Youssef stopped there so I could take the shot.

More to come. Time for some email and/or mail….

Makes two medium pastillas

4-6 small onions
2 tbsp olive oil
1 package pastilla papers (or phyllo or strudel dough, per the book)
½ cup almonds
½ cup walnuts
¼ cup peanuts (or more if you like)
6 eggs
1 cooked chicken breast

½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
1 tbsp paprika
½ tsp curry
¼ tsp red pepper
¼ tsp ras al hanut
other spices as you like
cinnamon for decoration
powdered sugar for decoration

Chop onions with medium slice and put into pot or pressure cooker. Add measured spices, olive oil and water not to cover onions completely (perhaps two cups). Cover and cook on high heat until onions are soft and water is almost but not completely boiled down – about an hour (less time in pressure cooker). Onions should be wet but not watery.

While onions are cooking, grind nuts coarsely in nut grinder.
Open bottle of wine and toast to pastilla.
Shred chicken into medium-fine pieces; remove skin.

When onions are finished, remove from flame. Add nut mixture, chicken and 6 raw eggs to pot of onions, reserving some egg white. Mix, put back on flame for a few minutes, stir.

Grease pans and preheat oven to 400 F, 200 C. Place three pastilla papers in bottom of pan. Cover with an even layer of filling ¼ inch thick. Add a layer of pastilla paper (you might have to tear a big paper in half). Add a second layer of filling and then top with a folded paper. Brush with egg white and tuck ends of bottom papers in to pan. Sprinkle with a little powdered sugar. This will be the bottom. Bake for 20-30 minutes until paper is crispy and golden brown. Remove from oven and turn over on plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and bake an additional 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, flip again and decorate with criss-cross lines or other patterns of cinnamon. Serve hot on bed of fresh mint leaves. Also delicious served cold.

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Love a recipe! What is Ras al Hanut??
I haven't talked about ras al hanut! It literally means "head of the shop" and is a blend of 35 spices, specially made by each spice shop owner, so it is different in every shop. I have been thinking recently that spices would be good things to bring home - they are flavorful and not expensive and easy to carry (although - might they look suspicious?). Ras al hanut I think would make a good gift, and saffron. As I get cooking lessons from my host mother, perhaps I will post more recipes!
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