March 13, 2012

Molecular Gastronomy, The Science of Food

While watching Iron Chef a few weeks ago, I was intrigued by this particular battle. The ingredient was much less of interest to me than was the complete polar opposite applications applied to it. It was old school classic French technique vs. a complete application of molecular gastronomy. For example, both chefs decided on an ice cream dish, yet while one took the traditional route, classic ingredients put into an actual ice cream maker, the other made an instant ice cream using injected CO'2 and nitrogen. While both presentations were well received by the judges, regardless of the diametrically opposed directions from which they came, it got me thinking. Old school time tested traditional and classic French techniques vs. the 'new garde' and the advanced science of food. This was something that has fascinated me and a subject I needed to explore. So here we are.

Though seemingly new, molecular gastronomy has been around since the time of Escoffier and the term was first introduced into the lexicon in 1988 by Hungarian physicist Nicholas Kurti and French physical chemist Hervé This. It became the title for a set of workshops  they held in Erice, Italy that brought together scientists and professional cooks for discussions on the science behind traditional cooking preparations. "Molecular Gastronomy," first based on exploring the science behind traditional cooking methods, is also known now, as the scientific discipline co-created by Kurti and This.

What I have noticed, is a marked loyalty to the pro or con when it comes to this issue. I myself, happen to like both, so for my tastes I feel I get the best of both worlds. Since the individual palate is as diverse as the person to whom it belongs, the opinions are just as varied. The other thing that must be mentioned is that while we may discuss what it is in picture and word, the true experience is in the eating. Until you have had a creamy caramel sphere burst warm liquidy deliciousness inside your mouth, or Foie Gras Ganache (above) ooze onto your plate, you will never truly know the joys that can come from the science of food.
If you are a fan of this discipline, as I am, then you are familiar with those chefs, such as Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz (pictured right), Wylie Dufresne, Jose Andres, Thomas Keller and Heston Blumenthal, as well as a handful of others that push the limits of creativity by breaking the boundaries between the lab and the table. If you are not familiar with it, you should be, if for no other reason than to have experienced the genre at least once. 

What I think you will be surprised about, as I was, is the fact that many of these same chefs are not big fans of the term molecular gastronomy. Now don't get me wrong, we all agree what they are doing pushes the boundaries of taste and dining into the highest levels, but they are concerned that what they do is misunderstood because of the term. You'll read some quotes from some of them here that may put things in perspective, especially if this is an art form that captures your imagination, as it does mine.

What is it exactly?
There are many branches of food science, all of which study different aspects of food such as safety, microbiology, preservation, chemistry, engineering, physics and the like. Until the advent of molecular gastronomy, there was no formal scientific discipline dedicated to studying the processes in regular cooking as done in the home or in a restaurant. The aforementioned (perhaps with the exception of food safety) have mostly been concerned with industrial food production and while the disciplines may overlap with each other to varying degrees, they are considered separate areas of investigation.

The discipline covers some of these areas:
~How ingredients are changed by different cooking methods.
~How all the senses play their own roles in our appreciation of food.
~The mechanisms of aroma release and the perception of taste and flavor.
~How and why we evolved our particular taste and flavor sense organs and our general food likes and dislikes.
~How cooking methods affect the eventual flavor and texture of food ingredients.
~How new cooking methods might produce improved results of texture and flavor.
~How our brains interpret the signals from all our senses to tell us the "flavor" of food.
~How our enjoyment of food is affected by other influences, our environment, our mood, how it is presented, who prepares it, etc..

Though many disparate examples of the scientific investigation of cooking exist throughout history, the creation of the discipline of molecular gastronomy was intended to bring together the chemical and physical processes of cooking. It broke it into an organized discipline within food science, A. To address what the other disciplines within food science do not cover and, B. Cover it in a manner intended for scientists rather than cooks.

Here's a perfect example of new knowledge brought about by molecular gastronomy: A soufflé is based on a viscous preparation, for example a Bechamel sauce made of butter, flour and milk, to which is added cheese, egg yolks and whisked egg whites. It used to be thought that soufflés rose as the air bubbles in the egg whites grew bigger as they became warmer. However, Hervé This has measured the temperature and pressure inside a soufflé and calculated that the bubbles can swell by 20 per cent at the most, whereas soufflés can double in volume.
In fact, the soufflé rises as water from the milk and yolks evaporates, and rises to the top of the soufflé, pushing the layers of mixture upwards. This means that heating the container from the bottom produces the best results. He has also found that the stiffer the egg whites, the more the soufflé rises. The firmer egg whites have a greater volume to begin with, but the firmness of the foam also prevents the bubbles from passing quickly through the soufflé and escaping; slowly rising bubbles are better at pushing up the layers of mixture.

Up until this time, most chefs will harken back to what many have called the bible of true cookery for a professional and semi-professional chef, Harold McGee's book, "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," a publication that provided the chefs mentioned, as well as many other chefs, with the technical understanding they needed to help them create their dishes.
The irony is that some of the chefs most thought of when the term molecular gastronomy is used, are still not quite comfortable with the phrase. There seems to be plenty of opinions about the term and discipline. In layman's terms, I believe a quote from Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago says it best. In a recent post on his blog, Back of the House on TheAtlantic.com, about the continuing debate over the term and discipline; "...this horse has been beaten down and down and down. Science is an integral part of cooking. What we (the so-called "molecular gastronomists") are doing is about far more than just science; it's about crafting an experience, about creativity, and about change."

Chef Heston Blumenthal of the UK's 3 star Michelin rated Fat Duck, in Bray, stated he thinks the term creates artificial barriers. 'Molecular makes it sound complicated,' he says. 'And gastronomy makes it sound elitist.' However, he accepts that, by pairing mustard ice creams with red-cabbage gazpacho, sprinkling cocoa powder over cauliflower risotto and making snail porridge, he has pushed back the boundaries on flavor combinations. 'It's the diners who have become most open. Six or seven years ago when I put a crab ice cream on my menu, it was regarded as the devil. Now if something like that is done for the first time, I don't think anybody bats an eyelid.'

"In late 1999, one of the most widely reported of our discoveries was the combination of caviar and white chocolate," says Chef Blumenthal. "I demonstrated this combination to one of the world's leading flavorists (This, pictured right), who was amazed at the marriage..He went off and came back with a printout [of the chemical makeup of cocoa and caviar, and sure enough,they both contained high levels of amines."  

Hervé This's research helps the Fat Duck staff blend some unusual ingredients. Spice bread ice cream and crab syrup, smoked bacon and egg ice cream served with French toast and tomato jam, and oysters and passion-fruit jelly are a few examples. They may sound odd, but these are winning combinations.
Hervé has recorded more than 10,000 examples of adages, all of which get written down in a notebook. He tries to test as many sayings as possible, and after many lab experiments and a number of failed dinner parties, he has managed to disprove or improve upon many maxims.
He regularly teams up with chefs to exchange information. Every month, he picks a theme based on his research and challenges his friend, three-star French chef Pierre Gagnaire, to invent a recipe from it. "We work very hard, and Hervé's research helps us to find new perspectives," says Gagnaire, who is known for his innovative cuisine and food combinations.

While it may not have a proper moniker according to these chefs, the presentations that it represents are very much in the forefront of moving food into areas never before explored. Creations such as Blood Orange Foam, or Chef Marcus Samuelsson's 'Foie Gras Ganache,' are true genius applications of time honored traditional ingredients and dishes, presented with new imagination and flair.


But, it’s also about what arrives at your table as well. What do diners see? How do they interact with the food? How is their experience changed by the surrealistic plating and surprising presentation, or ingredients that look like other food, or scented air released from air pillows while you dine?

To me, molecular gastronomy is more about the experimentation of flavor profiles and presentation, than it is about science. Yes, new techniques including the use of lecithins, the making of foams and the uses of nitrogens are all making the blending of ingredients and the focus on textures and mouth feel all factor into the discipline. Personally, I think that the major focus has always been interesting and never thought of combinations and flavor profiles using fresh and unique ingredients. This was evidenced to me recently when I enjoyed a delicious Basil & Lime Sorbet or the delicious Lobster Bisque Cappuccino (pictured left) prepared for me by Guy Martin protégée, Phillipe Ruiz. at the Biltmore Hotel in Florida

Examples of Molecular Gastronomy

Flash-freezing
Related back to my first query about flash freezing to make ice cream, El Bulli was the first restaurant to experiment with quickly freezing the outside of various foods, sometimes leaving a liquid center, using a volatile set-up involving a bowl of liquid nitrogen dubbed the TeppanNitro. Later, Alinea’s Achatz began using an appliance called the Anti-Griddle, whose metal surface freezes rather than cooks.

Spherification
Also known as ravioli (not the kind you eat with marinara sauce), spheres are what you get when you mix liquid food with sodium alginate, then dunk it in a bath of calcium chloride. A sphere looks and feels like caviar, with a thin membrane that pops in your mouth, expunging a liquid center. Popular experiments from the chefs above have included ravioli made from purées of things like mangoes and peas. 


Meat glue
One of the greatest hits of the movement has been Wylie Dufresne’s “shrimp noodles,” which, as the name states, are noodles made of shrimp meat. They were created using transglutaminase, or meat glue, as it’s known in wd-50’s kitchen, a substance that binds different proteins together and is more familiarly used in mass-produced foods like chicken nuggets.

 Foams


You probably know about foams, which are sauces that have been turned into froth using a whipped cream canister and sometimes lecithin as a stabilizer. They were invented at El Bulli, along with similar “airs” made with an immersion blender. I must admit this is one of my favorite applications of the discipline.
  


Edible menus
Probably the biggest wow factor innovation has been the edible menus by Homaro Cantu of Moto. Using an ink-jet printer adapted for inks made from fruit and vegetables, and paper made of soybean and potato starch, he has created menus that taste like everything from sushi to steak.

Bacon
Alinea’s multi-course tasting menu often includes a crispy piece of bacon decorated with butterscotch and dehydrated apple, served threaded on a horizontal wire. The famous dish exemplifies Alinea’s use of creative serveware, and molecular gastronomy’s enthusiasm for dehydrators and savory-sweet combinations in general. There has also been a huge movement recently to bacon and chocolate, and though I love both, I must admit, I am not a fan of this combination.

Dusts & Dehydration
The dehydration of certain well known ingredients into a dust which changes the way one might use these ingredients, an example would be Black Chanterell or Black Trumpet mushrooms. We have had this dust added to dishes as wide ranging as soups, steaks and foie gras.


Prologue
While Molecular Gastronomy may not be for you, I highly suggest that you experience this dining genre at least once. The creativity of chefs and restaurants embracing the nuances of breaking down food to the molecular level is moving food, dining and presentation to even higher levels than ever before, and frankly, I like where it is going and am excited to see who will push the boundaries of the culinary envelope even further. As the 'dining public' we are the beneficiaries of these talented chefs and the masterpieces they create on a plate.

Bon Appetit!

Lou
Sources

February 19, 2012

Staying on the cutting edge in your Kitchen: Knife Skills...


Welcome to the second installment in a series of posts geared toward the 'at home cook.' It is my belief that anyone can cook gourmet at home and this series is designed to give you, the at home cook, foodie, culinary enthusiast, the techniques and methods used by every professional chef, in order to allow you to create wonderful restaurant style gourmet meals at home. Our first, Mise en Place, was all about proper kitchen set up when attempting a recipe or preparing a meal for your family.

With today's installment, Knife Skills, we will examine the techniques and proper methods of using a chef's knife. The chef’s knife is the ideal knife for chopping vegetables, herbs, fruits, cutting boneless meats, slicing, dicing and general cutting tasks. A chef's knife generally has a blade eight inches (20 cm) in length and 1 ½ inches (4 cm) in width, although individual models range from 6 to 14 inches (15 cm to 36 cm) in length. Blade shapes are either French or German; the French style has an edge that is straighter with the end curving up to the tip; German-style knives are more deeply and continuously curved along the whole cutting edge. 

Sharpening Your Knives
It's important to keep knives sharp to stay safe when cooking,as dull knives are a safety hazard and can be very dangerous.The more blunt a knife's edge is, the more pressure it takes to cut something, the more likely you are to slip and cut your finger instead. Sharpened knives reduce the time it takes to prepare your meals as well. To sharpen a knife, use a sharpening stone, also known as a whetstone, or a sharpening stick. If you don't feel comfortable sharpening your knives yourself, most knife manufacturing companies allow you send your knives in for professional sharpening. You could also try your favorite cooking supply store, as most offer sharpening services.

How To Properly Hold & Use Your Knife

For more precise control, adopt a grip on the blade itself, with the thumb and the index finger grasping the blade just to the front of the finger guard and the middle finger placed just opposite, on the handle side of the finger guard below the bolster.

When slicing or chopping, keep your fingertips curled inward. Use your fingernails in what is called a "claw grip," to help grip the food. The knife blade should rest against the foremost knuckle, helping keep the blade perpendicular to the board.

Types Of Knife Cuts 

Large dice: ¾ inch × ¾ inch × ¾ inch.
Medium dice: ½ inch × ½ inch × ½ inch.
Small dice: ¼ inch × ¼ inch × ¼ inch
Batonnet:  ½ inch × ½ inch × 2½-3 inches.
Aluumette: (al-yoo-MET) ¼ inch × ¼ inch × 2½ inches.
Julienne: (joo-lee-ENN) 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch × 2½ inches.
Brunoise: (BROON-wahz) 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch × 1/8 inch.
Fine Julienne: 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch × 2 inches.
Fine Brunoise1/16 inch × 1/16 inch × 1/16 inch.
Paysanne: ½ inch x ½ inch x 1/8 inch
Tourne (turned) 7 Sides: ¾ inch (width) x 2 inches (length)

For those who would like to take this post a step further, below is a list of available classes in New York, Chicago and LA, allowing you to get hands on experiences and instruction:

For my New York City readers:, Chef Norman Weinstein offers an excellent knife skills class at the Institute for Culinary Education on 23rd St. in NYC.

For my Chicago readers: The Chopping Block, located on Lincoln Ave offers regular classes for $40 per person.

For my LA readers: Chef Eric Jaques Crowely, of The Culinary Classroom offers regular classes on a variety of subjects, all of which includes knife skills instruction.

I hope this post has been educational and informative and helps you get more proficient in the kitchen. The number one (1) answer I have received when interviewing chefs about their most important or favorite kitchen tool is unequivocally; their knives. If you are serious about cooking and becoming more adept in the kitchen, learning how to use your knives with proper techniques and practice can make the cooking experience much more enjoyable. The time spent getting to know your knives will allow you to not only be more safe, but I'll bet you, your friends and your family will appreciate and enjoy your new culinary acumen and the delicious gourmet dishes coming out of your kitchen.

As always, Bon Appetit!

Lou

 Photo sources: www.cheftalk.com http://www.myrecipes.com/  http://www.ciaprochef.com/

January 31, 2012

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Chinese New Year, New York City style.

This past Sunday, I welcomed in the 'Year of the Dragon' in New York City's Chinatown. I have to thank Elaine, The Gourmet 'Girl,' for my current obsession with all things Chinese. Through our friendship, she has opened my eyes and palate to a wonderfully rich culture of fabulous art, music, colorful and elegant clothing and people. And, of course, let's not forget the food.. Ah... the food.

We always start our Chinatown sojourn early in the morning, making our way through the shops, fresh produce stands, fish markets & butcher shops with their Peking Ducks hanging in the windows.After strolling Mulberry and Mott Streets, we end up at one of the area's best spots for Dim Sum, Sunshine 27 Restaurant, on the Bowery.


Now, the first sign that this is the place to be, is the fact that it's filled with locals and those Chinese tourist who know where to find the best their culture has to offer. That said, if there were possibly 10 of us Caucasians in a dining room of over 200, it was a lot. So, rule of thumb: when experiencing the cuisine of another culture, go to where the locals go.

Sunshine 27 is a large, bustling restaurant serving Dim Sum, Hong Kong style, with carts. Parties are often seated together at communal tables and the camaraderie is amazing. If you are not a Dim Sum aficionado, sitting with those who are familiar with the cuisine is a great way to learn. As the carts come around, you are offered choices of Shumai, Shrimp Dumplings, and yes, for the more adventurous, Chicken Feet in Black Bean Sauce.
 
Now, here is the best part; we sat for over an hour, were stuffed from the food and pot of fresh tea served to every patron and when the bill came, it was a mere $15.00 for two. Dim Sum can be a great family value in this economy, while at the same time, exposing your kids to an historic cuisine, culture and people.
 
After our Dim Sum feast, we head over to the Golden Steamer Bakery, on Mott St., to pick up Pork Buns and other traditional Chinese sweets. Then, as the crowds start to swell in anticipation, we find a spot amongst the throngs of tourists and residents alike, to view the Chinese New Year's parade.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar. The origin of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, such as China, Indonesia, Tibet, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and also in Chinatowns around the world. It marks the end of the winter season. The festival begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival on the 15th day. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, the Chinese New Year is often referred to as the "Lunar New Year." We have just come out of the Year of the Rabbit (2011), with this, (2012) being the Year of the Dragon. Next year (2013) will be the Year of the Snake.

Dim Sum
 
The unique culinary art of dim sum originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who over the centuries transformed yum cha (drink tea) from a relaxing respite to a loud and happy dining experience. In Hong Kong, and in most cities and towns in Guangdong province, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning. It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises.

Literally meaning "to touch your heart," dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and other goodies, much like hors d'ouvres served in traditional French restaurants.
Eating dim sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to "drink tea" (yum cha), as tea is typically served with dim sum.
 
There are common tea-drinking and eating practices or etiquette that Chinese people commonly recognize and use. These are practiced not only during dim sum meals but during other types of Chinese meals as well. It is customary to pour tea for others during dim sum before filling one's own cup. A custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index finger if you are single, or by tapping both the index and middle finger if you are married, which symbolizes 'bowing' to them. 

Some popular types of Dim Sum

Shrimp Dumpling or Hargao
Delicate steamed dumplings with whole or chopped-up shrimp filling and thin wheat starch skin.

Jiǎozi or Potsticker
Northern Chinese style of dumpling (steamed and then pan-fried jiaozi), usually with meat and cabbage filling.

Shumai or Pork Dumpling
Small steamed dumplings with either pork, prawns or both inside a thin wheat flour wrapper. Usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.

Bāozi or Bao
Baked or steamed, these fluffy buns made from wheat flour are filled with food items ranging from meat to vegetables to sweet bean pastes

Cheung Fan or Rice noodle roll
Wide rice noodles that are steamed and then rolled. They are often filled with different types of meats or vegetables inside but can be served without any filling

Pheonix claws or chicken feet
These are chicken feet, deep fried, boiled, marinated in a black bean sauce and then steamed.

Lo Mai Gai
Glutinous rice is wrapped in a lotus leaf into a triangular or rectangular shape. It contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, water chestnut and meat (usually pork and chicken).

There are a few more varieties of Dim Sum, but I thought I'd start you off today with the most popular and most common. I hope you have learned a bit today and I have piqued your interest in exploring Chinese culture and of course, Dim Sum. If you have never experienced the magic that is your local Chinatown, plan a trip and spend a leisurely Sunday strolling through ancient culture, art and cuisine. You'll be glad you did.

As always,

Bon Appetit!

Lou

January 22, 2012

Mise en place...as important in life as it is in cooking...

This is the first in a series of posts coming this year designed to simplify the art of cooking gourmet in your own home. I hope you learn from them, enjoy them and share them with your foodie friends. In today's post, we will cover the first step for any aspiring cook or chef: Mise en place.

If you are a chef, foodie or just someone who knows their way around a kitchen, you have probably heard the term 'Mise en place'. For the novice or at home cook, this may be a term that is foreign to you, which it actually it is. It is one of the first lessons learned by culinary students, it is that important a concept. Many home cooks who struggle with complicated recipes, more often than not, simply have these difficulties because they do not apply this simple method. So today, let's look at its importance, both as it applies to cooking, and, how that translates to life.

Definitions

First, let's define the term;  Mise en place, pronounced miz on plas, is a French phrase that literally means "putting in place." It is also defined by the Culinary Institute of America as "everything in place," referring to 'set up' in commercial kitchens. It refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients. You will find and be amazed to learn that once you apply this technique to your own cooking, rather than the lack of culinary acumen you once attributed to yourself, in most cases, it is simply the lack of this critical first step that is to blame. I promise, your whole world and opinion of yourself as a cook or chef will rise to new heights once you start employing 'Mise en place' to every recipe you attempt to tackle. (yes, even the simple ones)

Preparing the mise en place ahead of time allows you to cook without having to stop and assemble items, which is most desirable in recipes with time constraints, but should be applied to any and all your cooking endeavours. If you are a new cook, or aspire to be competent in the kitchen, you can relate to getting flustered (I, your humble Gourmet Guy did as well) when trying to read the recipe with ingredient-caked hands, or while in the midst of mixing or sauteing. You get food on the book, yourself, run back and forth from the recipe to the stove top or cutting board, etc. etc. etc Employing 'Mise en place'  will elimate your frustration, ease any difficulty in interpreting a recipe and allow you the true joy of creating a culinary masterpiece just like the 'big time' chefs.

Mise en place in practice.

Recipes should be read through completely, before you ever start actually cooking, for necessary ingredients and equipment. Ingredients are then measured out, washed, chopped, and placed in individual bowls. Equipment, such as spatulas and blenders are prepared for use and ovens (or pans) are preheated.


It is this simple 'secret' that allows all of our favorite restaurant or TV chefs to make it look so stress free and easy, even when they are preparing art on a plate. Of course proper technique is also, if not just as, important to your success with complicated recipes, but this is step one (1) in bringing your cooking experience to the next level. You will appreciate the ingredients, the process and the results with a newfound delight, while your family and friends will think you are secretly attending culinary school on the sly. Stay tuned to Kitchen Rap and feel free to share these posts with friends, as we will cover such things as proper knife skills, sauteing, grilling, etc., in later posts here throughtout the coming year.

Now I did say at the beginning, that Mise en place can also be applied to life. Not much of a stretch really: Create for yourself your recipe for success, be it personally or professionally. Gather the neccessary components (ingredients) such as resources, friends, skills or career opportunities. Add the ingredients, execute your recipe, methodically, calmly and stress free, then assemble the dish. Either way, cooking or living, you'll be amazed at the delicious results that you yourself are capable of. All it takes is a little Mise en place.

As always my friends,

Bon Appetit

Lou

January 15, 2012

A culinary look at Morocco...

"Of all the gin joints in all the world, she hadda walk into mine." Who can forget Bogey rasping out those immortal words? "Casablanca." Just one of the exotic cities in a country filled with mystery and intrigue. Morocco's three top cities to visit are Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Tangier. Morocco's reigning monarch, King Hassan II, likens his country to a desert palm: "rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe." A poetic description for a place which can appear mystical, magical and foreboding all at once.

Situated on the northwest coast of Africa, Morocco is one of three countries which make up the Maghreb ("furthest west"), the other two being Algeria and Tunisia. The Atlantic Ocean is to the west, while the calm waters of the Mediterranean are due north and the harsher sands of the Sahara are to the south. Snaking through the center of the country are a series of mountain ranges, beginning with the Rif mountains in the north and continuing with the Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges, which nearly split the country in half along a vertical axis. It is these mountainous areas which are heavily populated by the Berbers, the indigenous people of Morocco who still comprise 80% of the population. The Berbers are not ethnically Arabs, but they are Islamic.

Two languages are indigenous to Morocco: Arabic and Berber. French is also widely spoken. The Haouz, like most of the plains and cities of Morocco, is Arabic-speaking. The highlands areas of the country are largely Berber-speaking. Classical Arabic is Morocco's official language, but the country's distinctive Arabic dialect is the most widely spoken language in Morocco. French, which remains Morocco's unofficial third language, is taught universally and still serves as Morocco's primary language of commerce and economics; it also is widely used in education and government. Many Moroccans in the northern part of the country speak Spanish. English, while still far behind French and Spanish in terms of number of speakers, is rapidly becoming the foreign language of choice among educated youth. English is taught in all public schools from the fourth year on.

Once you have adapted to their way of life, there is a universe of intriguing travel opportunities and many hands to shake less then 50 miles from Europe. Veiled women occasionally may give you a seductive look, but don't go there!
Three mountain ranges present diverse landscapes and three different ways of life: the Rif in the north, the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas, that remains mostly undiscovered. Azrou is a quiet Berber town only 2 hours drive from Rabat, worth visiting for its forest and calm atmosphere. Three different Berber groups inhabit these mountains and, on the whole, these areas are more relaxing than the large cities. You should consider trekking, even if you are a beginner, so you'll catch a glimpse of one of the many aspects of authentic Moroccan life. Adventurous skiers can find good slopes in the Atlas Mountains.

If you only have one week and you would like to see amazing geological landscapes, palm oasis, painted rocks, and the Berber way of life, Tafraoute is not to be missed. Only two hours drive from Agadir, the drive is almost as stunning as the destination. The roads are good quality throughout the north and west; there are even freeways near the bigger cities like Casablanca.
The oasis of the pre-Sahara present yet another timeless image of the Arab world with immense palm groves in the desert. Not to be missed are the fabulous mud Kasbahs and ksours (palaces and family houses) which you can find near Zagora.

Morocco produces a large range of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables and even some tropical ones. The country produces large quantities of sheep, cattle, poultry, and seafood which serve as a base for the cuisine.

The Moroccan Kitchen
The Moroccans are quick to point out that the best meals are found not in the restaurants but in the homes. In this land of good and abundant food, the emphasis is clearly on preparing your own. It is worth mentioning that women do virtually all of the cooking in this very traditional country. Being at the crossroads of many civilizations, the cuisine of Morocco has been influenced by the native Berber cuisine, the Arabic Andalusian cuisine; brought by the Moriscos when they left Spain, the Turkish cuisine from the Turkish and the Middle Eastern cuisines brought by the Arabs as well as the Jewish cuisine.

The history of Morocco is reflected in its cuisine. Political refugees left Baghdad in the middle Ages and settled in Morocco, bringing with them traditional recipes that are now common in Morocco, but forgotten in the Middle East. We know this because there are striking similarities between a 12th century (Christian reckoning) collection of recipes by Al-Baghdadi, and contemporary Moroccan dishes. A signature characteristic is cooking fruit with meat, such as quince with lamb, or apricots with chicken. Further influences upon Moroccan cuisine came from the Morisco (Muslim refugees), who were expelled from Spain during the Spanish inquisition.

The strong Arab influence found in two of the royal cities, Fez and Marrakech, contributed greatly to Moroccan cuisine, as did the Andalusian sensibilities of Tetuan and the Jewish traditions from the coastal city of Essaouira. Aspects of all of these cultures can be found in four of the best-loved Moroccan dishes: couscous, plumped semolina grains which are served with a variety of toppings; bisteeya, a delectable three-layer pie which is both savory and sweet and wrapped in the thinnest of pastry; mechoui, tender roasted lamb; and djej emshmel, succulent roasted chicken cooked with olives and lemon.

The midday meal is the main meal, with the exception of the holy month of Ramadan. The typical formal meal begins with a series of hot and cold salads, followed by a tagine. Bread is eaten with every meal. Often a lamb or chicken dish is next, followed by couscous topped with meats and vegetables. A cup of sweet mint tea is commonly used to end the meal.

The main Moroccan dish most people are familiar with is couscous, which is very old and is probably of Berber origin.

Beef is the most commonly eaten red meat in Morocco. Lamb is preferred, but is not as common due to its higher cost. Poultry was historically used and the importance of seafood is increasing in Moroccan food. The breed of sheep in North Africa has much of its fat concentrated in its tail, which means that Moroccan lamb does not have the pungent flavor that Western lamb and mutton can have.

Traditional Moroccan dishes

Bistteeya, Basteela, or Pastilla (Layered Pigeon or Chicken Pie)
This rich sweet pie is built with many layers of the thin pancakes called Warka. Filo may be substituted, as it is nearly impossible to replicate those slim, griddle wonders. The meat is mixed with eggs, herbs, spices and almonds, and is cooked on the stove top, then topped with a sugar icing and cinnamon.

Chakchouka (Tunisian Eggs)
This is a lunch or light meal made in one pan. Peppers, garlic, cumin and tomatoes are cooked with harissa and olive oil, then eggs are fried gently among the cooked vegetables.

Ferakh Maamer (Spring Chicken with Couscous Stuffing)
Young chickens are stuffed with a sweet couscous stuffing, enhanced with almonds, raisins, orange water, and sugar. The birds are then simmered slowly in a large casserole in a sauce of honey, onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron.

Tagine Barrogog bis Basela (Lamb Tagine with Prunes)

Lamb is simmered slowly with onion, garlic, ginger, saffron and parsley, to which are added prunes, cinnamon, honey, and orange blossom water.

Dessert
Sweets are not usually served at the end of a Moroccan meal. Seasonal fruits are typically served. A common dessert is kaab el ghzal ("gazelle's horns"), which is a pastry stuffed with almond paste and topped with sugar.

Halwa Shebakia
A honey cake, which is essentially pretzel-shaped pieces of dough deep-fried and dipped into a hot pot of honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Halwa Shebakia are cookies eaten during the month of Ramadan. Zucre Coco are coconut fudge cakes. Halva may also be made from a variety of other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, various nuts, beans, lentils, and vegetables—such as carrots, pumpkins, yams, and squashes.

Most of the commonly used raw ingredients for cooking are homegrown; the mint and olives comes from Meknes; oranges and lemons are from Fez and prickly pear comes from Casablanca.

They also grow almonds, dates, chestnuts, walnuts, cherries, melons and pomegranates. The Atlantic coast of Morocco provides some world class seafood and they raise lamb and poultry on the higher grounds. In the market places you can find homegrown produce that’s all organic all the time.
Though all year long you can find great produce in Morocco such as eggplant, peppers, onions, squash, almonds, pumpkins, fava beans, lentils and lemons, there are crops for every season. In spring they have the best; apricots, strawberries, cherries and kiwis and even peaches. In summer you will find the best; watermelon, wild artichokes and tomatoes. Fall brings; figs, pomegranates and grapes. In the winter; oranges, mandarins, onions, beets, potatoes, and carrots.

Morrocan Tea
The most popular drink is green tea with mint. Traditionally, making good mint tea in Morocco is considered an art form and the drinking of it with friends and family members is one of the important rituals of the day. The technique of pouring the tea is as crucial as the quality of the tea. The tea is accompanied with hard sugar cones or lumps. Tea is one of the most endearing parts of the Moroccan culture that one can experience on a visit to this mysterious country. It is part of everyday life, several times a day and is a large part of the hospitality that Moroccans pride themselves on.
Moroccan mint tea consists of Chinese green gunpowder tea, fresh mint leaves, usually spearmint, and many cubes of sugar. Teapots are metal with strainer holes at the base of the spout. Moroccan tea pots have long, curved pouring spouts and this allows the tea to be poured evenly into tiny glasses from a height. The green tea is put in the pot with fresh mint and some sugar.
To acquire the optimum taste, glasses are filled in two stages.When serving, it's traditional to pour a glass of tea and then pour that tea back into the pot so that the sugar is properly mixed into the entire pot. As the tea is poured, the server raises the pot to make a long stream of tea flowing into the small glass, adding flair to the ceremony. The Moroccans traditionally like tea with bubbles, so while pouring they hold the teapot high above the glasses. Sugar is often offered to further sweeten your half glass of tea. A half glass is normally served so that you can hold it in your hand without it burning. Since the teapots are metal, ranging from aluminum, to stainless steel, to silver, to brass, they get quite hot. Hot pot holders in the shape of a little man with a red fez are used to hold the hot handle. Many foreigners don't like the sweetness of the tea as it is considered extremely sweet. It does have a much sweeter taste to those who would usually add milk or sugar however none is needed for this flavorful beverage at all. You can also buy it as loose tea from all kinds of markets around the country for various prices. Another wonderful part of the tea culture in Morocco is the range of decorative tea glasses. There are mass produced glasses and there are also delicately hand-painted glasses by artisans. You can enjoy seeing the different designs inspired by the Arabic culture, architecture and also surroundings.

Dining Etiquette
If you are invited to a Moroccan's house:
~You should remove your shoes.
~Dress smartly. Doing so demonstrates respect towards your hosts.
~Check to see if your spouse is included in the invitation. Conservative Moroccans may not entertain mixed-sex groups.
~Shake everyone's hand individually.
~Watch your table manners!
~Food is generally served at a knee-high round table.
~The guest of honor generally sits next to the host.
~A washing basin will be brought to the table before the meal is served. Hold your hands over the basin while water is poured over them. Dry your hands on the towel provided.
~Do not begin eating until the host blesses the food or begins to eat.
~Food is served from a communal bowl.
~Eat from the section of the bowl that is in front of you. Never reach across the bowl to get something from the other side. As an honored guest, choice cuts will be put in front of you.
Scoop the food with a piece of bread or the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.
~Eat and drink only with the right hand.
~Do not wipe your hands on your napkin.
~Water is often served from a communal glass. If you want your own glass, ask for a soft drink.
The washing basin will be brought around the table again at the end of the meal.
~Expect to be urged to take more food off the communal plate. Providing an abundance of food is a sign of hospitality.

Well that's about all I've got for ya so, 'here's looking at you kid.....'

Bon Appetit!

Lou