“Road To Morocco” Prix-Fixe is all about Ras el Hanout

Without Ras el hanout, there would be no Moroccan-style cooking, or likely any distinctive cuisine in North Africa.  It is this powerful blend of as many as a dozen spices that add character and sense of place to Chef Alexander’s prix-fixe travelogue for our first adventure in 2016:  January’s “Road to Morocco.”

Join us for this four-course (with choices) special event from January 26 to 31, with service beginning at 5 p.m. each evening.  Cost is $59.95 per person ++.  Reservations are recommended by calling 530-823-0320 or by going online at www.opentable.com.  All guests must be at least 21 years of age.

The equivalent in English of “Ras el hanout” is “top shelf,” or the best spices available, and in this blend–which is customized by shops, restaurants and even families–you’ll encounter ingredients that can include cardamom, cumin, coriander, peppercorn, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, all spice, chili peppers, hot paprika, dry ginger and turmeric.  Ras el hanout is as pervasive in North African cuisine as garam masala in classic Indian fare, so expect to see this spice blend in many of Chef Alexander’s dishes this month.

You’ll also frequently encounter “preserved lemons,” another traditional staple of the cuisine of North Africa.  Chef refers to preserved lemons (whole lemons cured in salt) as “the secret flavoring agent” that adds saltiness and enhances the taste of anything it is added to–soups, stews, sauces and salads.

With these two backbones of Moroccan cooking in mind, here’s an overview of next week’s exciting menu:

First Course (choice of one):

Rabbit Basteeya (Spiced Almond, Prune, Foie Gras Sauce):  Basteeya is a traditional Moroccan meat pie Chef describes as “riding the line between sweet and savory.”  It is a simple package of layers of goodness wrapped in phyllo that delivers a very complex set of flavors.  Chef Alexander’s interpretation starts with California farm-raised rabbit braised with onion and Ras el hanout, the unique blend of Moroccan  spices described above.  The meat is picked from bones and mixed with diced prunes and caramelized onions and layered with ground almonds seasoned with orange blossom water, cinnamon and sugar.  This package is then baked until golden brown and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.  Served with savory greens and a rich foie gras sauce.

Grilled Octopus (Chickpea, Celery, Preserved Lemon, Harissa Vinaigrette):  Chef has sourced octopus from the Spanish coast on the Mediterranean (because it is smaller and more tender than local).  He slow cooks for an hour in a braising liquid of veggies and herbs until tender.  Tentacles are grilled separately and tossed in harrisa, a fiery condiment of red chili, roasted peppers, cayenne, garlic, coriander, caraway, sherry vinegar and olive oil that is combined into a thick paste.  Chef transforms this into a vinaigrette by adding sherry and olive oil.  The octopus sits on a platform of chickpea purée and plated with a salad of whole chickpeas, celery and preserved lemon (described above).

Wagyu Beef Kefta (62° Egg, Goat Milk Feta, Tomato):  Chef Alexander’s take on “kefta” meatballs (evocative of his famous lamb meatballs) made from ground wagyu beef combined with mint, parsley and Ras el hanout and then seared before baking in a cast iron skillet. . .swimming in a spicy sauce made from tomatoes stewed with garlic, onion and spices.  Topped with goat milk feta and a 62° farm egg cooked sous vide in a water bath. . .producing a creamy yolk and just-set egg white.

Second Course (choice of one):

Roast Carrot Salad (Blood Orange, Moroccan Olive, Avocado Puree):  Here is Chef Alexander’s riff on a classic Seven Salads of Morocco: Chef selects locally-sourced, mixed color, baby heirloom carrots that he roasts and tosses with extra virgin olive oil, coriander, cumin, blood-orange segments and imported Moroccan oil-cured (not brined) olives.  For extra creaminess, Chef plates with a base of avocado purée.

Harira Soup (Lentils, Root Vegetables, Winter Greens, Yogurt):  If you were to be invited to a friend’s house in Casablanca, chances are your meal would start with a bowl of harira soup.  This is simple, rustic, peasant food made with lentils, spices, seasonal root veggies and wilted greens.  Chef garnishes with a dollop of yogurt.  A perfect dish for a cold, rainy night in Auburn.

Entrée (choice of one):

California Swordfish (Eggplant Zaalouk, Cauliflower, Pomegranate, Charmoula):  Chef’s straightforward preparation is to pan-roast California swordfish portions marinated in green charmoula (a sauce made from parsley, cilantro, garlic, cumin, coriander, preserved lemon and EVO. . .also drizzled on the plate).  Presented with a cooked salad of charred eggplant and tomatoes pureed with garlic; served with roasted cauliflower, parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Roasted Whole Organic Baby Chicken (Preserved Lemon, Green Olive, Roast Fennel and Potatoes):   A whole, roughly one-pound organic, baby chicken is marinated in lemon, garlic, fresh herbs, Ras el hanout and saffron; then roasted, halved and served on a bed of roast fennel, potatoes, green olives and preserved lemon.

Dixon Lamb Tagine (Apricot, Sesame, Turnip, Couscous):  Chef Alexander acknowledges this dish is “tagine style” because it simply not possible to produce in quantity.  Lamb shoulder is browned and then slow-cooked with onion, dried apricots, veal stock, tomato and the omnipresent Ras el hanout.  This stew’s lamb is fall-apart tender and garnished with sesame (instead of nuts), baby turnips, more dried apricot.  Served with steamed couscous and cilantro.

Dessert (choice of one):

Rosewater Meringue (Citrus-Mint Salad, Sheep Yogurt Mousse, Almonds):  Chef Courtney McDonald is in charge here.  She makes meringue with whipped egg whites and scented rosewater.  Layered with a mousse made from sheep’s milk yogurt, sugar, gelatin and whipped cream.  Accompanied by a citrus salad made from grapefruit and orange segments tossed with mint and garnished with chopped almonds.

Saffron Rice Pudding (Dried Fig and Pomegranate Chutney, Candied Pistachio):  Chef uses Arborio rice (think risotto) cooked with sugar, milk, cream, fresh vanilla bean and saffron.  This golden rice pudding is served in a bowl with chutney created from dried fig, honey, cinnamon and pomegranate.  Garnished with chopped candied pistachio.

From Our Attorneys:  Vegetarian options available; substitutions politely (but resolutely) declined; no split dinners; max of two credit cards; must be at least 21 to gain entry through the front door.