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Simple at heart

Moroccan dishes prepared for students at Ashland Food Co-op are seasoned with more than the country's typical spices: cumin, ginger, cilantro, sweet paprika, nutmeg, mace and cinnamon.

Instructor Tiazza Rose peppers every dish with tales about growing up in a Berber village and Morocco's seaport of Casablanca. Leaving her home country at age 23, Rose has been sharing its cuisine — considered one of the world's greatest by food experts — for several years with audiences in Ashland. Co-op culinary educator Mary Shaw credits Rose's talent with storytelling, as much as cooking ability, for the classes' popularity.

"Recipes that have deep roots in a particular culture ... have more of the feeling of the culture," says Shaw. "She really puts her heart across."

In next week's class, Rose promises recipes that are not only new to return students but typical of the primitive village where she lived as the second-oldest in a family of 10. Cooking was just another part of her daily routine, says Rose.

"In Morocco, the girls cook; it's your obligation."

Baking was done in a communal, domed, clay oven, cooking over open fires. Most homes didn't have a stove, much less appliances used in many parts of the world. Preparations for lunch started at about 7 or 8 in the morning, says Rose.

"All the pots are clay," says Rose. "There aren't too many gadgets; they're aren't too many ingredients."

Recalling her first time using a food processor in the Co-op classroom, Rose says, "Somebody had to get up and help me."

So traditional Moroccan meals, says Rose, remain very simple: bread and couscous with vegetables and, for dessert, fruit. Usually once a month, Moroccan families may eat chicken because it's the cheapest to raise, she says. Near the coast, fish is widely consumed. And contrary to popular perception, Moroccans eat lamb only about once a year for traditional Muslim celebrations, she adds.

"Meat is no part of the diet at all."

An exercise instructor and proponent of healthful eating, Rose says Moroccan food easily fits into health-conscious diets. Shaw agrees, citing Morocco's abundance of seasonal produce as the basis of the Mediterranean diet touted as heart-healthy.

"It's simple; it's whole foods-based," says Shaw. "In my opinion, Moroccan cooking is pretty much right on the mark."

For more nutrition, Rose substitutes the whole grain quinoa for Morocco's traditional couscous, a tiny pellet-like pasta made from semolina grains and water. She also cuts back on the copious amounts of olive oil Moroccans typically use and doesn't sweeten her mint tea.

But any assortment of ingredients can take on a North African flavor with some of the region's unique commodities like preserved lemons and distilled flower waters. Other essentials of a Moroccan pantry are onions, olives, chickpeas, lentils, oranges, dates, nuts, anise, mint, cardamom, turmeric and saffron, according to McClatchy News Service.

While Americans are acquainted with most spices she uses, it's the combination that makes them Moroccan, says Rose. Similar to the concept of Indian curry, Morocco's quintessential spice blend is ras el hanout, which can vary from region to region and family to family. Rather than purchasing it, Rose tells students to make it themselves from ginger, black pepper, cumin and paprika. Make it sweet with cinnamon and nutmeg, a commonplace way to season meat in Morocco, says Rose.

Less familiar are preserved lemons, often served atop tagine, an aromatic stew named for the conical clay dish in which it is baked and served. Many households make their lemons, but they're available in any marketplace in Morocco, says Rose. A Nov. 17 Co-op class on fermentation will demonstrate preservation of lemons, says Shaw.

Also unique to North Africa is the fiery paste harissa (a blend of garlic chilies, cumin and olive oil), not only used widely as an ingredient but tabletop condiment. Find it online or in specialty-foods stores.

Rose calls Moroccan food "a unique mix of sweet, salty and earthy spice flavors." Experts trace the ancient confluence of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and African ingredients with a generous dose of Asian spices that culminated — despite the country's cultural and religious differences — in a sort of culinary harmony.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.

Vegetable-only dishes, such as this spiced, stuffed squash, are consumed more often than meat in North Africa, says Moroccan cooking instructor Tiazza Rose. See the accompanying recipe. - MCT