From Morocco to Madison
The story behind our 2018 Member Recipe Contest Winner
As the 2018 Member Recipe Contest winner, we have invited Dan and his family to join us for an all-expenses paid trip to Sitka as part of a series of trip giveaways. We do this, of course, to further connect our members with our fishermen and the places where they work, live, and play. Read more about our trip giveaways here.
by Dan Pell of Madison, WI
I grew up in the northern reaches of the Mid-West, traveling the world through books. A chain of Beat writers led me eventually to Paul Bowles, whose stories planted in me a desire to travel to Morocco. The year after finishing High School I took up my studies in Ireland, and some months later made my way over land and sea, through the capitals of Europe, to the Straits of Gibraltar and across to a hazy morning in the port of Tangiers. For 10 days I travelled all over the country, sleeping in the best hotels $5 could buy (prices have gone up, I’m afraid), finding two guides — both named Mustapha — to take me on a swing through the High Atlas, and blowing my mind in the ancient souks (the Moroccan word for market) of Marrakech and Fès. Anyone who reads this who has thought of going to Morocco: go. That experience changed my desire to travel into a desire to live there. And it also introduced me to fish kefta — more to follow.
Small wooden shipping boats line the beautiful Moroccan shore
Years later I made several trips back from my home on the North Coast of Ireland. One year I busked with my fiddle for months and paid for my trip almost entirely in coins that I stored in a giant clay jar. On that trip I made my way all the way to heady beauty of Essaouira. In a fish stall inside its ancient fortified port, still lined with dozens of cannons, I tasted this recipe again. It was made of the fresh caught sardines bought in by the small wooden boats that had once been the European trawling fleet of the 1950s and 60s. Kept alive by the skill of local shipwrights, they sailed into waters where they competed with modern super-trawlers exploiting the African fisheries.
The Hassan Tower is iconic of Rabat, Morocco
My desire to live in Morocco grew, and as I finished my studies it also led me to me meet my wife. The day we met, I introduced myself as learning French so that I could travel in Morocco. Charmed, she decided to join me. Some years later that desire was fulfilled, and we spent a year living in Casablanca, home of one of the greatest institutions of sea gastronomy that I’ve ever experienced, the Restaurant du Port du Pêche. We returned 6 years later to live in the beautiful jewel of Rabat — the capital — with its walled neighborhoods overlooking the Bouregreg river, from whence artisanal fishermen still set out with the tide in fleets of colorful skiffs to line-catch and hand-cast nets; returning to markets where you could buy today’s catch fresh, literally from a man standing next to a small pile of fish. Our first son was born in Rabat, and although we’ve been back in the Mid West for over 8 years now, our house is still filled with relics and memories of North Africa – and now our boys talk about living there too.
Large Moroccan fishing vessels.
My family and I are fish-eating vegetarians. With its California-climate, we ate well in Morocco. And through all this time, the dish that still stuck as my favorite is fish kefta: that same dish I tasted on that very first trip. I’ve had this dish many more times in restaurants, and also had the chance to watch it cooked in a home-kitchen.
tajines are clay cooking dishes commonly used in Morocco
A Few Notes on Moroccan Cooking
Tajines: In Morocco most dishes are cooked in a special dish called a tajine. This is a heavy clay dish with a tight-fitting conical clay lid. It’s so ubiquitous it’s almost a national emblem, and thousands of beautifully decorated tajines are for sale for tourists in the souks. Tajines conserve water and concentrate the flavor of food: steam rises inside, and condenses at the top, running back into the dish. It’s a pretty amazing invention, allowing you to slow cook over fire or charcoal for hours with very little water – perfect for a dry climate. My favorite tajines were the un-decorated ones with a simple brown glaze, or unglazed with the hand-marks of the potter still plainly visible. If you don’t have a tajine, any heavy, wide pan with a tight-fitting lid will do for this dish.
Olive Oil: Morocco produces an incredible variety of olives, and strong, cloudy, flavorful, straight-from-the-farm olive oil is taken seriously. In some places we visited olive oil was still crushed by round stones pulled in a circle by donkeys, a scene going back to Roman times. My favorite story connected to that was asking a mountain guide in the Rif Mountains to help us buy local olive oil and being asked to wait in a courtyard mounded with the farm’s other produce: about 10 tons of cannabis. One thing I learned is that a little olive oil is good: a lot of olive oil is better. And another thing I learned, is that the taste changes noticeably when it’s used to cook, meaning you get a different, better flavor if you add more at the end of the cooking.
The "Roman Wheel," an age-old form of olive oil press.
Parsley and Cilantro (coriander): Moroccan dishes use quantities of these two herbs that are unheard of in other cuisines. This recipe calls for many tablespoons of each — that’s measured after you chop it, so start with a big bunch and chop up everything but the stalks. You pretty much can’t add enough — I even have a recipe for a dish made almost entirely of parsley! This entirely makes sense in a country that uses a fist full of mint just to make one small pot of tea.
Rabat as seen from the mouth of the Bou Regreg river.
The last part of my story is to connect this back to Sitka Salmon Shares. I can’t say enough about how good the fish is that you catch. Every piece is amazing, and it’s pushed me to try more and more daring things. That said, the fish is so good it’s a shame to do too much that might cover that amazing flavor. The exception to that was the “Halibut burger meat”. I’m not a burger fan at all, and when I started to think “what will I do with this”, I thought immediately of kefta. It is a perfect match, and the result was so delicious that (apologies to all the other fish) this has been the best dish we’ve made the whole year. With all that in mind, it’s my pleasure to share this with the community. Enjoy!
Dan Pell with his family, enjoying our fishermen's catch
Try out Dan's Halibut Kefta recipe and see why he was crowned the champion in Sitka Salmon Share's 2018 Member Recipe Contest!