Moroccan politician adds spice to Hollywood family’s Shabbat dinner

Dessert cookies: A spread of Moroccan cookies was part of Asma Chaabi’s dessert table.
Dessert cookies: A spread of Moroccan cookies was part of Asma Chaabi’s dessert table. For the Miami Herald

“I’m going to make a Moroccan Shabbos dinner; you must join us,” said Asma Chaabi, visiting Miami from Rabat, Morocco.

“But, Asma, you’re not Jewish. Why are you making this Sabbath dinner?” I asked.

Her answer surprised me.

“In Morocco we don’t have religious differences like in America. From childhood we all live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same schools and respect each other. Once a month I make a Shabbos dinner.”

Listening to Chaabi and watching her cook, I was amazed at her love of food and her relationship to the dishes she makes.

Chaabi, standing over 6 feet tall and dressed in jeans, radiates enthusiasm and energy. She was the first woman mayor of a Moroccan municipality, Essaouira. She also is vice president of Groupe Chaabi, YNNA Holding, a Moroccan-based company with major interests in Morocco and several Middle Eastern countries.

Her friend, Catherine Friedman, was hosting Asma in her Hollywood home. Chaabi is friendly with Friedman’s relatives who live in Morocco. Hearing so many stories about South Florida, Chaabi decided to accept Friedman’s invitation to visit.

Both women welcomed me to the kitchen for a beehive of activity. From this passionate effort — Chaabi and Friedman worked from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. — came a from-scratch dinner for 30, an extraordinary feast.

The first thing I saw when I walked in to the kitchen was a table filled with colorful spices, many brought from Morocco. Chaabi gave me a tour of the spices, which included saffron, ground ginger, turmeric, ground cumin, paprika, sweet red pepper, black pepper, sea salt and preserved lemon along with fresh parsley and cilantro. These provided the exotic flavors for all the dishes.

A Moroccan dinner starts with several cold starters that are scooped up with bread. It continues with many other meat and fish dishes and ends with a table filled with sweet Moroccan delicacies.

The dinner began with Chaabi and Friedman lighting the Sabbath candles and Alan Friedman, Catherine’s husband, saying the prayers for the wine and bread. After the meal, about 11 p.m., another Moroccan tradition began — dancing to Moroccan music.

On the menu

▪ Moroccan Okra Salad (mloukhiya): Okra is only harvested once a year and is a specialty that Moroccans look forward to. The okra is cooked in a tomato-based sauce with garlic, sweet paprika, onion.

▪ Eggplant Salad (zaalouk): Made with smoked eggplants, tomatoes, garlic, hot paprika, cumin and preserved lemon (see recipe).

▪ Fresh Pepper Salad (taktouka): Made with roasted bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, paprika, cumin, parsley, cilantro.

▪ Lima Bean Salad (foul bazeit): Usually made with fava beans. Lima beans were available here.

▪ Baked Whole Snapper (houta mcharmala): Chaabi marinated two whole snappers in a mixture of argan oil (Moroccan oil from argan seeds), crushed garlic, paprika, tomatoes, preserved lemon. She covered the fish in roasted red pepper slices and baked them 20-30 minutes.

▪ Osso Bucco with Moroccan White Truffles (chwa kdour batarfass): White Moroccan truffles are plentiful and were used whole in this dish. Veal shanks were cooked in olive oil and spices until it melts off the bone. The secret to the dish is to give the veal a heavy dusting of ground cumin at the end of the cooking.

▪ Lamb with Pears (mhammar bangass): Lamb shoulder is cooked in olive oil and butter, garlic, salt, saffron and a huge bowl of sliced onion. The pears are added near the end of cooking.

▪ Chicken with Olive in Lemon Sauce: Chicken pieces are cooked in olive oil, butter, saffron, turmeric, preserved lemons, olives.

▪ Chicken Pastilla: The meat pie is traditionally made with pigeon. Here, it is layers of phyllo wrapped around chicken, almonds and eggs and spiced with saffron and cinnamon. It’s baked and dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

▪ Couscous with Roasted Root Vegetables: The couscous is cooked and coated with argan oil. Roasted root vegetables are served on top.

▪ The Dessert Table: Filled with pastries brought from Morocco.

Side dish

Taktouka (Fresh Pepper Salad)

4 large green bell peppers

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

2 teaspoons ground cumin

6 crushed garlic cloves

10 peeled tomatoes

1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

1/2 cup finely chopped parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

40 black olives (optional garnish)

Place green peppers directly over a heated burner or under the broiler to char all sides. Once charred, place them in a plastic bag or in a bowl and cover. This will make peeling easier. Heat olive oil in a sauce pan and add paprika, cumin, garlic and tomatoes. Cook over medium heat 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Peel green peppers and slice or cut into cubes. Add to the saucepan. Add cilantro and parsley. Cook over medium heat another 15 minutes or until it becomes thick. Add salt and pepper to taste. Decorate with olives (optional). Serves 10-12 as an appetizer.

Per serving: 104 calories (62 percent from fat), 7.2 g fat (1 g saturated, 5 g monounsaturated), no cholesterol, 2.2 g protein, 10.1 g carbohydrates, 3.3 g fiber, 130 mg sodium.

Side dish

Zaalouk (Eggplant Salad)

2 large eggplants

1 tablespoon salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

6 medium tomatoes, peeled

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup chopped parsley

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 crushed garlic cloves

2 teaspoons sweet red paprika

1 tablespoon white vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 pita bread cut into triangles

Peel and dice eggplant. Add salt and place in boiling water for 30 minutes. Drain, making sure all water from the eggplant is released. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan and add the tomatoes, eggplant, cilantro, parsley, cumin, garlic and paprika. Once the tomatoes start getting soft, crush them and the eggplant with a fork. Remove from heat and add the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Bring to room temperature 30 minutes before serving. Serve with the pita bread triangles for dipping. Serves 10 to 12 as appetizer.

Per serving: 116 calories (43 percent from fat), 6 g fat (0.7 g saturated, 3.7 g monounsaturated), no cholesterol, 3 g protein, 14.8 g carbohydrates, 3 g fiber, 152 mg sodium.

Main dish

Chicken with Olives in Lemon Sauce

2 whole chickens cut into 12 pieces

1/2 cup preserved lemon (or Meyer lemon slices)

4 tablespoons olive oil

5 crushed garlic cloves

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon turmeric

Pinch saffron

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

1 medium red onion finely chopped

1 cup black olives

Place chicken pieces in a large bowl. Add the preserved lemon, 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, ginger, turmeric, saffron and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate 3 to 4 hours. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Add the chicken, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, parsley, cilantro, and onion to an oven proof casserole dish. Bake 40 minutes. Add the olives and bake another 10 minutes. Serves 6 to 8 people.

Per serving: 760 calories (63 percent from fat), 53.2 g fat (13.9 g saturated, 24.3 g monounsaturated), 234 mg cholesterol, 61.7 g protein, 6.3 g carbohydrates, 0.9 g fiber, 272 mg sodium.


Preserved Lemons

4 lemons, washed, dried

Juice from 2 lemons

Kosher salt

Cut the lemons lengthwise almost all the way through into quarters. Fill the cuts with kosher salt. Place the lemons in a sterile jar just large enough to hold them. Add the lemon juice. Fill the jar with more salt, making sure the lemons are covered and there is no air between the lemons and the lid. Store in a cool, dark place for four to five weeks. Once opened keep the jar in the refrigerator. The lemons will keep for several months.