Friday, August 13, 2010

Ramadan, Harira and True Religion

Ramadan has begun and I have a pot of harira, the traditional Moroccan soup to break fast, simmering away on the stove. I do not fast at Ramadan, I fast at Yom Kippur (one day, get it over with). So what’s a nice lapsed Jewish girl doing with harira?

Harira and I have a history. I made it years before I visited Morocco, made it from a recipe in Erica Rozin’s Ethnic Cuisine, a book so old and battered now, my copy is in pieces. I keep it as a talisman because it was, in its own way, the book that launched my food writing career.

I had been writing for BookPage and Ann my wonderful editor asked if I ever reviewed cookbooks. I hadn’t but sure, I could, why not. She suggested kitchen-testing some recipes. I chose harira because it was winter and I had a wretched cold. It looked comforting. It looked easy. And it looked odd. I’d never seen a soup recipe that called for yeast. I've since learned this is traditional for harira, giving it some oomph and thickness and a mild fermenty kick.

I was then as I am now, a vegetarian but for professional reasons, a closeted one. A food writer with a limited diet can result in a limited career. So I quietly went about substituting the chicken in the recipe for vegetables. The result was something greater than the sum of its parts. I loved harira and wrote about it so rapturously, other editors approached me about doing food writing.

Even if they hadn’t, I’d still love this soup. I have since learned every family makes their own version of harira, and over time, I’ve changed up my own version even more. Harira is entirely forgiving, allowing you to add more of this or that. You can make it elegant with a pinch of saffron or ras el hanout, a blend of up to two dozen spices and botanicals, you can make it simple and straightforward. I’ve since seen recipes with lamb, with chicken, with eggs. I haven’t seen many plant-based versions like mine, though.

By the time I discovered harira’s link to Ramadan, I was already besotted with all things Moroccan. On a bad day, or sometimes even a good one, I dream of running away to Marrekesh. I can imagine living (somehow) within the medina, in a riadh with a blue-and-white zelig-tiled interior courtyard and a small burbling fountain that makes watery music. Every day, I’d shop in the souks for dinner. I’d gossip with my neighbors over mint tea poured out boiling hot from a battered silver pot. I’d ride a camel. I mean, if you’re going to fantasize, there’s no point in half-measures.

At the very least, I can make harira. It sustains the body because its made with ingredients that are humble but whole, nutritious and recognizable. It sustains the soul because it has a rich cultural and culinary history, a history that goes back centuries before my first taste of it. It connects me to the past and to others. As I make harira here, women in Morocco are probably making their own for their families to eat at Iftar (the Ramadan break fast at sunset).

I will serve it to those I love the way they will, with dates, bread and coffee or tea. Harira makes me feel I’m not alone in the universe. If that’s not true religion, what is?

True Religion Harira

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 teaspoon turmeric

3 zucchini or yellow squash or a combination, chopped

2 red peppers, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 28-ounce box diced tomatoes or 2 pounds gorgeous ripe tomatoes

1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

6 cups vegetable broth

1 pinch saffron or ras en hanout (optional but very nice)

1 small handful whole wheat vermicelli or angel hair, broken into pieces

1 tablespoon yeast dissolved in 1/4 cup warm vegetable broth or water

juice of 1 lemon

sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped

extra lemon wedges for serving, if desired

In a large stock pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and turmeric. Saute a few minutes, until onion softens and turns golden. Add chopped squash, red pepper and celery.

Continue cooking, stirring often, for another 5 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes, chickpeas and broth. Reduce heat to medium-low and let harira simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an hour.

Add broken noodles and dissolved yeast. Squeeze in the lemon juice. Season with sea salt and pepper. Stir in chopped cilantro just before serving.

Serve with extra lemon wedges if desired.

Serves 8.