Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What is Argan Oil?


Have you been hearing a lot about argan oil recently? Have you been wondering: What is it? Why is
it so popular all of a sudden? And, why so expensive? Well, argan oil is one of the things we are going to explore on the Vegan Fusion Feast for the Senses Moroccan trip in May. Here's some information to get you filled in and in the know about this amazing oil.

Argan oil iis an oil that is pressed from the nuts of the Argania spinosa tree. These endangered trees are native to, and grow almost exclusively in the Atlas mountains of southwestern Morocco. The tree is important for economic, environmental, and ecological reasons, it is a tree that serves many purposes. It supports local populations and livestock during drought periods; The fruit sustains goats, the leaves provide forage for camels and sheep, whilst cattle live off the press cake that remains after the oil is made and the casings are used as kindling or as fuel in clay bread ovens.

The Argan tree grows wild in arid, semi-desert conditions. There it also plays an essential ecological role by protecting the soil against heavy rain and wind induced erosion. It provides shade while its roots bind the soil helping to protect against further desertification. During times of very low rainfall it has the ability to lie dormant, and to regenerate when the rains come also surviving temperatures of up to 120°F. Because of the recent popularity of argan oil these endangered trees are now protected.

The Argan forests are integrated into the life of the Berbers who live in this part of Morocco. They are typically divided up into small sections amongst the Berber families that live in the area. Almost all of the oil processing is done by hand through women's cooperatives. It takes 10–12 hours to crack enough nuts to obtain sufficient seeds to yield one liter of oil but this provides good jobs for the women and money for educational programs, schools and health programs.

Argan oil is used for both cosmetic and culinary purposes. It contains twice as much vitamin E as olive oil and is rich in antioxidants and EFA's. It is 80% unsaturated, containing eight essential fatty acids and is more resistant to oxidation than olive oil. Argan oil also contains rare plant sterols not found in other oils, which have anti-inflammatory properties, beneficial for arthritic or rheumatic conditions.

The nuts are roasted for the culinary oil which has a rich nutty flavor and, in Morocco, is used for dipping bread, as a finishing touch for cooked food especially grilled and roasted vegetables. It also makes an excellent salad dressing. A traditional dip for bread known as amlou is made from argan oil, almonds and peanuts, sometimes sweetened by honey or sugar. The unroasted oil is traditionally used as a treatment for skin diseases, and it has recently become the rage of the western skin and hair care market.

According to various sources its high vitamin E content helps to reduce wrinkles by restoring the skin's water lipid layer and it cools and soothes inflammation. Its antioxidant properties contribute to the neutralization of free radicals. The oil is also good for your hair as a moisturizer and conditioner. It revitalizes hair making it smooth and shiny. Traditionally the oil is used in Morocco to soothe dry eczema, chicken pox, acne and psoriasis, it can also help to reduce scarring and prevent stretch marks. It is a light oil that absorbs readily without feeling greasy.

Information take from Wikipedia, an article by Dr. Mark Nesbitt and Ruth Hajioff, and argan oil direct website.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Moroccan Pumpkin and Chickpea Soup

 Today we will use the Ras El Hanout spice blend that we prepared in the previous post. This is a
simple, delicious and warming soup good for winter days. The cinnamon and ginger give it a bit of a holiday feel as well as the exotic connection to Morocco. Once you have made it feel free to make variations to make it your own. I used sweet potato as I didn't have any pumpkin. It seems like it would be good with tomato added as well. I chopped some fresh and used them for garnish.
  • 1 lb.  fresh pumpkin, diced (1/2" pieces) could be sweet potato instead
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas
  • 3 - 6 Tbsp cilantro depending on how well you like it
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 medium to large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable stock (can use bouillon cubes)
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons honey, agave or sweetener of chocie (optional)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon Ras El Hanout (see previous post)
  • 1 tbsp fresh ginger chopped or grated
    salt and pepper to taste. Also you can add chile if you like it spicy
In a small stock pot, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium-low heat until tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the pumpkin, chickpeas, cilantro, broth, sweetener, spices and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, partially covered, about 15 minutes, until the pumpkin is just tender. At this point it can be eaten but you can simmer it a bit longer to let the flavors marry more completely. The pumpkin and chickpeas will continue to soften and the soup will thicken slightly the longer you cook it. When you feel it is ready, remove and discard the cinnamon stick.
If you wish to thicken the soup more, you can transfer several spoonfuls of broth to a bowl and allow it cool slightly. Add one or two teaspoons of cornstarch or arrowroot to the cooled broth and stir until the mixture is smooth. Stir the cornstarch mixture into the soup and simmer for several more minutes, until the broth has thickened. Or if you like you can puree part of the soup and add it back in. Or if you like a thick, smooth soup puree the whole thing. Adjust spices to taste.
Serve the soup hot or warm with a garnish of freshly ground pepper and nutmeg.
 Bon Appetit !

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Exotic World of Moroccan Spices: Ras El Hanout

One good way to try out the spirit of this exotic sensuous trip to Morocco is to begin looking into the culture. What better way to get into the heart of Moroccan life than to explore the foods and spices. Today we will begin with a spice blend known as Ras El Hanout. Ras El Hanout, which means the best of the shop, is a complex, aromatic spice blend.

Most Ras El Hanout recipes include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers, and turmeric, but 30 or more ingredients could be used and like most good ethnic spice blends every family has their own particular take on the matter. So there is no one true recipe only variations on the theme. Typically the blend is prepared by grinding together whole spices, dried roots and leaves. And if you have spices in their whole form on hand by all means do this as it will give you a deeper, richer flavor. But, if you don't keep things simple by using ground spices. In this case I used some whole spices, which I ground in a coffee grinder, and some already ground spices. This spice blend is used by some Moroccans in daily cooking, while others reserve it for specialty dishes. tomorrow I will give you a recipe for a lovely pumpkin and chickpea soup using this warming spice blend.
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground mace
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground anise seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • Prep Time: 10 minutes
  • Total Time: 10 minutes
Blend all of the spices in a bowl. Transfer to a glass jar, and store in a dry, dark place.
Use Ras El Hanout to season tagines, stews, soups and vegetables. It keeps well for several months.