Ken Morris, Cooking for Comfort: The flavors of Morocco at home | Food Columnists

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Guests to the Oxbow Market this summer will be able to discover an oasis of Moroccan food across from the Ritual Coffee stand. Michelin-starred chef Mourad Lahlou, proprietor of acclaimed restaurants Aziza and Mourad in San Francisco says his new restaurant in the Oxbow, Moro Napa, will offer the food and spices reminiscent of food stalls at Jemaa el-Fnaa, a popular night market he frequented growing up in Marrakesh.

Jorge Velazquez, a native of Napa, former butcher at Charter Oak, and a personal friend of Chef Mourad, will run the kitchen with his guidance. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle (yes, I did submit some thought-provoking questions to his representatives but chefs are busy trying to keep their restaurants afloat during a pandemic so no response by press time), he said he hasn’t finalized the menu, but it will focus on grilled meats served alongside flatbreads, fresh salads, wraps, and spreads, like those served at his casual restaurant Aziza.

“It’s food that people can enjoy multiple times a week,” he said. “I don’t want people to come just once a month.”

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There have been lots of changes in Napa’s restaurant mix since the pandemic began. Paul Franson, who writes the informative NapaLife weekly newsletter, listed at least 20 restaurants that he knows have closed, but reports that plenty more are planning on opening.

The Oxbow Market has experienced its own upheavals, which will provide space for the new venture. Moro Napa will be located in the current home of C Casa, a taqueria that will be able to expand its offerings to include full plates by moving across the market into the larger space previously occupied by Todd Humphries’ Kitchen Door. The new Kitchen Door will reopen downtown in the First Street Napa complex across from Compline restaurant in early 2022.

Other chess moves at Oxbow Market include Fieldwork Brewery taking lock, stock, and (beer) barrels to the former Cru space at the northwest corner of the complex. This opened a space for another Michelin star chef, Christopher Kostow of The Restaurant at Meadowood (currently being rebuilt after burning down in the 2020 Glass Fire), and the casual Charter Oak, will soon open Loveski, with his wife, Martina Kostow. The restaurant is described as a Jew-ish deli. Nope, I don’t know what the fine line between Jewish and Jew-ish deli is, either, but I want to try it anyway.

But the big news to me is Napa Valley attracting an acclaimed chef from outside the valley bringing a cuisine we haven’t seen a lot. Chef Mourad immigrated to the United States when he was 17 years old, joining his brother, Khalid, eventually earning a BA and master’s degree in economics from San Francisco State University.

To earn money during school he got a job waiting tables at a Moroccan restaurant, Mamounia. He felt the restaurant didn’t deliver the flavors of his childhood so he eventually began cooking at home, relying on memories of his mother’s cooking and lessons from his grandfather at the market.

This led to him hosting Moroccan dinner parties at home and that success prompted his brother to suggest they should start a restaurant. Unlike most good cooks who are told by their friends that they should open a restaurant, they actually opened a successful restaurant, Kasbah, in San Rafael and when the lease ran out in five years, moved back to San Francisco, launching their new restaurant in the Outer Richmond as Aziza, named after their mother. In 2010, it became the first Moroccan restaurant in the U.S. to be awarded a Michelin Star. Mourad received a Michelin Star in 2015, its opening year.

What is Moroccan food? Gripping the western coast of North Africa, Morocco is a mysterious location for many. The only connection many have in the U.S. is they may have seen the 1942 movie “Casablanca” (shot completely in a California movie studio) or read the books by Paul Bowles.

If you’re an adventurous cook, you probably have a cookbook or two by Paula Wolfert, who travel extensively in Morocco, focusing her first cookbook there with “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” and wrapped up her writing career eight books later with “The Food of Morocco.”

Like many nations, Morocco is a rich blend of several cultures, starting with its indigenous population, the Berbers, which was invaded by a series of neighbors, including the ancient Romans and later, the Arabs. France and Spain fought over territory eventually Morocco a protectorate of France and it wasn’t until 1956 that it became the Kingdom of Morocco.

Beyond Mediterranean fruits and vegetables, spices are used extensively in Moroccan food, ranging from anise to caraway, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, coriander, fennel, fenugreek, nutmeg, turmeric, and sesame seeds. The goal is complexity, not heat. Morocco spreads between the Mediterranean and the Atlanta, so plenty of fish dishes along the coast but much of the area is mountainous and borders Algeria to the east, and Western Sahara to the south. The dish people are most familiar with is couscous, which are tiny steamed granules of semolina flour, traditionally served with a stew spooned on top.

While self-taught, Chef Mourad has attracted a lot of star power to his cooking. His cookbook, “Mourad: New Moroccan,” published in 2011, is not a collection of classic Moroccan dishes but provides education on spices and techniques before laying out Moroccan recipes that he has adapted to U.S. ingredients and rethought to modernize it. The back of the book features glowing blurbs from famous chefs such as Thomas Keller, Jacques Pépin, José Andrés, Eric Riper, and the late Anthony Bourdain. There is so much praise, the publishers ran out of room on the back cover so they had to tuck Daniel Patterson, David Kinch, and Charles Phan reviews on the inside cover.

In a press release, Steve Carlin, founder, and managing partner of Oxbow Public Market added, “Oxbow Public Market continues to evolve and add exciting new options to our market mix. Moro Napa is an example of that evolution, and our diversification. We couldn’t be happier for the Napa community that Chef Mourad has decided to join the market.” I just hope the Napa community will try a cuisine that they may not be familiar with and, at least for lunch or dinner, take that trip to the night market in Marrakesh.

Can’t wait to try his food? Here is a simple recipe from Chef Mourad’s book to get you started.

Chicken Skewers

From “Mourad: New Moroccan” by Mourad Lahlou

3 tablespoons sweet paprika

1 tablespoon ground cumin

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

3 tablespoons coarsely chopped thyme

1 1/2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped cilantro

1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup finely diced preserved lemon rind 

1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Marinade: Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Trim the chicken breasts of excess fat. Remove the tenders and reserve them for another use. Cut the meat into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Add the chicken to the marinade and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or as long as overnight.

Vinaigrette: Whisk all the ingredients together. Set aside.

Chicken: Soak 6 long wooden skewers in cold water for 30 minutes.

Lift several pieces of the chicken at a time from the marinade and squeeze them over the bowl to drain the extra marinade. Skewer the chicken, leaving 1/4 inch between the pieces to allow all sides of the chicken to cook evenly.

Season the chicken lightly with salt and pepper.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Place the skewers on the grill and cook for 2 to 3 minutes without moving them, to mark the chicken. Turn the skewers 90 degrees to mark with a crosshatch pattern and grill for another 1 minute. The marks should be well browned but not burnt. Turn the skewers over and cook for about 2 minutes to finish cooking the chicken.

Carefully remove the chicken from the skewers and place it in a bowl. Toss with a light coating of the vinaigrette, and serve the extra vinaigrette on the side.

Ken Morris has been cooking for comfort for more than 30 years and learning in kitchens from Alaska to Thailand to Italy. He now cooks and writes from his kitchen in Napa. Email [email protected].

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