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Marrakech Cooking Class

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How I learned how to make pigeon pastilla, one of the most elegant dishes in moroccan cuisine.

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Pigeon pastilla, or pastela, is one of the most elegant dishes in Morroccan cuisine. When I called La Maison Arabe, the posh Marrakech hotel that offers cookery classes, they asked what we wanted to cook. "Tajine or Couscous?", the man said. I asked if we could rather make pigeon pastilla, and he suggested chicken pastilla. I called the next day and got them to agree for the pigeon pastilla - "But as you'll see there is not much to eat on a pigeon".

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I showed up at 10 am at the Maison Arabe in the Medina, Marrakesh's old city. There were an American couple and an English doctor and we all boarded a minivan that headed for the suburbs. After 15 minutes, the van entered a gate into a huge walled garden which I first took for some aristocrat's home. We crossed a huge corridor-like garden until we reached the villa. This house is rented out for parties and weddings, but today we had the villa for ourselved. The kitchen is on the first floor, a beautiful space bathed in light where the chef - a diminutive yet imposing grandmother chef known as a Dada - or traditional Morrocan cook was waiting.

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Two younger lady assistants and an Arabic-French-English translator, Mohammed, accompanied her. Each of the participants had his/her workplace set up with the tools, ingredients and spices we would need to cook this legendary dish.

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Cut the pigeon in half and finely chop the onions. Put everything in a pot and add the turmeric, cinammon, salt and ras-el-hanout.

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Cover with water, add a cinammon stick and finely chopped parsley and cilantro.

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Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cover. Leave to simmer until the meat falls off the bones - about 1 hour. I should say that an European cook would start by sautéing the pigeon and onions to enhance their flavor through the browning (Maillard's reaction). Some Morroccon cookbooks do this too but it is optional.

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While the pigeon simmers we will prepare the almonds. Morroccans grow amazing almonds and most are sold with the skins on. If so, briefly blanch the almonds (1 to 5 minutes) before shelling them (picture).

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Fill half a saucepan with peanut oil and fry the almonds, checking the color from time to time. You want a pale brown. Please note that the almonds will continue to brown after they are removed from the oil so err on the side of too pale.

 

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When browned remove them with a slotted spoon onto kitchen paper.

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Here is what to do if you brown the almonds too much. The lady chef made two batches and one was too dark. She just left the second one paler to compensate. I should say that you could spare quite a bit of calories by dry-roasting your almonds in the oven like I usually do with good results.

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Wait a bit until your almonds have cooled down enough to handle, then put them in a mixer. Add the sugar and cinammon. For European guests, a large tablespoon of sugar is enough, but Morrocans use a tenth of the almonds' weight in sugar.

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The dada proceeded carefully with the grinding of our almonds, with the most stern and concentrated look. Had shee been brewing the King's own tea or determining the country's exchange rate, she would not have looked more absorbed and serious. After a number of runs and tastings, she finally pronounced the almond powder fit.

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To further flavor the ground almond, our dada added a very large teaspoon of orange blossom water (15ml) ...

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... and a large piece of clarified butter to prevent the mixture from being too dry. She mixed everything with her fingers until she was satisfied with the smoothness of the mixture

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A generous half-hour break sipping mint tea on the poolside (you can see us trainee cooks on the pool's top left corner). I left our friendly translator Mohammed answer some questions about how many times he prayed every day and went off to explore the garden.

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We came back to the kitchen and each to his own pot.

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After an hour or so of simmering, the pigeon's flesh was falling off and the sauce much reduced. This dish is very smart as you will see. We break two eggs into the thick sauce and increase the heat to medium-high...

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... turning very slowly to scramble the eggs into the sauce.

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The idea is to get bits of white and bits of yolk rather than a smooth omelette.

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Then we debone the pigeons by hand. The flesh being so soft, it is more a matter of squeezing the legs and pulling the bones out than of scraping.

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You end up with the flesh on one side and the bones on the other. You can use the bones for a pigeon broth or for the cat. Finely chop the meat./p>

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