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Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout adds mystery to everything from meat dishes to ice cream

Spices are to food what makeup is to a face. They can bring out the best, and make the ordinary more interesting.

Ras el hanout, were it makeup instead of spice, would be the stuff hauled out for a Red Carpet Moment. It's a North African blend, usually associated specifically with Morocco, that translates from Arabic as "top of the shelf," meaning the best a merchant has to offer. It typically contains cardamom, mace, cinnamon, allspice, pepper and cumin, but that's about as general as you can get with this seasoning.

Ras el hanout (the most common way to say it is ross el hah-NEW) is considered the most complex blend in the world by many food authorities, even more so than India's fabled curries. There is no codified or standard recipe for it, and Moroccan spice sellers take great pride in their secret versions.

The number of ingredients can be as low as 10, but they are pale versions of the blend that can reach as high as 100 components (though I think you would have to go to Morocco for one like that). You can sometimes find ras el hanout locally, but those I have seen seem to comprise the basic spices I listed earlier.

A good ras el hanout has varying notes of bitter, smoky, floral and hot that, in the magical alchemy of cooking, lend to food a flavor that is unique and difficult to identify. It was once touted as an aphrodisiac, because it often contained Spanish fly beetle, but that's now illegal.

I like ones that have at least 20 ingredients, and there are many mail-order sources for ras el hanout you can access on the Internet. My favorite comes from the Canadian spice company, Épices de Cru (epicesdecru.com). Besides its flavor, it arrives as whole spices, unlike most others, so you can see all the cool bits and pieces of it. You will need a coffee grinder to pulverize it before using. Grind it all and store the powder in the freezer after grinding. It's pricey at $17 for roughly the equivalent of a standard 1.5-ounce jar of ground spices, but it lasts for a long time.

Ras el hanout is a staple of tagines, those unctuous stews of meat and/or vegetables, and the accompanying beef tagine recipe is adapted from one by Jamie Oliver. You don't need the cone-topped vessel, also called a tagine. A heavy casserole does just fine.

Ras el hanout is also good sprinkled lightly on a citrus salad. And, in experimenting, I found it makes a fabulous main flavoring in ice cream, which I pair with complementary Moroccan flavors in a sweet rather than savory combination: almond (in a cake) and dried apricots (in a dessert sauce).

Lennie Bennett is the Times' art critic. She can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

>>moderate

Ras el Hanout Ice Cream

1 cup half-and-half

1 tablespoon ras el hanout

Pinch of salt

¾ cup sugar

2 cups heavy cream

5 large egg yolks

teaspoon pure almond extract

Heat the half-and-half, ras el hanout, salt and sugar in a saucepan until hot but not bubbling and sugar is melted. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.

To make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a bowl in a larger bowl partly filled with ice and water. Pour the cream into the bowl.

In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Rewarm the half-and-half, then gradually pour some of it into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. This tempers the eggs so they won't scramble when you add them to the pan.

Pour the warmed yolks and half-and-half slowly into the saucepan. Cook over very low heat, stirring constantly so the mix doesn't scramble (that happened to me once when I turned away for a few minutes) and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula. Pour the custard into the heavy cream. (You can strain it first, but I find that unnecessary.) Stir over the ice until cool, add the almond extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly, preferably overnight. Freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes 1 quart.



Source: Lennie Bennett

>>moderate

Beef Tagine

Cutting up fresh pumpkin or squash can be a chore, but it adds nice color and flavor notes. You can use frozen winter squash and add it in the last 10 minutes. Do not substitute pureed squash or pumpkin or yellow summer squash. You don't have to use the pomegranate, but it adds lovely color, crunch and a little sourness to cut this rich dish.

4- to 5-pound chuck roast, cut into large chunks

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

Small bunch of fresh cilantro, stems removed and tied with twine and leaves reserved for serving

1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

3 cups beef broth or stock

1 tablespoon ras el hanout

Small "pie" pumpkin, one grown for cooking (3 to 4 pounds), or equal weight acorn squash, cut, seeds and rind removed and cut into 2-inch chunks (about 3 cups total)

1 ½ cups pitted prunes, torn or cut into large pieces

4 tablespoons sliced almonds, toasted

1 pomegranate (optional)

For the spice rub:

2 tablespoons ras el hanout

1 tablespoon each ground cumin, cinnamon, ground ginger, sweet paprika and salt

Mix the spice rub ingredients together in a large plastic bag. Add the beef pieces and massage and mix until the meat is coated. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours and up to 24.

Pour enough olive oil into an oven-proof casserole to generously cover the bottom and saute the meat over medium heat for 5 minutes. Don't crowd it; you'll probably have to do it in three batches. And don't go for a deep sear; you don't want to burn the spices. Remove each batch to a bowl.

Add onion and cilantro stems, scraping up the browned bits on the pan's bottom, and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the chickpeas and tomatoes, then the stock and ras el hanout and stir. Return all beef to the pot. Bring to a boil, cover pot with a lid or foil, and put into a 325-degree oven for 2 hours.

Add pumpkin or squash, prunes and some splashes of water if the tagine is getting too thick. Stir, cover and cook for about 1 hour.

The beef should be very tender and beginning to shred. Taste for salt and pepper. If the sauce is too thin, boil for a few minutes.

Serve over couscous topped with toasted almonds and chopped cilantro leaves. Cut the pomegranate in half across the equator and scoop out seeds over the tagine, letting some of the juice run over the dish.

Source: Adapted from Jamie Oliver

>>moderate

Almond Cake

Pastry chef and cookbook author David Lebovitz was a chef at the venerable Chez Panisse and adapted this popular cake from the restaurant menu. He says it can stick to the pan; I didn't have that problem, but be careful as you remove it. Make sure you use almond paste, not marzipan.

1 cup flour, divided

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon salt

1 cups sugar

8 ounces almond paste

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

6 large eggs at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 9- or 10-inch cake or springform pan with butter. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper, butter it, dust pan with flour and tap out any excess. Try to use a pan with at least 2-inch sides or use less batter so it doesn't bubble over during cooking.

In a small bowl, whisk together ¾ cup of flour, baking powder and salt.

In a food processor, grind the sugar, almond paste and ¼ cup of flour until the almond paste is finely ground and the mixture resembles sand.

Once the almond paste is completely broken up, add the butter and the vanilla and almond extracts, then process until the batter is very smooth and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, processing a bit before the next addition. (You may wish to open the machine and scrape the sides down to make sure the eggs are getting fully incorporated.) After you add all the eggs, the mixture may look curdled. Don't worry; it'll come back together after the next step.

Add half the flour mixture and pulse the machine a few times, then add the rest, pulsing until the dry ingredients are just incorporated, but do not overmix.

Scrape the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake the cake for 65 minutes, or until the top is deep brown and feels set when you press in the center. It may have cracked a bit.

Remove the cake from the oven and run a sharp or serrated knife around the perimeter, loosening the cake from the sides of the pan. Let the cake cool completely in the pan.

Once cool, tap the cake out of the pan, remove the parchment paper, and set on a cake plate until ready to serve. It will keep, well-wrapped, for several days at room temperature and can be frozen.

Serves 8.

Source: David Lebovitz

>>easy

Poached Apricots

1 cup dried apricots

1 cup brandy

½ cup orange juice

2 tablespoons honey

Pinch of salt

Peel of ½ a lemon

Squeeze of lemon juice

Soak the apricots in very hot water for about 5 minutes. Drain and quarter them. In a small saucepan, heat apricots and all ingredients except the lemon juice to a boil over medium-high heat for several minutes. Reduce heat and boil gently for 20 to 30 minutes until syrup is thick. Add a squeeze of lemon juice. Will keep in the refrigerator for a month, but do not freeze.

Makes about 2 cups.

Source: Lennie Bennett

.moderate

Ras el Hanout Ice Cream

With Cake and Fruit

Ras el hanout ice cream

(see recipe below)

Almond cake

(see recipe below)

Poached apricots

(see recipe below)

Slice a generous wedge of cake for each serving. Top it with a scoop of ice cream and poached apricots.

You can simplify this by using a good vanilla ice cream and adding the spice to it (though it will also have vanilla competing with the spice flavor). You can also substitute pound cake and top with fresh berries.

Moroccan spice blend ras el hanout adds mystery to everything from meat dishes to ice cream 11/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 3:30am]

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