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From Morocco to Sicily, and Flying With Babies
by Fred Ferretti

They were behind stoves for most of their time in New York City, fashioning the pastilles aux pigeons, briouates, and patisseries of Morocco for patrons of the Hotel Pierre's Café Pierre, but Laziza Berrada and her two sister chefs from the kitchens of Marrakech's Hotel La Mamounia, Khadija Liba and Zahra Tegovanid, did manage to fit in some sightseeing and concluded that New York was rather a nice place to visit.

But not too much should be made of that, said Laziza Berrada, for, after all, "I have been to London four times, to Geneva, and to The Ritz in Paris for two months."

Oh.

Perhaps I was the one struck with the novelty of their presence here. These women wore their aprons over layered gowns of linen that covered them from neck to ankle, and their heads were also wrapped, snood like, in white linen, but they seemed quite at home. As Khadija Liba prepared the tissue-thin dough for briouates, Laziza Berrada filled them with either minced langoustes, spiced cooked rice, or chopped beef and coriander and then fashioned them into cylinders to deep-fry. Zahra Tegovanid was bent over a huge pot cooking the carrots, turnips, eggplant, chick-peas, raisins, hot green Moroccan peppers, cabbage, zucchini, red squash, and onions, the whole flavored with saffron, that was to be the basis for that evening's couscous. Between stirs she fluffed up a bowl of cooked semolina with a wooden spoon. The semolina, its grains already fat with absorbed butter, awaited the addition of these vegetable and the chunks of lamb that would complete the couscous.

The three women had come from Marrakech with Boujamaa Mars, executive chef of Le Restaurant Marocain in the Hotel La Ramounia, to bring the message that Morocco's best cooking is the cooking of the home, and that its masters are women. "I was the first woman to cook in a hotel restaurant in Morocco," Laziza Berrada told me. "I came to La Mamounia in 1968."

From Morocco's home kitchens have come such dishes, said Chef Mars, as pastilaes aux pigeons, pastries stuffed with minced pigeon meat and almonds; turbot á la fassia, grilled turbot covered with spiced tomatoes; harira, a thick soup of lamb, lentils, chick-peas, rice, flour, eggs, tomatoes, saffron, and fresh dates; and salade de concombres, a sorbet-like salad of grated cucumbers, sugar, and water touched with the flavor of orange blossoms, a bottled essence common to the Moroccan kitchen.

"This only comes from the home," said Laziza Berrada, pointing to the strips of pickled lemon rind she was laying atop stewed quail. Lemons are cut partway through and stuffed with salt, she explained. Then they are put into a bowl and covered with hot water; the bowl is sealed, and the lemons are allowed to stand.

For how long?

"Until the water looks like honey," she said. "Then you take them out and keep only the skin for cooking."

Laziza Berrada was happy to be in New York to demonstrate how Morocco cooks, she said, but she was also anxious to be on her way home to Marrakech, because she missed her husband and children.

And what did her husband do when she traveled?

"He watches our children," said this daughter of Morocco.

~

Our serendipitous drive through Sicily had been exhilarating. At each turn of the road, it seemed, there were groves of orange trees blooming in the sun, flat-roofed bright white houses descending the cliff sides like so many steps, and meadows dotted with fluted columns, entire temples — the remarkably well preserved shards of ancient Greece. We had come through Agrigento around the Temple of Juno, past the banks of Byzantine tombs cut into the limestone at its base, and continued on south through the Mezzogiorno to Gela and its twenty-three-hundred-year-old Greek wall.

Following an afternoon risotto we went on our way toward Caltagirone, stopping en route at the Piazza Armerina, a fourth-century Roman royal hunting villa, every room of which is a museum of mosaics. A delay prevented us from reaching Caltagirone as early as we had wished. There we were to have met a friend of a friend, an expert on Siracusa, who would have seen us through that lovely, ornate city.

Instead, at dark, we found ourselves in Palagonia, in the Via Amadeo, with that friend of a friend, Giovanni Toro, leading us to his mother's house, where she would cook us dinner. All of this because Giovanni Toro felt terrible that we had arrived too late for dinner at his favorite restaurant in Siracusa. We climbed the stairs, and Giovanni's mother, a small but not slight woman, greeted us. We pushed a couple of tables together as his mother sliced strips of veal and stirred a pot of pasta. Soon we began to eat. Tubes of macaroni in just a wisp of fresh tomato sauce, grilled veal, and homemade wine with an acetic bite. As we ate I saw Giovanni's mother peering down the table at me. She pointed and said something to her son.

"What did your mother say?" I asked.

"My mother says you are Italian," he replied.

I nodded. Giovanni's mother said something else. "What does your mother say now?" I asked.

"My mother says you are northern Italian."

I nodded again and asked him to ask his mother how she knew. He asked. She responded. And what had she said?

"My mother says that it is written all over your face that you are from the north."

And coming from that Sicilian woman, it was not meant to be complimentary. Nevertheless, I ate, drank wine, and applauded as Giovanni's mother peeled blood oranges, the local palagonitas, so that the skins swirled off in one-piece corkscrews. Then it was time to leave, time to move on to Siracusa. I kissed Giovanni's mother on both cheeks and asked Giovanni to thank her for dinner. She smiled slightly and turned to her son.

"La faccia é Italiana del nord, ma lo stomoco é Siciliano," she said.

"What did your mother say?" I asked Giovanni.

"My mother said that your face is northern Italian, but your stomach is Sicilian."

"She likes me?"

"She likes you."

~

I like babies. Of course I like babies. You like babies. We like babies. All of us must like babies. And we do. But not on airplanes. Babies on airplanes are not adorable nestlers. They are noisy. They cry a lot, particularly when I am trying to sleep, a circumstance I know is deliberate because babies are smart. They look around the airplane and see people like me who wish to sleep, and I know that their little brains begin to work when they see my head nod, my eyes close. Then they scream, and, when I wake up, they grin at me.

Babies on airplanes like to stare. They stand on the seat in front, facing backward, and they watch you eat. Airline food is bad enough, but to have a pair of enormous eyes looking at me as I attempt to dig my way through some green things and brown strings in those hard plastic, microwave-safe dishes does nothing whatever to improve any relationship I might establish with the baby.

Babies also do not seem to like the food that is provided for them on airplanes. Actually, I find them a bit picky, considering their size and the breadth of their eating experience. They cry when their mothers or fathers try to give them airline food, surely another indication of their innate intelligence. You see, babies will not eat airplane food because they do not like it, whereas we, who do not like it, eat it. Think about that.

If you keep your babies in context, they are quite manageable. Put babies in playpens with squeezable ducks and red nontoxic blocks and they will amuse themselves, perhaps even you. If they cry then you can pick them up and whisper to them and rock them until quiet returns.

Put babies in carriages and walk them through the park and everybody will love them. Similarly, babies in cribs are no threat to you at all. If they cry you can ignore them quite easily simply by closing the door, walking into the kitchen, and turning on the radio to your favorite heavy-metal station.

But babies on airplanes are not in context. You cannot walk away from them because you must remain seated, with your seat belt fastened, while they stare at you and cry.

What provokes these ruminations about babies on airplanes is a recent flight I was on that I am certain was sold and booked as a Nursery Charter. I have never seen, or heard, so many babies in one airplane. In front of me was a mother with two babies, which she periodically handed over the top of the seat to the woman next to me who said she loved babies. Both babies cried an awful lot and with infinitely more intensity, I felt, when they looked at me. I wondered idly from time to time where their father was and concluded that he was smart and had taken another flight, the one I should have been on.

Across the aisle was a mother with one baby and a second little fellow who seemed to have just begun to walk. Several rows behind me was another baby, and far into the rear were banks of babies. The crying began back there and was picked up by the babies that surrounded me.

I found myself not liking all those babies, any of those babies, not liking their parents for bringing them on the airplane, not liking the airline for accepting them. Babies on airplanes will do that to you. Which is too bad because I really like babies.

Table For Two

It is an unfortunate circumstance in this, the Age of the Egregious Foodie, that virtually nowhere is there to be found peace in gastronomy. All is frenzy, controversy, tumult, constantly changing labels. Evanescent trends. I suspect it is all because those foodies in charge have decreed that things will be so. Even when someone in Paris whips up exquisite, smooth, creamy mashed potatoes, deep yellow with butter, surely the ultimate food of quietude. These are quickly labeled either a manifestation of the trend toward Comfort food or an example of Retro food.

I open what is reputed to be a serious culinary journal and am confronted with an editorial demand that I choose sides in the widening conflict over who is the inventor of the stuffed zucchini blossom, Jacques Maximin of Nice or Louis Outhier of Cannes, and I wonder why we should even care. A Los Angeles foodie tells me flatly that the winged bean is to become our next all-purpose foodstuff and garnish, certain to displace the outworn kiwi, and I try, I really try, to find some significance in that. I read, amazed, still another of those uninformed foodie writers as she goes on at length about a basil-less processed chili purée and calls it a pesto. I am urged to embrace watercress as the green of the moment. I suppose I should be grateful, for its geographical guidance, to another publication, which lists a number of restaurants under the glib heading "Where the Trends Are," but I am not.

I enter restaurants for the purpose of tasting good food, and I am presented with menus calling for such things as fried Carpaccio of salmon, Cajun egg rolls, blackened sashimi, and such wonders of confused cookery as lamb chops marinated in soy sauce, garlic, sake, and that Japanese sweet rice wine called Mirin, then grilled and served with a sauce of mint, coriander, rice-wine vinegar, peanut oil, and egg whites. Why?

It is at times like this, when I feel I am under siege, that I seek some surcease; and recently, just when I thought I was about to succumb, I found this in a treatise on kashi.

Kashi?

Yes, kashi. And its attributes so moved me that I raced down to the kitchen, where my wife was cooking oatmeal, to tell her about it.

"Do you know about kashi?" I asked her.

"Yes," my wife replied.

"You do? How do you know about it?"

"We've been eating kashi for years. Remember how you liked it when Anne and Harry made it with peas and served it with brisket? How about when she made it with bow-tie pasta and fried onions? Of course I know about kashi."

"That's kasha, kash-AH, not kash-EE," I said to my wife. "Kasha is Russian. It's cracked buckwheat. As a matter of fact what you're talking about with the pasta is kasha varnishkes. Kash-EE is American. It's whole oats, brown rice, whole rye, triticale, hard red winter wheat, raw buckwheat, hulled barley, and hulled sesame seeds."

"Is it good with pasta and fried onions?" my wife asked.

"It must be. It's supposed to be good as a pilaf, as a cereal, as a grain salad like tabbouleh."

"Is that tabboul-AH or tabboulEE?" my wife asked.

"What?"

"Never mind. I was just fooling."

"Be serious. You can warm kashi and serve it as a Chinese snack with soy sauce and Dijon mustard."

"Dijon mustard and kashi is Chinese?"

"Or you can pour salsa over it," I said.

"Oh," my wife said.

I saw that I was losing her, and so I quickly mentioned that cold cooked kashi could be transformed into dessert when mixed with yogurt or fruit; that hot kashi could be stuffed into pita bread; and that we could even, creatively, make kashi nachos, which sounded good. And, if its versatility was not impetus enough to make her rush out and buy a bale, I added that kashi is "rich in increased fiber" and that each kashi kernel "stores valuable carbohydrates for extraordinary endurance and power."

"Sounds like it should be good for you," my wife said. "Me? I'll have oatmeal."

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