A Moroccan Stew With Spice and Sweetness

 , The New York Times  |  Updated: February 23, 2015 17:21 IST

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A Moroccan Stew With Spice and Sweetness

I've never been to Morocco - at least not physically. But it's the first place my mind goes when my body has become thoroughly fed up with February's damp chill.



That's when I rifle through my spice drawer, pulling out the likes of turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and sweet paprika. When melded in a tagine-inspired stew, it's as warming and aromatic a dish as you can get in the middle of a New York City winter.



Usually, these stews are meat-based and hearty, the kind of things you crave when you're wrapped in wool.



Not this recipe, which involves chickpeas and chard but no meat. It manages to be satisfying and light at the same time, a zesty, filling and fragrant dish that works either as a vegetarian main course or as a side dish to roasted meats or fish.



The chickpeas take center stage here, so it's worth the time to seek out the dried peas and simmer them soft. Canned chickpeas are convenient, but they are never sublime. When slowly simmered in a heady broth of spices and vegetables, the dried peas have a chance to absorb more of the flavor without losing their firm texture. Canned ones would disintegrate into mush before becoming thoroughly imbued with spice.



Another ingredient to seek out is preserved lemon, also called pickled or salted lemon. Not only does this add a tangy, citrus note to the stew, but it also gives it an underlying funk, which sounds suspect but tastes great in combination with the other ingredients, making everything more haunting and complex. If you can't get preserved lemon, stir in some grated lemon zest and fresh lemon juice, which will at least provide the needed acidity.

Many Moroccan tagines have a pleasing sweet note to them, and so here I stir minced dried apricots into the pot. I don't use much; the sweetness remains firmly in the background. But if you like things sweeter, feel free to add more. Or substitute a sweeter dried fruit. Dates, raisins or prunes would work well and add a more pronounced and deeper fruit flavor.



Finally, don't stint on the fresh herbs - the cilantro and fennel fronds - for a garnish at the end. This ruddy, earthy stew benefits greatly from the lively greens, which add vibrancy in color and taste. Your mood will brighten with your first bite.



And to Drink ...



With both sweet and spicy elements, this meatless stew may seem a difficult match for wine. Yet I think many wines could work well, including reds, whites and especially dry Provencal roses, though few may be inclined that way in the dead of winter. A mellow aged red, like a Rioja reserva or gran reserva, would go well with the rich creaminess of the chickpeas and the array of spices, as would a 10- to 15-year-old Pauillac or Pomerol from a lighter vintage like 1999, 2001 or 2002. Among whites, I'd look for wines that are more textured than fruity, like a dry white Bordeaux from Pessac-Leognan or a richer Muscadet. You can also try a dry Savennieres or a pinot blanc from Austria (where it's known as weissburgunder), Alsace or even Oregon.



- ERIC ASIMOV



Recipe: Moroccan Chickpeas with Chard



Time: 2 1/2 hours, plus overnight soaking



Yield: 6 to 8 servings



4 tablespoons olive oil



2 Spanish onions, chopped



1 large jalapeno pepper, seeded if desired, chopped



4 garlic cloves, minced



1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger root



2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more to taste



1 teaspoon ground turmeric



1 teaspoon sweet paprika



3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon



1/2 teaspoon ground cumin



1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper



Pinch of cayenne



2 tablespoons tomato paste



1 fennel bulb, diced (save fronds for garnish)



1 very large bunch chard, stems sliced 1/2-inch thick, leaves torn into bite-size pieces



2 carrots, peeled and diced



1 large turnip, peeled and diced



1 pound dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water to cover or quick-soaked (see note)



1/3 cup diced dried apricots



2 tablespoons chopped preserved lemon, more to taste



1/2 cup chopped cilantro, more for garnish



1. Heat oil in a large pot over high heat. Add onion and jalapeno and saute until limp, 3 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, salt, turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, cumin, black pepper and cayenne and saute until they release their fragrance, about 2 minutes. Add tomato paste and saute for another minute, until darkened but not burned. (If tomato paste looks too dark too quickly, lower heat.)



2. Add fennel, chard stems, carrot and turnip and continue to saute until vegetables start to soften, about 10 minutes. Add chickpeas and water to barely cover.



3. Return heat to high if you lowered it and bring to a simmer. Partly cover pot, lower heat to medium low, and simmer for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until chickpeas are softened. Add more water if needed. (This should be like a stew.)



4. Add chard leaves, apricots and preserved lemon to pot and continue simmering until chard is tender, about 5 minutes longer. Season with more salt if desired, and serve garnished with cilantro and reserved fennel fronds.



Note: To quick-soak chickpeas, bring them to a boil in water to cover by 1 inch. Turn off heat and let soak for 1 hour. Drain.



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