Let me be more specific – there is no stove in the kitchen I am working in. Villa Mabrouka is a beautiful, gracious home that is currently home and hearth to 20 guests – each and every bedroom has a private bath, freshly ironed linens and glorious views. Our needs are tended to with efficiency and elegance by the lovely Fatiah and her crew. They man the service kitchen on the living level, which is small but well-equipped to prepare food for a family and breakfast for our guests. There is a marble work table, a butler’s pantry and a small oven with 4 burners… The kitchen I am working in, on the other hand, has loads of counter space, a giant work table, 3 commercial sinks, a walk-in refrigerator and- no stove. There is a space where the ghost of a serious range once stood, and on the counter next to this gaping hole? A two burner camp stove, tethered by a flexible umbilical to a 5-gallon propane tank…
Panic. Anxiety. Fear. Cold sweats. How am I going to finesse this menu on a two-burner camp stove? I have to make potato salad, succotash, corn bread, biscuits, and FRIED CHICKEN for 100 people. Just now, though, I need to shove all those thoughts of running away to the back of my brain, because it is time to go to the market. Aziza and Mustapha are waiting.
Aziza is a chef in her early 40s, who is making a go of it as a female entrepreneur in a Muslim country. She will be catering the Moroccan dinner on Saturday night, and will be assisting me in provisioning the picnic. As we head down into the medina, the smell of fresh mint guides us toward the food court. Stall after stall of stacked produce competes for space with hordes of humans. First up? The birds. As I go over the details in English with my friend & mentor, Kevin, I formulate the correct conjugations in French, so that I can ask Aziza for 50 chickens of 1 kilo or less, each one cut into 4 pieces, with the backbones removed. She promptly and efficiently (I hope) translates into Arabic for the butcher… who seems taken a little aback and slightly confused. In the end, I draw with my finger on a whole roaster how to remove the spine and where the cuts should be. We shake hands in agreement, and give the butcher the address. The centerpieces to my part of the show will be delivered tomorrow.
On to the produce. In short order, I have ordered 20kg of new potatoes, as small as possible; 20kg of red onions; 10kg cucumbers; 10kg red peppers; 10 bunches of celery; 12kg cherry tomatoes; 10kg organic carrots; 10kg haricots verts; 15kg green and yellow squash; 10 bunches of parsley; 50 lemons; 6 bunches of fresh mint. The last thing on my list is the fava beans, which will stand in for limas in the succotash. I adore fresh fava beans, though they are an insane amount of work – removing the beans from their cushioned pods, and then peeling each individual bean of its thick casing. Kevin & Rob have assured me that I will find them shelled and peeled in tall towers in the Tangier market, for which I am deliriously grateful. However. The season for favas is short, and that season is spring, not summer. A great deal of teeth clicking and head shaking happens as Aziza desperately attempts to find a source for these gems. No luck. I try to see if perhaps some industrious soul has thought to freeze a few bags, but I confuse “surgelé” (frozen by a manufacturer) with “congelé” (frozen by a homemaker) and it’s as if I am speaking Inuit. Kevin suggests that I substitute fresh green peas, which I quickly denounce as southern sacrilege. It’s favas or nothing, and nothing means no succotash, and the menus are already printed. But just now, the pecan pie bars take precedence.
Due to the lack of an oven in my kitchen at Mabrouka, MC has graciously offered his kitchen with a proper gas stove for the preparation of the dessert pastries. From the kitchen of his home, Moroccan doors frame a view of the Mediterranean, and on a clear day, you can chop pecans and gaze at the coast of Spain. The treats are a treat to prepare, and are cooling on the counters when MC appears with a basket on his arm. He insists I visit his garden before I leave and take with me anything that tickles my fancy. Set loose like Indiana Jones on a treasure hunt, I grab heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers, string beans, herbs, and summer squash, all while looking over a coastline that reminds me of Northern California.
Upon my return to Villa Mabrouka (funnily enough, the name means “House of Luck”), I discover to my delight that my groceries have been delivered. As I open the bags of chicken to get them awash in a marinade of yogurt and Old Bay and various and sundry other secrets ingredients, I notice that they seem a little large… like, very large… like, twice as large as I requested. As any seasoned fry cook knows, these yard birds are far too large and tough to make great fried chicken. I had listened very carefully as Aziza translated “coquelet” (little chicken) into Arabic, but as Bill Murray is wont to say, something got Lost In Translation. There is naught to do but make it work, but this is going to eat into
my timeline in a serious way. Guess I won’t be joining those pretty dancer boys for lunch at El Morocco today, sadly. Nope, it’s time for this former State Sweetheart of Virginia to roll up her sleeves and break these birds down into 8 pieces each. Then it’s on to cutting 40 pounds of potatoes into quarters, boiling them, draining them, and tossing with thinly sliced red onions while they are still hot so as to wilt and soften the sharpness. I mix the dressing with the homemade bread & butter pickles that I prepared yesterday and season and taste and season and taste…
As I tidy up for the day, with enough prep done that I can safely join the crew for dinner at the Hotel Minza, belly dancers included, I realize that I am truly Cinderbecca. The aluminum pots I have been using on the propane camp stove have become covered in greasy, grimy soot, which I am now sporting on my arms and cheeks and all over my white tshirt and apron. With a wry smile, I scurry through the house to clean up before dinner, and run smack into A Famous Actor who has just arrived. I stumble over my words (embarrassed to be meeting anyone in my current disarray, let alone a cultural icon), but she wrests me out of my misery by exclaiming how charming I look- just like a character from a book! I blush and stutter a greeting and then blow that popsicle stand as quickly as my manners and upbringing allow.
Dinner is delightful, with good food, great company and interesting conversations, but my mind keeps drifting back to those damn chickens. How can I make sure that they are juicy and tender and crispy and golden for the picnic? I
resolve to get up at 4am on Saturday morning in order to fry the birds fresh. Kevin is opposed, as our timeline on Saturday is tighter than my brother’s wallet, but I have the family name to uphold, and I will not be deterred.