Marrakesh-born chef Mourad Lahlou is known for his deftly reinvented Moroccan dishes at Aziza in San Francisco. Here, he tells F&W about his amazing take on Moroccan bastilla, what he's learned from reading Harold McGee and the virtues of steaming vegetables instead of blanching them.
What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
My bastilla. The way we’re making it right now is unique. In Morocco, a classic bastilla is pretty much a potpie: a meat stew topped with sweetened and spiced ground almonds, all covered in flaky warka dough (a lot like phyllo). In Morocco I’ve always found it one-dimensional and too sweet, when there should be a balance of sweet and savory. At Aziza we confit duck legs: First we cure them overnight in a version of ras el hanout that we call our Aziza curry, then slow-cook the cured legs in duck fat. We mix the tender confited meat with caramelized onions and raisins, and then wrap them in phyllo, with toasted almonds ground up with cinnamon and orange blossom water. It comes to the plate in a warm, tidy phyllo package, with all the aromas locked inside, so it looks like a present on the plate. We serve it with a tart verjus crème fraîche to cut the richness of the duck, and a seasonal accompaniment like roasted turnips, tiny, slightly bitter ones to also add more complexity. Every bite has a little surprise: It’s savory, moist, tender, it has crunch, it has everything that you would want in a dish.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Since I never went to culinary school or worked under any chefs before running my own restaurant, I’ve learned the most from Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. It helped me understand what was going on when I cook—what happens to the fibers and molecules when I boil leaves or poach an egg. He lives in San Francisco and we’ve since become close friends. Right now we’re working on finding a way to prevent meat reductions from becoming too sticky. Without him I would not have been able to understand food as well as I do.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
Steaming. People are so obsessed with blanching; they love that crunch. But steaming is a powerful way to create pristine flavors. When you take a piece of fish and steam it over water, or water with aromatics like spices or citrus peel, you actually taste the ingredients. Unlike, say, a curry, which is so heavily spiced you can’t taste the individual ingredients. There’s nothing wrong with a curry, but when you want to appreciate the clean flavors of a vegetable or a single piece of fish, you need to treat it with respect, and steaming is one of the most respectful ways to cook something. Particularly if you’re paying $7 or $8 a pound for vegetables straight from the farmers’ market, why would you want to put them in a pot with tons of garlic and spices and caramelize them and reduce them down? You don’t need a fancy steamer. Just get a $5 bamboo steamer from an Asian market and set it over a frying pan of water. You’ll never dry a food out, either, like you can in an oven. Salt the food and the steam water; I try to prepare the steaming water for the dish, because a lot of the flavor drips back into the liquid as you steam. So I’ll put kaffir lime leaves in there, sometimes Meyer lemon leaves or zest, bonito flakes, fresh ginger, jasmine tea; the steam carries the flavor. Just don’t let the water touch the food, and remember you only want to heat the food through, you don’t want to make it soft or mushy.
Can you share one great entertaining tip?
If you’re throwing a party, you should be having more fun than anybody else. If you’re not—if you’re slaving away in the kitchen while everybody else is enjoying the music and these great conversations and food—then you’re not throwing a party, you’re throwing work. If you want to cook something elaborate, do it ahead of time. Make the meal over a week, and choose dishes that taste better with time, like braised things. Instead of roast chicken, which you have to make the day of and can dry out quickly if you’re not watching closely, make a chicken tagine. It will stay tender and juicy and improve after a few days in your refrigerator. Right before serving it, brown it for 20 minutes in the oven—nothing could be easier. Or instead of a fresh salad, which requires a vinaigrette be made and tossed just your guests arrive, braise some greens a few days ahead of time—they’ll taste better reheated. In Morocco we don’t make anything last minute, like fresh salads or roast chicken. Everything is made way ahead of time, so when people eat, that’s it— everyone sits down and eats. It’s much more fun.