Thoroughly Modern Morocco
"Abna is an oasis within an oasis," says Nawal Slaoui, describing her mother's lovely home in Marrakech—a serene escape in a residential neighborhood, with fig and lemon and apricot and olive trees and a sky-blue pool, far from the noisy center of the city.
The Casablanca-based managing editor of her brother's magazine, Masculin, Slaoui has an entrepreneurial spirit that has led her from organizing international music festivals to operating a gallery of contemporary Moroccan art to launching a line of ceramic tagines and tableware. She's also a talented hostess who loves entertaining at Abna. The house, designed in 1986 by Moroccan architect Elie Mouyal, is all arches and domes; Slaoui's mother, Micheline, and her French interior designer, Jaqueline Foissac, appointed it with arabesque-carved doors, painted tiles, and an eclectic mix of furniture that ranges from dressers gathered from antiques stores and flea markets to a set of Philippe Starck dining chairs. With a technique called tadlakt, the walls of the house were covered with a mixture of limestone cement and pigment, then polished with a special stone and smoothed with wax. The vibrant colors of the rooms—one is red, another green—exude the trademark warmth of Moroccan hospitality.
Hajja Halima, who has been the family chef for the past 17 years, oversees the cooking with commanding efficiency. "She rules the kitchen," Slaoui says. The recipes that follow here are Slaoui's own favorites. "I picked those with the savory and sweet flavors that marry so well—and uniquely—in Moroccan cuisine," she says.
Slaoui likes to begin a meal with an array of seasonal salads, placed family-style in the middle of the table. "I adore the winter squash salad," she says of this dish flavored with sugar and cinnamon and topped with sesame seeds. "It's got that great Moroccan combination of sweet and salty." Although she chose a number of main-course dishes, almost all of them are substantial enough to stand on their own. She particularly loves the lamb tagine with artichokes and green peas—"the sweetness of the artichoke hearts, the softness of the green peas, the sour saltiness of the preserved lemons." The rich couscous dessert is usually reserved for special occasions, but Slaoui thinks it's simple enough to make anytime. Although Halima prepares the dish with sugar, honey is the traditional sweetener. "Moroccans see paradise as the land of honey," Slaoui explains.
"You can't get this food at restaurants," she adds. "And it's heaven to sit gossiping with friends, eating and drinking and letting the day unfold at its own leisurely pace."