The little piles of sesame seeds atop the prunes are the traditional way of garnishing the dish.
We’re baaaaaaacccckkkkk…. and what a relief it is. Thank you for all of the expressions of support. The wires are back in the walls; the holes are patched and the patches are… well, they’ll be painted soon. Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes, Moroccan Short Ribs of Beef with Prunes and Ras el Hanout. Before we stumbled through an invisible portal into the Gehenna of wiring, longtime Rialto employee Mohammed Karachi and his family shared a leisurely Sunday morning with us, while Mohammed’s wife Layla walked Jody through their Moroccan family recipe for braised short ribs, using ras el hanout from Mohammed’s mother. What a treat! The spicy and sweet components are kept separate until just before the dish is served. Do you want a forkful of beef with Moroccan seasoning and a bit of prune at the same time? Or first the spicy, then the sweet? It’s comforting either way.
Ras el hanout means “head of the shop,” and the spice blend is supposed to be the best of a vendor’s wares, or as Mohammed put it, “It’s the boss of all spices.” Like curry in India, ras el hanout is an ubiquitous undercurrent in Moroccan cuisine. You taste it in tagines, the country’s stews (with preserved lemons!), in bistella (b’stella, bisteeya, etc.), the iconic chicken and almond pie made with phyllo dough, in soups and vegetables. If you’re a glutton for mortar-and-pestle punishment you can make your own–the web abounds with recipes. However, while the common denominators are turmeric, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, several different kinds of pepper, cumin and fenugreek, any made-in-Morocco version will likely contain at least a few selections from a raft of obscure additions like
eye of newt, the hand of a hanged man, nine tana leaves, orris root, monk’s pepper, chufa (a tuber cultivated in Spain, the primary ingredient in horchata), cubebs (another kind of pepper), dried rosebuds and grains of paradise. Even assuming I could get my hands on all this stuff, I’d still have to ask, Why bother? Other people can do it better, and sell it to me in small, usable quantities. Mainstream spice brands now sometimes offer their own versions of ras el hanout in supermarkets, but frankly I’m more inclined to buy it online, from a business that specializes in Middle Eastern spice combinations. At least until Mohammed coughs up his mother’s email address. Enjoy. Ken
Layla and Mohammed’s Moroccan Short Ribs of Beef
with Prunes and Ras el Hanout
- 4 pounds bone-in beef short ribs (ideally, a rib per person)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 4 cups red onions, cut into ½-inch dice
- ¼ cup minced garlic
- ¼ cup minced fresh ginger
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- ¼ cup chopped cilantro
- ½ teaspoon saffron
- ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground tumeric
- 1/8 teaspoon ras el hanout
- 4 cups beef or chicken broth or water
- ½ pound prunes (preferably unpitted)
- ½ cinnamon stick
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1-2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
- Cilantro sprigs for garnish
- Season the beef all over with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large braising pan. Sear the meat all over until lightly browed, about 4 minutes per side. Add the onions and cook until tender, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook 4 minutes. Add the saffron, ½ teaspoon cinnamon, turmeric and ras el hanout. Add 3 tablespoons of each of the herbs. Cook 2-3 minutes. Add 1 cup water or broth. Cover and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Add 2 cups broth or water, cover with a lid. Cook on medium-low, 3 hours or so, turning the meat now and then. If things start to stick, add a little more stock or water. The meat is done when it is tender and just starts falling off the bone. If the juices are too thin, turn up the heat and reduce them until they thicken.
- While the meat is braising, bring 1½ cups water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the prunes and cinnamon stick, reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the water is reduced to ¼ cup. The prunes should still hold their shape. Add the sugar and remaining ground cinnamon, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook 10 minutes.
- Transfer the meat to a warm tagine or large serving dish with sides and pour the juices into a clear measuring cup. Allow the fat to rise to the surface. Pour or spoon off the fat and discard. Taste and add salt and pepper if necessary. Spoon the sauce over the meat and sprinkle with the remaining herbs. Arrange the prunes around the meat. Put a small pinch of sesame seeds on each prune and sprinkle the remaining over the meat. Garnish with cilantro sprigs.
Mohammed Karachi and I have worked together for almost 20 years. In the early years, we worked side by side in the kitchen during dinner service. He was a runner, delivering trays to the dining room, while I expedited, calling out which orders to cook next to the line cooks and then loading the trays as each order became ready. Both of us had more energy than we know what to do with, so if things were slow we could both get quite silly. Now we’re older, wiser and, for the most part, behave like adults.
When I decided to invite guests into our blog kitchen, I knew I wanted to start with Mohammed. For years I’ve listened to him describe what he cooks for his wife and daughters, and I wanted to taste some of his cooking for myself. After several conversations, we settled on this recipe, and then he made a confession: it was really Layla’s recipe and she should cook it with me.
We had such a good time. I had made a batch of the ribs earlier in the day to ensure we would have a completed recipe since it takes so many hours to cook. So after getting the second batch going and the prunes done, we all sat down for a late lunch, accompanied by batbout, traditional Moroccan bread that Layla had made for us. It was delicious and I was so excited when Layla told me I did a good job!
It might seem odd for a recipe that calls for ras el hanout would include additional turmeric and cinnamon, but the spice blend is used very discretely. Like saffron, its flavor should be present, but just barely.
Beef short ribs should be fatty, but fatty in the right way. Look for intramuscular fat, the kind that shows up as marbling in the meat, but not so much that it looks like the meat is marbling the fat. You can see what I mean in the photos. Likewise, make sure most of the intermuscular fat (the kind that’s on the outside) is trimmed away.