Msemmen with r’fissa


  • Serves 8 people

"This popular dish, served on special occasions, is presented like couscous on a large platter," writes Paula Wolfert. "The msemmen are torn into pieces while still hot to the touch and set aside until just before serving. Then they are piled into a steamer and reheated. The chicken stew is placed on top and the sauce spooned over. There are many versions of this dish. This one was given to me by Aunt Aicha from the town of Beni Mellal. She said to be sure to add the ras el hanout: 'It puts the dish up 10 notches.'"

  • 4 tbsp fenugreek seeds
  • 300 gm Moroccan lentils or French Puy lentils
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 large onions, 1 grated and 4 thinly sliced
  • 1½ tsp coarse sea salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¾ tbsp ground ginger
  • ¾ tbsp ground turmeric
  • Pinch of ground coriander
  • 1 chicken (1.8kg), preferably organic
  • 1 tsp ghee
  • 4 sprigs each coriander and parsley, tied together
  • Msemmen pancakes
  • 225 gm extra-fine semolina flour (see note)
  • 135 gm white bread flour
  • 50 gm plain flour
  • For handling the dough: vegetable oil
  • 6 tbsp melted clarified butter
  • For dusting: medium semolina flour (see note)
  • Ras el hanout
  • 2 tbsp each cumin seeds, preferably Moroccan (see note), and coriander seeds
  • Seeds from 15 cardamom pods
  • 1 tbsp green aniseed
  • 2 tsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp white peppercorns
  • 1 Ceylon cinnamon quill or 1½ tsp ground Ceylon cinnamon
  • 3 tbsp ground ginger
  • ¾ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp grated nutmeg
01   Soak the fenugreek seeds in warm water to cover for at least 4 hours; drain. Soak the lentils for 30 minutes; drain and set aside.
02   Meanwhile, for the msemmen pancakes, combine the three flours and 1½ tsp fine sea salt in a food processor and pulse once or twice to sift. With the machine running, add about 360ml warm water to form a soft ball of dough. Process for a further 25 seconds or until the dough is very elastic, soft and smooth. Allow the dough to rest for 10 minutes. Turn out onto a smooth work surface. Use oil to grease your hands, the surface and the dough. With your thumb and forefinger, squeeze and pull of small balls of dough about the size of large prunes; you should have about 16 balls. Coat each ball with oil. Pat one ball down into a disc, flattening it with the oiled palms and fingers of both hands and stretching it as you flatten it. If you kneaded the dough well enough, it will practically slide outwards. Avoid tearing it as it becomes paper-thin; try to keep it evenly thin. Stretch the dough out to a paper-thin 25cm x 23cm rectangle. Lightly brush with butter and dust with medium semolina flour. Fold the ends of the rectangle over so they meet in the centre and brush with butter, then turn 90 degrees and fold again. Pat lightly, again brush with butter and flatten so you have an 11cm square parcel; set aside. Repeat with the other balls of dough. Heat a large non-stick griddle or frying pan over a medium heat. Press each parcel out until it is almost double in size. Use a fish slice to slide the parcel into the pan. Cook two or three at a time, turning them over several times, until they are golden brown and the centres are cooked. Tear into bite-sized pieces while still hot to the touch, and set aside on a wire rack.
03   For the ras el hanout, toast the cumin seeds (unnecessary if they are Moroccan), coriander seeds and cardamom seeds in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a low heat until aromatic and beginning to crackle and pop (5 minutes). Grind the toasted spices, aniseed and peppercorns in a food processor or spice mill until pulverised. Add the cinnamon stick, if using, and grind again. Sift through a fine sieve; discard the debris. Mix with the other ground spices, and store in a closed jar in a cool, dark place.
04   Heat the oil in a large pot over a medium heat. Add the grated onion, salt, pepper, ginger, turmeric, ground coriander and ½ tsp ras el hanout (reserve remaining ras el hanout for another use). Add the chicken and stir to coat it with the spices. Add 80ml water, then cover and steam for 10 minutes. Add 3.75 litres water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the drained fenugreek seeds, then cover again and cook for 25 minutes.
05   Turn the chicken so it cooks evenly. Add the sliced onions, lentils, ghee and herbs and cook, uncovered, until the onions and lentils are tender (20-25 minutes). Remove the pot from the heat, cover and set aside for 10-15 minutes.
06   Meanwhile, steam the msemmen over boiling water for 10 minutes. Spread the pieces of msemmen over the bottom of a large, shallow serving platter.
07   Transfer the chicken to a carving board and cut into serving pieces. Arrange the pieces of chicken evenly over the msemmen leaves. Use a slotted spoon to scoop the lentils over the chicken and ladle some of the broth on top. Serve with some of the remaining broth.

Note Semolina comes in three grades: coarse, medium and extra-fine, all available from Indian grocers. The extra-fine version, also called patent durum flour, durum atta or durum, is double-milled to the texture of talcum powder. You can make msemmen a day in advance: flatten each square between two sheets of baking parchment, roll up and store in a resealable bag in the refrigerator. Some of the best cumin in the world is produced just west of Marrakech, and I urge you to seek out the Moroccan variety if possible - even if you have to go to the trouble of getting it by mail order. Moroccan cumin seed is so powerful it does not need to be toasted before being ground.

The Food of Morocco ($65, hbk) by Paula Wolfert is published by Bloomsbury. This recipe has been reproduced with minor GT style changes.

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