In Marrakech, Morocco, Mourad Lahlou's life revolved around family meals. Three times a day, without fail, grandparents and parents and children came together to eat and argue and eat some more.
"We'd sit around the table and have breakfast, argue a bunch about dinner the night before, and then the majority of the conversation at breakfast centers around what we're going to have for lunch," laughs Lahlou, the chef/owner of Michelin starred Mourad and Aziza. "Food was the central event within our daily life."
So it was something of a shock when, arriving in the U.S. at the age of 17 to attend university, he discovered how many Americans ate their meals not with loved ones but alone, hastily, in a car or out of a microwave. The rhythms of family and food that had been essential in Marrakech only happened here on major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"That's the main reason I got into cooking," says Lahlou. "I realized I was so disconnected from my roots and my culture, so I decided to start teaching myself to cook what I had watched everybody make [in Marrakech]."
Within months of arriving in the Bay Area, Lahlou participated in his first official American celebration, spending Christmas with a local family. "There were a lot of people I never met before and they brought me presents, like symbolic things," he remembers but most of the cards read: to Mourad, from Santa. "I was so overwhelmed that I went to the lady that invited me and I was like, hey listen, who is Santa, I really want to thank this person. I had no clue that Santa was Papa Noel—that's what we call Santa in Morocco."
Ever since, Lahlou has celebrated not just Christmas but Thanksgiving, too. For the last several years, he's found himself in the best of company at the Napa home of his best friend, producer and manager Susie Heller. Her Thanksgiving parties in particular, which bring together several dozen people including some of the country's most famed chefs, all of whom pitch in to make the meal, are epic.
"Every year five chefs cook a turkey differently, then people get to taste all variations and interpretations of Thanksgiving turkey. Then every year people anonymously vote for their favorite," explains Lahlou. While he's never completely understood why Americans are so gung ho about dry turkey on Thanksgiving, he's done his best to win the game.
"I've done turkey cooked in the Moroccan way with preserved lemons and olives and saffron. Many times I've done traditional turkey in the oven, smoked in the green egg. I've done boneless turkey that I've rolled up and sous vide," says Lahlou. The year he traded in the turkey for a suckling pig, though, was the best. "That year it won best turkey," he laughs.
This year, with COVID preventing the big celebrations of Thanksgiving past, Lahlou is thinking a little smaller for his holiday centerpiece. Roasting a chicken instead of a turkey, along with some winter root vegetables, is just right for a smaller family meal.
The chef begins by brining the chicken with cracked green olives, garlic, peppercorns and herbs, then slides thyme and preserved lemons between the skin and flesh. It may seem intimidating but, says Lahlou, "it's really easy, you just put it in the oven and cook it and forget about it."
// Aziza (5800 Geary Blvd., Outer Richmond) is open for outdoor dining, takeout, and delivery 4:30pm to 9pm Wednesday through Sunday and 10:30am to 2pm Saturday and Sunday, azizasf.com. Mourad (140 New Montgomery St., SoMa) is open for takeout and delivery 4:30pm to 7pm Thursday through Saturday, mouradsf.com; both restaurants will be closed on Thanksgiving Day.
Recipe: Mourad Lahlou's Roast Chicken With Preserved Lemons + Root Vegetables
For Moroccan chef Mourad Lahlou, who's never completely understood the American obsession with turkey, a roast chicken is just perfect for small family gatherings over the holidays.
(Photography by Aubrie Pick)
4 quarts cold water
1 1/2 cups kosher salt
2 lemons, cut into quarters
1 cup cracked green olives with brine
12 flat-leaf parsley sprigs
3 tablespoons sliced garlic
1 tablespoon tellicherry peppercorns (The Spice Hunter)
8 thyme sprigs
10 dried bay leaves (The Spice Hunter)
4 quarts ice cubes
2 (3.5 pounds each) air-chilled chickens, excess fat removed
3 whole preserved lemons, cut into quarters
8 thyme sprigs
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
12 medium turnips
3 small rutabagas
4 small parsnips
12 medium carrots
6 1 1/2-inch cipollini onions
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning (The Spice Hunter)
18 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon preserved lemon liquid
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the brine: Put the water in a medium (10- to 12-quart) stockpot and bring to a simmer. Add the brine ingredients (except the ice) and stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Turn off the heat and let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes for the flavors to infuse.
Add the ice to chill the brine. If the brine isn't completely cold, refrigerate it until it is. Add the chickens and weight them with a plate or smaller pot lid to keep them submerged; refrigerate for 8 to 12 hours.
For the chickens: Cut the flesh away from the preserved lemon rinds and reserve both the rinds and the flesh.
Remove the chickens from the brine, discard the brine, and dry the chickens well with paper towels. Place one chicken on a work surface with the legs facing you.
Starting at the cavity, carefully work the handle of a wooden spoon between the skin and one breast to create a pocket. Repeat on the other side working slowly and gently to avoid tearing the skin. Remove the spoon. Hold the chicken in place with one hand and slide the index and middle fingers of the other hand in the pocket to enlarge the pocket. Slide your hand downward to create a pocket over each thigh.
Insert the pieces of preserved lemon rind, pith side down, and the thyme sprigs into the pockets over each thigh and at the bottom and top of each breast. Sprinkle the cavity with salt and rub them with the reserved flesh of the preserved lemons.
I like to truss poultry without using kitchen twine, which saves the tying and untying, and makes for a more natural presentation. Position a chicken breast side up, with the legs facing you. Cut a vertical slit, on one side, about 1-inch back from the cavity, alongside the thigh. Cross the end of the opposite drumstick over the other drumstick and poke the end of the top drumstick through the slit. The chicken should remain closed. Depending on the condition of the chicken's skin, it may rip as you try to poke the drumstick through it, so have some kitchen twine on hand just in case. Repeat with the other chicken. Sprinkle the outside of the chickens with salt.
Preheat the oven to 500˚F.
For the vegetables: Peel the turnips and rutabagas with a paring knife. Because they have thick skins, a vegetable peeler won't cut deeply enough to remove all the tough peel. Cut the turnips and rutabagas into pieces of about the same size. I normally cut small turnips in half from the top to bottom and quarter small rutabagas lengthwise.
The parsnips and carrots can be peeled with a vegetable peeler. If the carrots are small, they can remain whole. Cut large carrots and parsnips into 1 1/2-inch pieces. If you'd like the vegetables to have a less rustic appearance, they can be trimmed (turned) to an oval shape, cutting away any sharp edges. Peel and trim the root ends of the onions
Put all the vegetables in a large bowl and toss them with the olive oil, poultry seasoning, garlic cloves, and 3 pinches of salt. Spread them in a large roasting pan. Position a roasting rack in the pan and place the chickens on it, breast side down. They should rest just above the vegetables, not touching them, so that when the chickens are flipped the skin on the back (my favorite part) will have enough air circulating around it to crisp.
Place the roasting pan in the oven for 15 minutes. Turn the chickens breast side up, and spread the room-temperature butter over the breasts. Roast for another 45 to 50 minutes, or until the chickens are richly browned and the temperature in the meatiest sections registers 160˚F. Remove the pan from the oven and put the chickens on a carving board to rest for 20 minutes before carving.
Meanwhile, remove the rack above the vegetables and position the roasting pan on the stove so that it spans 2 burners. Bring the liquid to a simmer, whisk in the preserved lemon liquid, and simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in the cold butter to emulsify the liquid and glaze the vegetables. Stir in the chopped parsley.
You can present the chickens whole or carved, arranged over the vegetables either in the roasting pan or on a large platter.
This recipe was excerpted from Mourad Lahlou's New Moroccan cookbook.
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