Classic Casablanca comes to Seattle, thanks to a Moroccan native.
MOROCCO HAS GREAT surfing, according to Mehdi Boujrada. He was born in Casablanca, and when he was a teenager, he’d head out to the coast around Agadir to join “people from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France — I mean, you name it.” The December swell was like “a Mecca every year.”
Boujrada would cadge some money off his parents for the weekend, catch a bus for around $8, rent a place in a fishing village with five or so friends for $10 each, “and eat for like $1 a meal … calamari, a few sardines, some whitefish, bread, Moroccan salad, Coca-Cola for like $1.20.” He marvels at the simple deliciousness of it now: “unbelievable.”
Even in Morocco, surfing culture meant, to some degree, American culture, and Boujrada loved the United States from afar. “Michael Jordan, music, whatever — I was always obsessed,” he says. He had two half-brothers living in Seattle, and in 2000, when he was 18, he came with his dad to check it out. A couple years later — after having his passport held for a month by the U.S. Consulate “for some hard-core screening” — he was granted a visa.
Boujrada started out here as a busboy at his half-brother’s Belltown Italian restaurant, La Vita è Bella (now under different ownership). He worked; he met his wife; life happened. But he wanted to share the spices and condiments of Morocco since the beginning. “I always felt like our culture and food was poorly represented,” he says. When you know what it is, at its best, he opines, “and you see what people are doing, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is not right.’ ”
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He didn’t realize that to get it right, he’d end up making Moroccan staples like harissa here in Seattle. Today, local restaurants including Altura, Le Pichet, L’Oursin, Mamnoon, Marmite, Terra Plata, Poppy and many more use his Villa Jerada oils and spices. For the rest of us, his invaluable “Moroccan pantry items” are available at DeLaurenti, Big John’s PFI, ChefShop, SugarPill and elsewhere (and, of course, online).
When he first arrived, time was an issue. And money to get started. And sources in Morocco, ones with consistent products who could meet the stringent standards of the FDA. “It’s a mountain of stuff,” Boujrada says. His plans, postponed year after year, took on a new urgency after the death of his father in 2011. “I got discouraged,” he says. “I had to do something to make things go faster.”
He started out, finally, with just olive oil. The family of a neighbor back in Casablanca happened to make an award-winning one — “one of the best olive oils in the world, not just Morocco,” Boujrada says. It had a good story, too: In conjunction with a government program, the family was using innovative farming techniques, planting a greenbelt of 600,000 olive trees to fight desertification. Boujrada got samples and got on his scooter, knocking on the doors of Seattle restaurants.
“At the beginning, I was just a hustler,” he says. “I had my Vespa; I was going places, doing it the hard way, you know?” Chefs like Mike Easton, Renee Erickson and Matt Dillon respected him and loved the Atlas Olive Oils, and they were willing to wait a few months while he assembled enough orders to actually get it imported.
Turning his attention to more of the culinary repertoire, however, sourcing issues became pressing. “One of the problems in Morocco,” Boujrada says, “is that a lot of the good stuff — like the really good stuff — is very traditional. It’s sold in open markets.” Someone who makes a given condiment in the back of a shop isn’t set up for export; the big players make industrial-quality products. He finally located a potential supplier for harissa, the oil-and-vinegar, spicy-and-sweet chili paste, and the first sample the guy sent was great. Boujrada’s mother was visiting at the time, and, he says, “We all tried it, and we fell in love with it: ‘Ah, this is amazing!’ ” Then the second sample was “completely different” — and the next one, too. “Salt level, vinegar level, just crazy different. Salty, like you can’t even eat it. I just got so frustrated, like how the hell are we going to do this? This is crazy.”
He knew how to make harissa, chermoula and more at home, but scaling up intimidated him. Finally, in May 2013, his mom came to the rescue, flying to Seattle to help him work out the recipes. Their beautiful, bright-brick-red harissa is made with dried chilies, cumin, coriander, caraway, organic olive oil, vinegar, mint, garlic, tomato paste, water and salt, plus almost half a preserved lemon per 6-ounce jar. Boujrada sources some spices from Morocco, some from elsewhere, with a focus on organic ones; they don’t get irradiated, he says, so they retain their essential oils and taste much fresher, much better (“It’s not just a gimmick”). His flourishing company also makes chermoula, ras el hanout and more. Villa Jerada means “House of the Cricket” — that’s what the family home in Casablanca is called.
I first used Villa Jerada’s harissa to make a Bon Appétit recipe for pan-roasted chicken with chickpeas, which came out effortlessly great (you can find that recipe online).
Following is Boujrada’s family recipe for shakshuka, eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. This version has meatballs, though you can make it with shrimp (as the street vendors down at the port in Casablanca do), sardine meatballs, oysters, cheese or peas. Boujrada says some other shakshuka recipes are overly complicated: “I think of it as a very cheap, easy, no-brainer dish.” (It’s usually made in a tagine, and eaten right out of it; Boujrada says no one encroaches onto anyone else’s portion. “It’s very polite.”) Shakshuka is what you make in Morocco when you don’t have time to make something else, and it’s what Boujrada wants to do overall: make our lives better by livening up even our no-brainer cooking. (You can find a couple more recipes on the Villa Jerada website.)
When I visited Boujrada at his Beacon Hill bungalow recently, his hero of a mom was back in town, helping him and his wife with their toddler for a few months. She made us shakshuka with peas — rich but not heavy, both comforting and exciting, with extra harissa on top for a little more bright heat. She modestly protested that her own mother made it best.
Villa Jerada’s Kefta Shakshuka
Makes 4 servings.
1 lb. ground beef chuck
½ cup chopped cilantro, divided
4½ teaspoons Villa Jerada Kefta Rub, divided
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt, plus additional to taste
1 small onion, grated on the large holes of box grater or finely minced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large ripe tomato, diced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon Villa Jerada Harissa
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup water
Whole cilantro leaves, to serve
Crusty bread or pita, to serve (optional)
1. First, make the kefta (meatballs): Combine the beef, ¼ cup of the chopped cilantro, 2½ teaspoons of the kefta rub, 1 teaspoon salt and the onion in a medium bowl. Mix well to combine. (I think it’s easiest to mix with your hands.) Using your hands or a small scoop, shape the mixture into walnut-sized balls. Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan, and chill for at least 20 minutes.
2. While the kefta are chilling, heat the olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the tomato, tomato paste, remaining ¼ cup chopped cilantro, harissa, the remaining 2 teaspoons kefta rub, a generous pinch of salt and pepper, and the water. Cook until the tomato has broken down and the mixture has thickened to a sauce-like consistency.
3. Add the kefta. Cover and cook until the meatballs are almost cooked through, about 10 minutes.
4. Use a spoon to make an egg-sized hole in the shakshuka. Crack one of the eggs into the hole. Repeat with the remaining 3 eggs. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until the eggs reach desired doneness, about 10 minutes for medium-soft.
5. Sprinkle the eggs with a little salt. Scatter the whole cilantro leaves over the shakshuka, and serve hot.