I am lucky enough to have traveled. And like many people the food I’ve eaten is inseparable from where I’ve been. During a literary pilgrimage to Oxford I ate incandescent fish and chips at the pub where J.R.R. Tolkin and C.S. Lewis critiqued each other’s works. My friend Brenden hosted a bastardized sedar dinner in the unfinished basement of a hostel in Vienna when we were both lonely and homesick. Aaron and I spent a day in Prauge wandering Vysherad cemetary and eating juicy pork sausages and cloudlike dumplings we found in an underground restaurant where the menu was not only in a different language, but a different alphabet. And for every place that I’ve gone, there are five nudging at my brain to be next.
Unfortunately my desire to travel far exceeds my funds and vacation time. So when I have wanderlust I turn to food. I don’t think I’m alone in fantasized about being in Tuscany when eating a dreamy plate of homemade pasta, or wandering the streets of Tokyo when slurping down ramen. I love to eat out, but often when the urge for some specific place strikes me I want to cook. For one, it’s hard to find, say, Moroccan or Basque or Punjabi restaurants in Minneapolis. But even if it were possible, there’s so much to learn by cooking. It’s possible to try and taste and tease out flavors, to attempt new techniques, and explore new ingredients. All you need is a capable guide.
There’s been so much said about the brilliance of Heidi Swanson that it doesn’t bear repeating. But I can say that food blogs would be an entirely different beast if she had not created 101 Cookbooks, and my copy of Super Natural Everyday is dog eared and sauce splattered. When her newest book, Near and Far was released a few weeks ago, I was at the bookstore within a half hour of its opening. I spent hours that day making a list of everything I wanted to cook from it, and that list tops fifty items. It was tough to decide what to start with. Would it be the rye pound cake from the San Francisco section? Miso oat porridge from Japan? Sabayon from France?
Eventually I was pulled to the Moroccan section. Morocco has long sat on my list of places to visit. I had heard about Harira before, the spiced soup that’s traditionally eaten to break the fast during Ramadan. There doesn’t seem to be a capital D definitive version of harira, other than that it is lentil and tomato based, and steeped in spices. Heidi’s harira recipe uses cilantro in three different places, lemon for freshness, chickpeas and pasta for heft, and a heady mix of cumin, red pepper, cinnamon, paprika, and saffron. The taste twists and turns on your tongue- spicy one moment, refreshed the next, then sweet. Every bite is different and every bite leaves you wanting just one more taste.
Although I made it to calm my wanderlust, the hariria has only ignited it further. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
adapted from Near and Far by Heidi Swanson
I made very few changes to this recipe. I substituted the angel hair Heidi suggests with whole wheat spaghetti, because that’s what I keep on hand. Heidi also calls for fresh dates, but that’s not available to me, and I found dried dates did the job more than admirably. Finally, Heidi calls for canned whole tomatoes rather than diced. If you do use whole tomatoes, try to break them up a bit with your whisk before adding them to the pot.
1 bunch cilantro
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for serving
2 medium onions, diced
3 celery stalks, diced, leaves reserved
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
pinch of saffron (optional)
2 1/2 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 1/2 cups dried lentils, rinsed (I used French green lentils)
6 cups water
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 (28-oz) can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped fresh marjoram (or oregano)
3 oz whole wheat spaghetti, broken into small pieces
Chopped dates, to serve
Separate the cilantro leaves from the stems. Finely chop about two thirds of the leaves and reserve. Finely chop the cilantro stems. In a large soup pot heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the onions, celery, garlic, ginger, and cilantro stems. Cook, stirring occasionally, until everything softens, about 5 minutes. In a mortar and pestle finely grind the saffron with the salt. Add to the pot along with the cinnamon, paprika, pepper flakes, and cumin. Stir well. Add the chickpeas and lentils, then add 4 cups of water. Stir well, and bring to a simmer.
In a large bowl, gradually whisk in the remaining 2 cups of water with the flour, being careful to pour in a little at a time to avoid lumps. Add the lemon juice, the tomatoes and their juices, and the chopped cilantro. Add the flour-tomato mixture to the soup and bring back to a simmer, stirring often. Once the soup is at a simmer, cook another twenty minutes or so, stirring often, until the lentils are cooked. When the lentils are ready, stir in the marjoram and the spaghetti, and simmer until the pasta is cooked. Adjust for seasonings. Serve with the remaining cilantro leaves, the reserved celery leaves, the sliced dates, and olive oil.