COLOR and SPICE : Like Italian Antipasti, Moroccan Salads Offer Sweet or Spicy Tastes to Inspire the Appetite

<i> Food writer Colman Andrews's most recent book is "Catalan Cuisine." </i>

MOROCCO IS COLOR and spice. Mountains tinged lilac and sandalwood; deserts glowing pink and golden; peacock-blue seas. The scents of lemon blossoms and cedar fill the air, the pungent flavors of dried chiles, cumin, coriander and saffron linger on the tongue.

Morocco also is the garden spot of North Africa, rich with agriculture, from the artichoke and zucchini fields of the Sebou Valley to the vast orange groves of Agadir.

“We have an incredible variety of produce all year round,” says Moroccan-born Michel Ohayan, proprietor of the Koutoubia Moroccan restaurant in West Los Angeles. “Not just peppers and tomatoes like in some parts of the Mediterranean, but turnips, carrots, squash, tiny green beans, white and green asparagus, green peas, artichokes, kidney beans, even our own white truffles.”

Traditionally, in Morocco, vegetables are cooked with meat. Ohayan cites a favorite dish of meatballs braised with celery. And, he adds, the famous Moroccan stews called tajines aren’t made only with lamb or chicken. One is based on cardoons, another on fennel, a third on Jerusalem artichokes. A particularly elaborate version uses lamb simply as flavoring for a stew made of okra and quince.


But Moroccans serve their vegetables in another way, too--as salads. Moroccan salads aren’t big jumbles of greens with a few extras added like ours. As Paula Wolfert points out in her classic “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco” (Harper & Row: 1973), “Moroccan salads are more like Italian antipasti-- dishes of spiced or sweetened, cooked or raw vegetables served at the beginning of a meal to inspire the appetite and refresh the palate.” Indeed, Ohayan adds, they’re not even really appetizers but more like pre-appetizers. “For a big meal, we might start with a selection of seven, eight, ten salads, and then have our appetizer--shad roe with sun-dried chiles, perhaps, or pastry stuffed with meat. Then we might have a tajine or grilled lamb.”

Like Morocco, of course, Southern California offers a profusion of fresh vegetables the whole year through. And the Moroccan restaurants of the area--not just Koutoubia but El Moroccoin Hollywood, Marrakesh in Studio City and Almagreb in El Toro, among others--all serve several varieties of Moroccan salads. The best known are a carrot salad flavored with ginger and cumin, and an eggplant salad made with cilantro and parsley. Here are three slightly more unusual ones, from Koutoubia. Michel Ohayan suggests offering a small serving of each on the same plate to make a colorful and unusual appetizer.


3 green bell peppers


1 pound ripe tomatoes

1 medium onion, minced

3 teaspoons capers

Juice of 2 lemons

3/4 cup olive oil

1 bunch parsley, minced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grill the peppers on a barbecue or directly on the flame of a gas burner, or broil in a hot oven, turning occasionally, until charred black on all sides. Allow to cool, cut in half lengthwise, flatten each half, then scrape blackened skin off with a knife. Remove seeds and ribs. Dice peppers and set aside.


Peel tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for about 15 seconds, allowing to cool, then slipping skins off. Cut in half crosswise, remove seeds, and dice.

Mix diced peppers and tomatoes in a bowl; add capers, lemon juice, olive oil and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Makes 8 servings.


2 large bunches beets

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup champagne or white wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon ground cumin


2 green onions

Remove beet leaves and wash beets thoroughly. Add 1 teaspoon salt to 2 to 3 quarts water and bring to a boil. Add beets, and simmer, covered, until tender (about 1 hour). When done, drain and cool; then peel and julienne beets. Place in a bowl and season with salt and pepper to taste.

In another bowl, mix well vinegar and olive oil. Stir in cumin and green onions, continuing to mix well. Gently add dressing to beets, being careful not to crush them, and allow to marinate for about 1 hour before serving. Makes 8 servings.


2 pounds sweet potatoes

3 teaspoons sugar

1 cinnamon stick

1 cup fresh orange juice

Juice of 2 lemons

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring 2 to 3 quarts of water to a boil. Peel sweet potatoes. Add sweet potatoes to water and simmer, covered for 45 minutes. When done, drain and allow to cool; then cut into 1/4-inch slices.

In blender container, combine all sugar, cinnamon stick, orange juice, olive oil, ground cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste, and blend until well mixed. Gently stir dressing into sweet potatoes, being careful not to crush them, and allow to marinate for about 1 hour before serving. Makes 8 servings.

Food styled by Norman Stewart; props styled by Stacey Anne for A La Mode, Los Angeles; plates from Tesoro, Los Angeles.