I recently sent away for an DNA kit to discover my ancestry as well as get a personalized genetic profile of potential genetic markers for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, in addition to many others that they test for, as well as seeing if you are a carrier for certain genetic diseases. Thankfully I do not carry the gene for any they tested nor do I have the genetic markers for them. Growing up I was told by my parents, through their parents, and so forth, that I am full Italian on my father’s side as both my Grandmother and Grandfather migrated from Italy to the United Statesnas children, as I am only the second generation on my father’s side born in the Untied States. On my mother’s side, I was told we were Irish, and Polish, as my Grandmother was Irish and my Grandfather was Polish.
Fast forward to 2017 and the fascinating world of Forensic Science and DNA testing, I discovered that in addition to being Italian, Irish, and Polish, I am of North African decent, in my blood lines, as well as French, and Albanian, which I presume is mostly from the migration of my father’s ancestry, through Italy. Now while they cannot pinpoint what countries within North Africa you are from, and unless you have traced your family tree for generations, as mine is within 7 generations where this took place, it is unlikely you can definitively know.
Now North Africa, is a large continent and encompasses many countries, such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan (and eventually South Sudan), Tunisia, and Western Sahara. When I thought about it I recognized that these countries are Arabic nations, some with ties to terrorism and ISIS, I begin to realize how Muslim Americans must feel to hail from these countries, but whom do not share the Islamic extremist views, yet by mere virtue of their birth country, they are perceived to be evil and a terrorist. Now, I am a small percentage of North African decent, but I embrace that none the less. All of a sudden I finally saw how I lived my whole life as only the second generation to be born in the United States, a true blue American none the less, daughter of a Navy Serviceman, and immigrant son, yet I also had this secret lineage of ancestry from North Africa, France, and Albania. Now on the outside I am the same person I was before this discovery, yet on the inside I could now truly empathize how someone, not just a Muslim, but anyone who is judged on the basis of the color of their skin, their religious ideals, and what country they hail from, can be so wrongly perceived. While outwardly I would never be profiled for the color of my skin, or my religious outfit, or my beliefs, I thought about how some people may now view me knowing my lineage. Maybe they will judge me and deem me as potentially radical, which I assure you I am not, nor ever will be, but that scared part of them that use to be me, may. None the less, I proudly embrace all the parts of me, and I am learning about the cultures of all of the countries my ancestors hailed from, so I will not only have a better understanding of who I am, but a better understanding and compassion for mankind in a way I was unable to before. With a pure heart, good intentions, and an a compassionate soul, I know I will seek to make my world better, and will look to find those qualities in everyone I see from this day forward.
Ironically, my fascination for North African cuisine started a few years ago, long before I had any idea about my lineage, I was watching a program on Food Network, and one of the celebrity chefs, was using this nifty cooking vessel that was practical as much as it was so beautiful, called a Tagine.
A tagine is typically made of clay or ceramic, and it is used in Morocco to perfectly cook chicken, lamb, and vegetables to a flavorful and moist culinary dream. Morrocon cooking, hits many flavor points all at once. there is the salty kick from the preserved lemons, and briny olives, with strong aromatic notes from the saffron, garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric, and even coriander seed. Then you get a sweetness with the addition of dates, or raisins. Your senses are fully engaged and alive when you eat something as simple as chicken. Couscous is the grain most common to this region, but I like to use Farro. Typically associated with Italy as an ancient grain of the Romans, I recently learned that it was actually an ancient grain that was found in the tomb of Egyptian Kings, which is why I believe that my Father’s ancestry is probably most likely to have the North African lineage. Farro is a great little powerhouse of fiber, Vitamin B3, and Zinc. Not to mention it is a healthy grain, that has a slightly nutty, and fragrant cinnamon note that makes it versatile for a breakfast with the addition of some fruit and greek yogurt, as a salad, with feta, and tomato. I like to make it like a pilaf, with the addition of some toasted orzo, and aromatics, for the Moroccan theme I am adding in golden raisins, which take this to a whole other level, and are the foundation of what is typical of a Moroccan couscous.
When my children were younger and I was proudly a stay-at-home Mom, we use to do an International night each week. I talked about this last week in my Pork Carnitas blog. But it bears repeating! We would cook food from a region of the world that one lucky child would get to choose. We rotated so they wouldn’t fight, and had to compromise, but I wanted to introduce my children to foods they wouldn’t normally eat, and the teach them to be tolerant of other cultures. They still remember these days and talk about the foods they ate. As a matter of fact, when my daughter toured many countries in Europe her Senior year in high school, she was very familiar with the foods of the countries she visited, and felt a strong connection to the cultures as a result, and she brought me to tears acknowledging that while we Skyped one night, I felt motherhood coming full circle that night. I was so moved. Even as I recount that night I am in tears. Motherhood is that way for me. It is my proudest, most amazing, life achievement. Truly. If your kids are little I urge you to begin to create a weekly International night. It doesn’t have to be extravagant and expensive. When we did London, I did fish and chips, simply a pound of flounder with a beer batter mix, and hand cut potato fries, that I just cut and fried up, served with some homemade tartar sauce and malt vinegar, wrapped in a newspaper cone. The kids had a blast with the fries in newspaper, which I lined the paper with parchment to prevent the ink from transferring to the fries. We played Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Elton John music, along with a chorus of London Bridges, looked at pictures of famous sites in England, and had ourselves a jolly good time.
So tonight is our impromptu International night with an introduction to Morocco, which we had not ever done. I urge you to give these recipes a try. The flavors are amazing and complex, but subtle enough for finicky eaters! Promise.
Tagine Chicken with Lemons and Olives
A Classic Moroccan dish, that's flavorful, fragrant, and succulent!
- 5 chicken thighs, bone in
- 1 preserved lemon
- 1 lemon sliced
- Juice of half a lemon
- one whole yellow onion sliced thin
- 2 cloves of garlic minced
- 1 3/4 cups of chicken stock
- Spice mix of the following; 1 tsp. of coriander seeds, 1 whole clove, 2 whole allspice berries. Mix in spice grinder, add to a small bowl.
- 2 tsp. of cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. of Tumeric
- two pinches of saffron threads
- 1 tsp. of paprika
- 1 tbsp. of brown sugar you can omit, but I use it to balance the complexity of the intese spices being used.
- 1/2 cup of green pitted olives, I used Italian olives called Castelvetrano
- 1 tsp. of oregano
- Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste
Farro with Thyme and Golden Raisns
For the Farro
- 1 cup of farro
- 2 cups of chicken broth
- a few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1/3 cup of golden raisins
- 1 tsp. of cinamon
- 2 tbsp. of unsalted butter
- Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste
- Mix all of the seasonings together and dry rub the chicken, season with Kosher salt and pepper.
- If you are using a Tagine you will need to sear the chicken in a cast iron skillet in a bit of EVVO and transfer to the Tagine to finish cooking. This can be made without the tagine, but I love the way in only about 30 minutes the chicken is moist and falling off the bone.
- Sear chicken in cast iron skillet 3-4 minutes on each side.
- Prepare Tagine
- Layer onions and garlic on the bottom of the Tagine, crush saffron threads and add to the onions and garlic.
- Add 1 3/4 cups of Chicken broth, and the juice of one lemon, place chicken on top of onions, add lemons around the chicken as well as the lemon wedges, add the olives.
- I recommend a heat diffuser for the Tagine. I have ceramic cooktop and I am afraid of my terracotta Tagine breaking under the heat. With the diffuser, which is simply a round metal plate with holes similar to a strainer basket, I have not had any issues using my Tagine this way. Place on diffuser, with lid of Tagine on. Bring to boil on medium high heat, then reduce to simmer for 30 to 35 minutes until chicken is cooked through and tender.
For the Farro
- In a large saucepan bring chicken stock to boil, add in cinnamon faro, and raisins.
- Simmer covered for 25 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
- Fluff with fork and add in butter. Remove from burner.
- Season with Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste.
- Serve immediately with Tagine Chicken. I like to serve the chicken on top of the farro, and drizzle the broth from the chicken over the farro. Delish!!