Melting Pot: Accommodating dietary issues to make everyone happy

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Cooking for friends gives me much pleasure. Whether simple or sublime, the food for a dinner party can express friendship and affection. I love to create special menus for my guests, coordinating each course with a theme, from appetizers to dessert. And I always ask if there are dietary considerations. In Taos, this means food exceptions ranging from vegetarian to being free of gluten to no seafood (my husband, of all people!). For me, instead of dreading the prospect of dealing with conflicting tastes, I relish the chance to expand my culinary vocabulary and accommodate them all.

My vegetarian friends often say not to go to any trouble, that they’ll find something to eat among the side dishes. But I can’t be satisfied with making their part of the meal secondary. So when challenged with vegetarians among the guests, I like to make a veggie dish the lead idea, something substantial to anchor the menu. However, no matter how hearty a vegetarian dish may be, some people will be crestfallen at the lack of meat (including, again, my husband). But really, adding meat to the table is a simple matter. I grill or roast something separately, while still making sure the flavors coordinate nicely with my theme.

During a recent gathering, for example, I decided to serve a Moroccan-themed dinner. For those who haven’t tried Moroccan food, you’re in for a treat. Exotic spices combined with savory and sweet ingredients generate mouth-watering pleasure. Entrancing aromas fill the house and promise an extraordinary and memorable taste experience. And believe it or not, the dishes are truly easy, although your guests will assume you’ve been cooking for days.

I think it’s important to keep appetizers simple; you don’t want people filling up too soon before the main event. A good and easy choice is a bowl of olives and some store-bought hummus served with cucumber slices. Perhaps add a small bowl of nuts would be good to have if there are no dietary restrictions there. The important thing is to awaken the appetite, not dampen it. The best is yet to come.

For my main course, a hearty butternut squash vegetable tagine, a tangy and flavorful stew accented with pearl onions and prunes, was the focal point. Tagine is named for the North African earthenware pot used to cook it, and the word has come to represent almost any North African stew. These vessels come in various sizes, consisting of a shallow dish to hold the ingredients and a tight-fitting cone-shaped cover, which ensures the steam drips evenly on the melange below. To use a tagine, you set it on the stove over very low heat, gently melding the flavors as they simmer and stew. But if you don’t have a tagine, don’t be concerned; any Dutch oven or large, heavy saucepan works just fine to produce a satisfactory result.

The traditional way to serve tagine (the stew) is over steamed couscous, a tiny wheat-based grain-shaped pasta. I break from the custom here. I prefer serving quinoa rather than traditional couscous, using a savory vegetable broth instead of water to cook it. Quinoa is one of the few grains that is a complete protein, which is a plus for vegetarians. And a side benefit is that quinoa does not have gluten.

For my meat-eating diners, I chose to roast a succulent whole chicken rubbed with Moroccan spices. By roasting in a very hot oven in either a cast-iron frypan or a heavy roasting pan, the chicken comes out tender, juicy and crispy. The Moroccan spices are rich and tangy – but not overwhelming – and complement the cooked meat beautifully.

A refreshing orange, olive and onion salad accompanied the meal. To make it even more attractive and for added texture, I sprinkled the salad with pomegranate seeds and chopped cilantro. Moroccan desserts tend to be similar to those in other parts of the Mediterranean: heavy baklava and halva, or syrupy butter cookies with almonds and sesame. But for something lighter, still focusing on Middle Eastern flavors, I suggest serving fruit instead. Take some fresh figs if they’re in season, drizzle them with honey and serve on a small plate over a slice of soft goat cheese. In a pinch, use chopped dried figs or plump pitted dates. Just the right combination of salty and sweet.

The recipes may sound complicated, but don’t be intimidated by the list of ingredients. Once everything is pulled together, cooking it all is quick and easy. You can spend time with your guests over cocktails, excuse yourself for the finishing touches and enlist their help when it’s time to serve. Then sit back and enjoy their company. Most importantly, your friends with dietary concerns will feel like special guests and not that they were merely accommodated.

Lucy’s recipes

Moroccan orange, onion and pomegranate salad

A refreshing accompaniment to the spicy vegetable tagine.

• 3 naval oranges, carefully peeled to remove the pith, sliced crosswise

• 1 small red onion, thinly sliced into rings, soaked in ice water for an hour

• 12 pitted Kalamata olives

• 1 small head butter lettuce, torn apart, washed and dried

• 1/4 cup fresh pomegranate seeds

• 1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Dressing

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• Juice of 1 lime (about 1/4 cup)

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• 1/2 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika

On a large platter, make a layer of butter lettuce. Arrange the orange slices on top. Sprinkle with the drained red onions. Evenly garnish with the olives, pomegranate seeds and chopped cilantro.

In a bowl, whisk together ingredients for the dressing until thickened. Drizzle over the salad.

Roasted chicken with Moroccan spices

Makes four servings.

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

• 2 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika

• 1 tablespoon ras-el-hanout*

• 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint

• 1 tablespoon salt

• 2 teaspoon grated lemon peel

• 1 teaspoon ground black pepper

• 1 garlic clove, peeled

• A 4-to-5-pound whole (preferably free-range or organic) chicken

• 1 large whole lemon, pierced all over with fork

• 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir together ingredients except for the chicken, whole lemon and unpeeled garlic cloves to make a paste.

Rinse chicken inside and out; pat dry with paper towels. Rub 1/3 of spice paste into main cavity and neck cavity, then rub remaining spice paste all over outside of chicken. Place lemon and garlic cloves in main cavity of chicken. Place chicken breast side up on rack in roasting pan or cast-iron pan. 

Roast 45 minutes; tent with foil to prevent over-browning. Continue to roast chicken until juices in thickest part of thigh run clear when pierced, about 15 minutes more. If needed, remove foil to brown breast – about 5 minutes.

Transfer chicken to platter; let stand 10 minutes before serving.

*Ras-el-hanout is a Moroccan spice blend available at some specialty foods stores. Or make your own by stirring together the following spices:

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• 1 teaspoon ground ginger

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

• 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds

• 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

• 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

• Optional: 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Butternut squash, onion, prune and almond tagine

• 3 tablespoons olive oil

• 1 teaspoon butter

• 10-ounce bag of frozen pearl onions, defrosted and drained

• 4 large cloves of garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole

• 1 cup pitted prunes

• 1/2 cup slivered almonds

• 1-2 teaspoons harissa paste* or hot sauce

• 2 tablespoons dark honey

• 4 cups peeled and diced butternut squash

• 1 teaspoon sea salt

• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

• 1/4 cup or more chopped cilantro

• 1 lemon cut into wedges for serving

• 4-6 cups cooked couscous or quinoa

Heat the oil and butter in a tagine, or large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic, and sauté until they begin to turn a light golden color. Add the prunes, almonds, harissa or hot sauce and honey. Add the butternut squash, and coat in the spicy oil. Pour in about a half cup to a cup of water - just enough to coat the bottom of the pan - and cover with the lid. Cook over low heat for 15-20 minutes,until the vegetables are tender but still firm.

Serve over cooked couscous or quinoa. To make couscous or quinoa, follow the instructions on the package, but instead of water, use vegetable broth, and one tablespoon of olive oil. Fluff with a fork before serving.

*Harissa is a hot chile paste popular in North Africa. You can find it in specialty stores or easily make your own by blending together the following ingredients:

• 1/4 cup red chile powder

• 2-3 garlic cloves

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 1 teaspoon ground cumin

• 1 teaspoon ground coriander

• 1 tablespoon water

• 1/4 cup olive oil

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