Note from Elizabeth: I’m lucky to have two parents who cook. I have as many memories of my father preparing meals while I was growing up as of my mother. Writing my senior thesis on the relationship between gender and food, I realized how truly rare such a division of labor is. Even though my father prefers to follow a recipe rather than improvise, he often chooses new and challenging dishes to make. Today for our guest post, my father, Bill Roper, shares one such specialty — Moroccan Bastilla — and the memories that the colors and aromas of the dish conjure up for him.
Fez, Morocco was a magical place for me the first time I visited (and the second). It seemed that almost every moment brought a sensory surprise of one sort of another. Visiting the tannery section of town delivered a particularly pungent, almost shocking sensory surprise!
We stayed in a wonderful riad inn called Dar Anebar and learned that besides having a wonderful space and staff, its kitchen was highly regarded for very good reason. The first magical night our dinner began with a pastry pie featuring the delightful flavors of cinnamon, sugar, nuts, onions, poultry and flaky crust. We learned this dish was called “Pastilla” or “B’stilla” and even “Bisteeya,” and that it was a regular first course in Morocco, featuring pigeon as the poultry ingredient. I ordered it as often as possible!
When I returned home, I searched for a way to make it, which I found in Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean by Ana Sorton, which not only offered a Bisteeya recipe but one that would work for vegetarians. The vegetarian aspect was particularly welcome in our house, and so I was off and running. From Spice I learned that Moroccan pastry crust requires a special flour that is hard to find and even harder to work with but that phyllo dough is a close-enough substitute. I’ve also learned why this dish is so filling… more on that later.
As my daughter Elizabeth neared her departure for Italy, Barbara and I decided to host a going-away party for which I chose to cook the evocative Bisteeya. I knew the smells and tastes would be a great way to celebrate our travels together, and since Barbara and I plan to return to Fez for a month next March, it would serve as an enticement to Elizabeth to join us there.
The morning of the party, I first prepared the filling. I peeled and boiled the sweet potatoes and then instead of pureeing them as Ana suggests, I mashed them to retain greater texture. The orange color reminded me of the oranges I saw in many of the rugs and leathers, and when I eventually added the parsley and cilantro, I recalled the palm trees in the casbah oasis we stayed in between the desert and Marrakesh.
While the sweet potatoes boiled I slowly sautéed two cups of onions in oil until they were soft and then added saffron, turning them bright yellow like the slippers many of the men wore, including Aziz at Dar Anebar.
After they cooled I mixed them together with parsley, cilantro, salt and pepper and then refrigerated until 2 hours before Bastilla construction time. Now it was time to prepare one of the secret ingredients: a mixture of cinnamon, toasted nuts and confectionary sugar. And as I beat and then add four eggs to the filling, I realized exactly why this appetizer was so filling and why this dish worked almost better as an entrée than as an appetizer.
Then the fun of assembly began with us carefully peeling the phyllo sheets and slathering with oil and interspersing the secret cinnamon/nut/sugar ingredient between layers–this is a great two-person activity. I have found how important it is to move the phyllo from the freezer to the refrigerator a good 8 hours ahead and then out of the refrigerator 2 hours before assembly. I have also learned that working with two sheets at a time reduces tearing and cooks just as well as one at a time.
When assembled and baked, the Bisteeya comes out a golden brown and makes a beautiful, enticing dish on the table.
The complex and rich flavors are a delight and quite different from what people expect. In all, it is a relatively easy dish with a big reward. And if you can’t eat it all, cut it into serving sizes wrap in foil and freeze. When you want a piece thaw in the foil and then bake with the foil open to help the dough crisp back up.
And better yet, book your ticket to Fez!
You can find the detailed recipe for the sweet potato Bisteeya here.