The cuisine of North Africa is not yet familiar to most people in Wisconsin. But as interest in healthy eating grows, that will likely change.

The food of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria — known collectively as Maghreb — not only benefits from the cornucopia of produce, grains, legumes, fruits, aromatic spices and floral essences available in the region, but from the cultural cross-pollination of its culinary traditions. Andalusian Moors and Jews, the Spanish, Italians, Turks and the French all left enduring marks on North African food.

Greg Johnson, an artist and the chef-owner of Bon Appetit Cafe on Williamson Street for many years, has delved deep into North African cuisine, and has been featuring it occasionally on the nights he prepares international theme dinners.

The most popular dish is Moroccan tagine, the name of both the stew and the stoneware vessel it’s cooked in. Johnson learned about tagine cooking from North African friends, and now has a potter make stoneware tagines for his restaurant. The tagine’s conical lid traps the steam, which helps to produce dishes that are exceptionally moist and tender, and creating them in one is almost fool-proof if you get the seasonings right.

“It’s hard to burn food cooked in a tagine,” Johnson said.

The tagine (pronounced tay-zheen) also makes it easy to get the food on the table piping hot, since the vessels can be set on the tables, allowing people to serve themselves family-style.

Although Johnson knows classical recipes from the Maghreb, he likes to tinker.

“I like to learn to cook the original way, but I like to improvise and don’t feel obliged to do it the way someone taught me to do it,” he said.

Lemon is used often in North African food, but Johnson prefers to braise some of the vegetables he uses in his Moroccan tagine in orange juice. In his Tunisian tagine, a savory cake that he serves for brunch as well as dinner, he adds feta even though it’s not part of the traditional recipe. And instead of using honey or sugar in his creations, he might add some pear.

“It surprises people; there’s sweetness but people don’t know what it is, but people can’t identify it. I always use it in soups and sauces.”

He keeps orange and rose water from France on hand to add another ephemeral touch. “My family is from Louisiana and North and South Carolina, and a lot of the flavors of North Africa remind me of the food I grew up with,” he said. “I like the Portugese and Spanish spices and I use a lot of saffron.”

Cooking in a tagine results in a dish that is somewhere between a casserole and a stew.

“The vegetables stay firmer and don’t lose their shape like they would in a Dutch oven or slow cooker, because it’s a different kind of heat ” he said.

“Steam rises to the top of the conical lid, and re-circulates so none of the nutrients or flavors are lost. This is a quick method of cooking.”

Kwanzaa begins Saturday and runs through Thursday, when a feast of African foods is often served.

Kwanzaa, which is observed by an estimated 18 million American blacks, was first observed in 1966. It celebrates the heritage of the African diaspora, and many of its elements are based on traditional African harvest festivals from around the continent. The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase "matunda ya kwanza," meaning "first fruits."

The countries of North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) are isolated from the rest of their neighbors on the continent by the deserts of Libya to the east and on the south by the Sahara. As a result, their cuisines are vastly different than those of eastern Africa or western Africa, while they have many similarities to the Mediterranean cuisines that have become popular for both their flavors and their health benefits.

Madison chef Greg Johnson has been doing North African cooking for many years, often using the traditional tagine cooking vessels. He has some suggestions for those who might want to make North African food part of their Kwanzaa feast  -- or anyone interested in exotic, aromatic cuisine.

Johnson changes the contents of his tagine dishes depending on what produce is available, and experiments with spices. His recipes, as a result, don't include exact measurements, and he encourages improvisational tagine cooking.

Moroccan Tagine

Ingredients: Yams, butternut squash, red and green bell peppers, carrot, onion, tomato, dried fruit (figs, apricots, dates), pears, cilantro, garlic spices (cumin, cinnamon, ground clove, ground coriander seed), salt and pepper, orange juice, lemon zest, cooked garbanzo beans, red lentils

Method: Medium dice all vegetables. Braise the red and red green bell peppers, carrot, onion, tomato, pears and dried fruit in orange juice with the lemon zest, cilantro, salt and pepper. Place the diced yams and squash in the tagine, cover with the braised vegetables and fruit, and top with spices. Pour the cooking juice (from braising) into the tagine. Mix in the garbanzos and dried red lentils. Cover the tagine and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes until the yams and squash are just tender. Serve with couscous and mint yogurt sauce.

Tunisian Tagine (a savory cake, good for brunch as well as dinner)

Ingredients: Yams, carrot, onion, eggplant, celery, red and green bell pepper, fresh bread crums, eggs, fresh mint, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, lemon zest

Method: Fine dice all vegetables and steam them briefly (until fairly solid but not soft). Roast the yams and eggplant on a cookie sheet greased with olive oil until tender. Combine the eggplant pulp and yam meat with the cooked vegetables, bread crumbs and spices. Fold in the eggs (one egg for each cup of mixture). You should end up with a soft dough. Grease the tagine and fill it with the dough, and smooth it with a metal spoon. Cover the tagine and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes until the edges of the dough begin to brown. Serve with couscous and mint yogurt sauce.

Custom tagines

Johnson's tagines are made by potter Chris Cott, who will make stoneware tagines to order. He can be reached at . Ten-inch tagines like Johnson's, which serve three to four, are $45; single-serving tagines are $30. For no extra charge, Cott will personalize tagines with initials or simple logos. Factory-made tagines are also sold at kitchen specialty stores.

For those who want exact m easurements, an excellent cookbook on the subject is "North Africa: The Vegetable Table," by Kitty Morse (Chronicle Books, $22.95, hardcover with color photos). The author, who was born in Casablanca, Morocco, covers appetizers, soups and salads, egg dishes, sweet and savory stews, side dishes, couscous, pasta and rice dishes, savory pastries, breads and sandwiches, desserts and beverages. Mail-order sources, menus and a glossary are included. She writes about food here.



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