by Andrea Gemmet
The cooking class starts with a pop quiz. "Chef Casablanca" invites her group of students to gather around an inviting spread of appetizers and try to identify the spices and flavors in three kinds of fig spread, marinated orange segments and spiced strawberries dressed in a creamy sauce of Greek yogurt and creme fraiche.
The fig spread proves the group's undoing, as no one correctly guesses that one of the spreads is laced with chocolate.
The Moroccan cooking classes led by Chef Casablanca take place in a Peninsula home. Katia Essyad, the owner of Casablanca Market in Mountain View, teaches classes that offer a full sensory experience. Students smell fresh ground spices and touch the fresh vegetables as they chop, peel, seed and dice them, and then, at the end of the evening, tuck into the feast that they helped prepare.
With Berber-made plates on the table, hand-knotted rugs on the floor and a tiled nook furnished with vibrantly colored cushions and pillows, it's like entering another world.
Born in Rabat, Morocco, Essyad is a self-taught chef who says she draws inspiration from her mother and the women with whom she grew up. She keeps her menus authentically Moroccan, but has plans to expand her offerings to include classes in Mediterranean and Israeli cuisine.
Essyad uses only local and organic produce and olive oil. And everything must be fresh. She has no canned food in the kitchen, and the freezer is virtually empty, save for ice-cube trays. She urges her students to emulate Moroccans, who go to the market every day.
"I want people to take pleasure in the process of making things," she says. "Basically, I believe in gourmet food."
The half-dozen apron-clad attendees make their way into kitchen in their stocking feet and get put to work. There are peppers and tomatoes to chop for the taktouka, a vegetarian side dish laced with garlic, smoked paprika and cumin. A bowlful of floppy baked eggplants needs to be cut up and cooked with tomatoes for the zaalouk, described as eggplant salad, which has the soft consistency of a spread.
The evening's main course, chicken with preserved lemons and olives, is already marinating in a tagine, the traditional ceramic cooking vessel with a conical lid. Knives drop as everyone heads to the stove to take a whiff of its enticing smell before heading back to the chopping boards.
Essyad peppers her cooking instructions with travel advice (go to Marrakesh in the spring, before it gets too hot), tidbits about the artisans whose handiwork stocks Casablanca Market (she's in the process of getting fair-trade-certified), and her philosophy of the importance of coming together as a community around the dinner table.
She refers to everyone as "honey."
"I want to create a community where people can get together and enjoy a nice meal they've prepared," she says.
The three-hour-long evening class devotes at least as much time to enjoying the food as it does to preparing it. As students pass around the bottles of wine they've brought, conversation flows. The diners swap stories and discover mutual friends, and food quickly disappears from plates.
"I think she was quite good at explaining the process of each dish that she created and was trying to introduce to us," says Marli Szpaller, one of the students. "I do enjoy learning about different cultures; I felt I was able to learn a little bit about the items they use, how they prepare things."
Eve Marie Moltzen, another student, has taken other cooking classes, but says this was the first time she's tried her hand at Moroccan cooking.
"It's on the pricier side, comparatively, but it was a lovely evening and wonderful food," she says.
Moltzen says she didn't know anything about Moroccan cuisine going into Essyad's class. "I loved the fact that she gave us the history, the cultural relevance of it all, and put it into context. She got everybody thinking about travel," she says, adding that she usually doesn't find that in other classes.
Has the class inspired her to head to a Moroccan restaurant or get her own tagine? "Absolutely," Moltzen says with a laugh. "I think I want to go to Morocco."
Info: Casablanca Market is at 793 Castro St. in Mountain View. Upcoming cooking classes, which cost $95, are scheduled for May 17 and June 21. Go to casablancamarket.com.
Orange Blossom Mint Tea
2 Earl Grey tea bags
2-3 tablespoons of organic sugar
1 1/2 cups packed fresh mint leaves
8 cups boiling water
1-2 tablespoons of orange blossom water
Combine tea bags, mint leaves and sugar, cover with boiling water and steep for 5 minutes. Add orange blossom water. Stir, and adjust sweetness to taste. Strain and pour into cups.
Serves 8-10 people.