10 August 2012

Behaving Badly and B'stila

Sorting through my recipe box tonight, I found a recipe for B'stila from a California Moroccan restaurant called Dar Maghreb that plunged me headlong into a series of memories of an amazing food discovery and some wild nights long ago.

John and Lizzie, from exotic England, had blown into town on a crooked wind and livened our little  Boulder hippie scene right up. They told us about their wild adventures in Morocco and Kenya, unpacking from colorful cloth bags and carved boxes hashish and tobacco and clay chillums, which we all smoked, even me now and then. John and Lizzie were fun and cute and tan and had English accents. What was not to love?

Of course, I, 12 that summer, developed a terrible and obvious crush on John, with his lovely accent, for which he teased me, aping my pouts and such. I loved Lizzie too, so sympathetic and petite and clearly tough as nails but with a weakness for her partner. I still remember her telling me, "You're going to have humongous tits!" (This never came to pass, like a lot of their promises.) Oh, what a complicated package they were, inviting us to fall in love with them and I suspect grabbing anything they could get their hands on.

Fortunately, I was off-limits to John as a kid (my hirsute and tough parent would have pounded him flat) but there was plenty of tension between John and the men in the room over the other women in the room. I felt that same vertigo I felt with my mother with Lizzie, wondering why she went along, and trying to comprehend what this gave them, all the women like my mother and Lizzie, and later my stepmother. Years later I saw my stepmother and she said "I had to leave your father because he couldn't stand to see me be happy." John and Lizzie had come along when things were especially dire; my parents wouldn't be together for many moons after John and Lizzie blew out of town a few weeks later. I suppose my father's controlling fury had something to do with why John and Lizzie were able to come along and get us in their sway, as the Rolling Stones put it in the song. My guess is when they'd wheedled and borrowed and cadged and downright swiped as much as they could get away with, they hit the road again.

Eight or so years later, my mother and stepfather and I had moved out to L.A. We had all been yearning to go to California for various reasons. When I wanted to go to school on the west coast, my parents figured it would be a good time to go too, so we went together. I lived with them for the year, having broken up with my high school sweetheart (and having a fling with our mutual best friend).

Out of the blue, in L.A., we finally got a letter from John and Lizzie. For years after their first disappearance, we wondered where they were. We would think to ourselves, "In prison?" We would say to each other, "Maybe we should print an ad in the Rolling Stone." I think my mother might have even gone ahead and done it once, knowing perfectly well they'd never see it, whether they had landed on the Steppes, the Spanish Steps, or in Stepney. John had shared with us a calling card printed all in blue that read "Expeditions" with their names, John and Elizabeth D____, and bore a printed drawing of a Land Rover loaded with gear on it. Pre-mobile phones, there was no way to keep up with nomads, unless you knew which post office to send mail to their attention in care of General Delivery.

But back to Dar Maghreb, which is what launched this reminiscence. When I was 18 and living with my parents in L.A., guess who should turn up but John and Lizzie, a little older and more careworn, and us a little wiser but no less surprised and happy to see them. We had a blast partying with them. They introduced us to new drug experiences, and told bawdy, titillating stories of getting people to do other things new to them as well. They fascinated me and repelled me, in part because they seemed exactly the same as they had been before, but also like people acting a role. I studied them and wondered if they'd been acting before and I just hadn't noticed, or if their act had grown a little stale to them.

We went to Century City and bought sweatshirts at Heaven after a day lazing in the sun and bodysurfing at Santa Monica Beach. We hot tubbed on the deck in the humid night air, the evening fog permeated with the pyrethrin the landlord had sprayed to control the fleas and keep my mother's Persian cats from being eaten alive.

A couple of years back, when visiting L.A., we had been to this amazing Moroccan restaurant, Dar Maghreb. This had been our first immersive experience with the Moroccan restaurant, a particular form of hospitality with the reclining pillows and the big tray in the middle, the tea poured from astonishing heights without spillage, the sweet mixed with the savory in tender lamb and prunes and in the B'stila, everyone's favorite. B'stila is an appetizer of flaky sheets of filo wrapped around a custardy cinnamony chicken dish that we ate with our hands and wished that's all there was to eat. That and the mint tea, poured by waiters numerous and professional, like soldiers, interchangeable in their fancy trousers all alike.

The first time we went to the Los Angeles Dar Maghreb, we were astonished by the atmosphere and the foods and ate and drank and some people did cocaine in the bathroom and came back for more food and belly dancing. The check was huge but we were with rich people and felt rich ourselves and I wasn't caring who was paying because I was 16 then and still a kid.

When John and Lizzie came to visit us in L.A., a plan hatched to go to Dar Maghreb. We wanted to impress them. Then someone had the brilliant idea: Let's go to Palm Springs for dinner. So we drove out to the Dar Maghreb in Rancho Mirage, where Frank Sinatra used to live, and it dazzled us all over again. And again the B'stila was the best part.

By the end of our epic night, we had eaten and drunk with reckless abandon, people had tucked folded bills into the belly dancers' outfits, and some people had snorted lines of coke from the ornate tray in the center. And we all put in cash for our dinners, even me this time, as I was working 50 hours a week to save money for school in northern California starting in the fall. A minute after we were out the door, John and Lizzie were hustling us toward our cars. A minute later, a waiter emerged, hollering. We had stiffed the waiter. He had found our check with a measly couple of dollars on a check that totaled hundreds. John tried to talk his way around it, but failed. People from our party pulled cash out of pockets to settle the injustice and stop the embarrassment. I didn't have any cash left to add by then.

John and Lizzie left shortly after that, our last visit to Dar Maghreb. I have a vague memory of hearing they were no longer together. I haven't seen John and Lizzie since, but I was ecstatic to find this recipe in Great Recipes from Los Angeles. I have made this recipe once, and since have made a simplified version of it that was almost as good and half the work. This is the original recipe. You will need all day to make this version.


The Chicken:
2 chickens (3 pounds each), or 8 pigeons
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup chopped onions
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves (also called cilantro)
1/2 teaspoon safron
2 cups water

The B'stila:
1 pound butter
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves
1/2 cup chopped onions
12 eggs
10 ounces blanched almonds (about 2 cups)
Confectioners sugar
1/2 pound clarified butter
1 pound filo (also called phyllo) dough

To make the chicken, put the whole chicken's [sic] breast down, in a Dutch oven, with the giblets, salt and pepper, oil, butter, ginger, onion, garlic, parsley, coriander, saffron, and water (or enough for the liquid to reach 1/3 the depth of the chickens).

Bring the mixture to a boil, and after it boils, turn the chickens breat side up and stir to mix the spices. Bake at 450 F. for approximately 1 hour. Baste the chickens from time to time so they are thoroughly marinated with sauce (if the chickens are still slightly pink, remember they will be cooked again inside the B'stila).

When the chickens are cooked, let the cool, reserving broth. Bone them, leaving the skin on. Separate the chickens into bite-size pieces and put them aside.

To prepare the B'stila, boil the reserved chicken and add the 1 pound of butter, the parsley, the onions, and pepper. Beat the eggs as for an omelet. Pour the eggs into the chicken broth and whip over a moderate fire until the eggs are scrambled to large curds [not certain; my copier omitted some of this]. Add salt to taste.

Heat a film of oil in a skillet and fry the almonds until they reach a deep golden color. Watch them carefully, as they burn quickly. Remove them from the heat and allow the almonds to cool. Grind them coarsely in a food processor. Stir in sugar and cinnamon.

The steps preceding may be done ahead, and the eggs refrigerated until needed.

To construct the B'stila, grease the bottom of a 14-inch skillet with a thick coat of the clarified butter. Place 2 sheets of the filo across the bottom, letting it overhang 6 to 8 inches all around. Spread a ... three-quarters of the eggs. Sprinkle on half of the toasted almonds, then add half of the chicken. Layer on the remaining eggs, then the chicken, then the almonds. Fold over the filo across the top, adding another sheet of filo if the bottom sheets don't cover the top. Brush the filo with clarified butter. Bake at 450 F for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Remove the B'stila from the oven and flip it onto a large serving plate. Sprinkle more confectioners' sugar over the top and make a crisscross design with 1/4-inch wide bands of cinnamon.

Makes 12 servings.

NOTE: B'stila is eaten with the fingers in Moroccan restaurants. Use only the right hand, and just the thumb and first two fingers, pinching a bite at a time. But be careful, the filling is steaming hot.