This tomato sauce hits all the high notes; it is laced with cumin and cinnamon and studded with dried apricots, chickpeas, and preserved lemon. The zesty, sweet, and warmly spiced flavors are harmoniously pulled together in a rich tomato sauce.
For our Moroccan-inspired dinner party a few weeks ago, I baked lentil falafels separately and added them to the tomato sauce right at the end. Alongside was steamed couscous with toasted almonds and creamy tzatziki sauce.
The best part about this tomato sauce is that it is extremely versatile and can be used in many different ways. Here are some other ideas.
- Omit the falafels, double the amount of chickpeas, and right before serving scatter around chopped pistachios or slivered almonds and feta. Serve over couscous, rice, quinoa, or polenta.
- Spoon the sauce into shallow bowls and top with baked fish, grilled shrimp, or scallops. Add a few dollops of Greek yogurt dressed with lemon and serve with warm naan or pita.
- Make a flatbread pizza. Top grilled flatbread with sauce, sprinkle over crumbled feta or another cheese of your choice, and place under the broiler for a few minutes.
Ras el Hanout
I added a few teaspoons of Ras el Hanout because I like the complex and unique flavor it adds to the tomato sauce. It is a fragrant Moroccan spice blend that can be found in larger super markets or whole foods markets. Literally translated, the name means "head of the shop", and is customarily a blend of the best spices the seller can offer. Recipes may include dozens of spices, but common ones are cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, clove, ground chili pepper, and turmeric.
This is a fun spice mix to play around with. It works well in tagines and tomato-based soups and stews when you want to add flavor for minimal effort. If you have a well-stocked spice pantry you could make your own blend. I use this recipe. However, if you don't have the spice mix substitutions are mentioned in the notes below.
Moroccan Tomato Sauce
Notes: Like pasta sauce, the longer this sauce cooks the richer the flavor will be. If you have the time you can simmer this for up to 1 hour, covered, periodically stirring and making sure the bottom is not sticking. Add some additional water if the sauce gets too thick.
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 red chili, sliced (or couple big pinches red pepper flakes)
- Spice mix
- 1 tsp. tomato paste
- 2-3 tsp. Harissa sauce, depending on level of spiciness (optional)
- 2-4 tsp. preserved lemon, chopped (or zest of 1-2 lemons)
- 3 15 oz. cans chopped tomatoes
- 1 1/2 cups (354 ml) water
- 1 15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 1 tsp. salt + black pepper to taste
- Handful unsulphured dried apricots, thinly sliced (~8-10 apricots)
- Fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 1/2 tsp. Ras el Hanout
- 1 1/2 tsp. cumin
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. smoked paprika (sweet paprika also works)
- 1/2 tsp. turmeric
- 1 small cinnamon stick (~2-3 inches long)
- Mix spices together in a small bowl.
- Heat olive oil in a large, deep saute pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic, chili, and spice mix. Stir to combine and saute for 2-3 minutes, or until onions begin to soften and spices are fragrant, taking care not to burn the spices.
- Mix in tomato paste and harissa, if using, then stir in the next 4 ingredients (through salt/pepper). Let the sauce come to a low boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes.
- Taste sauce and adjust for seasoning, then add apricots and simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes. Nestle in lentil falafels (recipe below) and keep warm.
- Serve over quinoa, brown rice, or couscous; sprinkle with cilantro.
*Substitutions: If you do not have Ras el Hanout, add an extra 1/2 teaspoon to the additional spices in the recipe (except for cinnamon and turmeric) plus 1/4 tsp. cardamom and 1 tsp. ground coriander.
Preserved lemons lend a special flavor. But lemon zest gives a similar bright acidity the sauce needs. In this case, a squeeze of lemon might be needed at the end, but taste and decide for yourself. If you have some briny, green olives on hand, they'd be a great addition as well.
Baked Lentil Falafels
Adapted from Sprouted Kitchen
Serves approximately 16-20 small falafels
- 2 cups cooked lentils (~1 cup uncooked)
- 1 large clove garlic
- Small handful fresh cilantro
- 2 eggs
- 3/4 cup ricotta
- 2 tsp. Harissa sauce
- 1 tsp. preserved lemon, chopped
- 1 tsp. each salt and Pepper
- 2/3 cup breadcrumbs (fresh or panko, preferably)
- In a food processor, process the lentils, cilantro, and garlic into a mush.
- In the bottom of a large mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then stir in the remaining ingredients.
- Add the lentil mixture and mix all together. Let the mixture sit for 20 minutes to firm up.
- Preheat the oven to 400', set the rack in the top 1/3 of the oven, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- With wet hands, roll the mix into small balls and press down slightly with the palm of your hand to make round disks. If the first falafel does not hold together stir in a few extra tablespoons of breadcrumbs. Line the falafels up on a baking sheet and brush the tops with olive oil so the outside will get crispy.
- Bake in the top 1/3 of your oven for 15-20 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Turn the falafels over halfway through baking. If the outside is not crispy enough after cooking, run them under the broiler for a few minutes. Remove from oven, let cool slightly and add to the tomato sauce right before serving.