May 20, 2019

Cooking Moroccan Brains

“Don’t waste a thing!” Meme Suissa declared, in French, as she swept up two errant leaves of flat leaf parsley and tossed them into the pot.

Meme, who is in her eighties, was teaching me to cook cervelle a la maroccaine, or brains, Moroccan-style, in the kitchen of her son David.

It’s a dish she learned to make from a dear neighbor back in Casablanca, where the family lived before moving first to Canada.

And cervelle is very much in keeping with Meme’s lifelong dictum against waste.  In Casablanca, she learned to use every part of the animal– so long as it was kosher.  Brains, cheeks, tail — her neighbor taught her recipes that coaxed wonderful flavors from these underused, and less expensive parts. Now “nose-to-tail” cooking is all the rage.  For Meme, it was a matter of survival, or at least economics.

Weeks ago, Meme, David and I got to talking about all these non-standard cuts and the wonderful meals she made from them. She lamented that her local kosher butcher doesn’t even carry tails, cheek, tripe and brains.  On the spot, I texted my local kosher butcher, Israel Feuerstein at Rabbi’s Daughter on Westwood Blvd.  He texted back: yes, give him a week.


When I arrived at the shop, Israel told me he could get tails, cheek and brains, but no tripe.

“It’s from the rear of the animal,” he said, pointing out that observant Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden from eating from the hindquarters of animals.

“Well what about the tail?” I asked.

Israel shrugged: Hey, I don’t make the rules.  I understood.  If it was logic I wanted, I wouldn’t be in a kosher butcher store in the first place.

A week later I showed up at David’s with two pounds of beef brain. Since I was coming from the Jewish Journal offices, I had to store it for the day in the staff refrigerator.  All day long I waited for a scream to come echoing out of the kitchen, but the brain went undiscovered.

Later, as David and I recorded, Meme set about cooking a dish that brought her back to Casablanca, to Montreal. Her hands deftly removed the bloody membrane circling the fleshy coils.  After a quick soak in salted water to remove more blood, she boiled the lobes in more salted water for about 10 minutes.

“I want to give you some soup,” Meme said.  She walked to the refrigerator and pulled out a white bean soup she had made the day before.  It was also a dish from Casablanca, similar to the harira she had taught me to make.  She heated it and served me a bowl beside a homemade whole wheat roll.  I sopped up every bit.

OK, so much for the comfort food, back to the discomfort food.  Meme drained the brains and cut them into bite-sized pieces.  Then she sauteed them with just a few ingredients, including saffron, lemon,garlic and that parsley.

At some point, cooked meat can cease looking anything like an animal part.  But brain never stops looking like brain.  I decided you either had to cook it superbly, or be very, very hungry.

Not 20 minutes after I arrived the brain was finished.  Meme plated some for me, steaming chunks of pale organ bathed in a thin saffron yellow sauce. The scent was heavenly: all that garlic and lemon and parsley.  The flavor?  Every bite reminded me I was not eating just meat.  It was soft, like scrambled eggs, but where the oil and seasonings didn’t penetrate, there was the funk of organ meat, something musty and, well, challenging.

But I ate it all, focusing on the Meme parts — the garlic, olive oil, salt, lemon, saffron, parsley– not the brain parts.  No, I didn’t waste a bit.


Moroccan-style beef brain, or Cervelle a la maroccaine

Meme Suissa doesn’t measure, and doesn’t appreciate your interest in measurements. Everything below is approximated. By me.

2 pounds beef or calf brain, cleaned

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 punch flat leaf parsley, chopped

1/4 c. lemon juice

pinch saffron threads soaked in 1/4 c. water

salt and fresh ground pepper

olive or vegetable oil

1. Soak cleaned brains in salted water for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse.
2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.  Add brains, cover, and reduce heat to a simmer.  Cook 10 minutes, or until brains are firm.

3. Drain brains in a colander.  Let cool until you can cut them into 2 inch pieces.
4. Heat oil in skillet.  Add garlic.  Fry until just translucent. Add brains. Stir gently to coat.  Add saffron water, lemon juice, half the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir.   Bring to simmer, cover, and cook 10 minutes.
5. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and serve.