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Memories of Morocco: Pastela + Tomato Salad

Memories of Morocco: Pastela + Tomato Salad


Shared by Kathy Berrie
Recipe Roots: Marrakech, Morocco > Montreal > Westchester, NY > Queens, NY > Englewood, NJ

Kathy Berrie Portrait.jpeg

It’s been more than 50 years since Kathy Berrie left Morocco. But, she still faithfully looks after her family’s recipes from Marrakech and Mogador. “Our mother didn’t have television and we didn’t go to the theater,” Kathy explains. Everything was focused around cooking and the family table, which was always open to guests.

She’s protected dishes like pastela, a casserole layered with ground meat and potatoes, spiced with nutmeg and saffron, and lashed with vinegar, that often graced her mother Fiby’s table for the holidays. And a light tomato salad with briny capers to top hand-rolled couscous, which was a summertime favorite when she was growing up. These recipes, which she shared with us at a cooking session in her home this summer, are resilient, having survived a war and a journey across the Atlantic.

Born in 1936, Kathy was still young when World War II reached its way into Morocco bringing with it a palpable anxiety. “My mother would listen to the news every minute and she’d tell us what was going on,” Kathy recalls. “We were very close to being deported.”

Her father, Meyer, who owned a milling company before the war, was forced to hand over the business to the government. And, flour, which was once used in their home to make bread daily became scarce.

She remembers her hometown changing — and the memory of the first time she saw German soldiers in it has stuck with her. After a Shabbat lunch of dafina (a heavy Sabbath stew), while her parents rested, the family housekeeper would take Kathy to a park. On a Saturday afternoon, when she was four or five, Kathy recalls seeing blond haired and blue eyed men aside motorcycles perched by a hotel next to the park. It wasn’t until she returned home, recounting the scene for her mother that she understood who they were.  

“It was a scary time,” Kathy adds. But, despite pressure from Vichy France and Nazi Germany, King Mohammed V of Morocco refused to allow the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

When the war ended, “I remember my father took us to the terrace of my house in Marrakesh and we saw the planes coming in,” she says. The family drove the three hours to Casablanca where the troops had landed.

In the 1950s, as Morocco approached the end of French rule, Kathy recalls fears over how the Jewish community would be treated. She set out for North America, choosing to take a boat by herself at 17 for the experience of a sea journey.

The transition came with its challenges though. Struggling to find her place in a new home, she told her mother, she wanted to return to Morocco. “She said ‘don’t come back, because everyone’s leaving,’” Kathy recalls. Two years later, her mother and sister made their way to Canada too, bringing with them the family recipes for pastela, tomato salad, and Moroccan sweets. The family table and kitchen once again came together, with Kathy joining her mother in the kitchen.

Kathy has tended to those recipes and the family’s lemon chicken (which we will share around Yom Kippur) since. When we asked her about the next generation to cook Fiby’s recipes, she explained that her son Scott is “madly in love with that dish.” But, “everytime Scott cooks lemon chicken, he says: ‘it’s not like yours.’”

“There’s a touch,” Kathy adds. Perhaps it’s one that only comes from a life journey like hers.



Serves: 10
Time: 2 hours + 50 minutes baking time

1 gram saffron threads (roughly 1 tablespoon)
3 ½ cups boiling water
3 pounds ground beef
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup lightly packed parsley leaves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 ¼ teaspoon mace
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup red wine vinegar
¾ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
15 medium red and yellow potatoes, peeled
6 large eggs
6 large eggs, hard boiled, cut in half lengthwise


1. Place the saffron threads in a quart size jar that has a lid. Pour the boiling water over the threads and let cool. Cover and store until ready to use.

2. Place the beef, onion, and parsley in a medium heavy bottomed pot and mix to combine. Add the nutmeg, mace, salt, pepper, vegetable oil and a ½ cup of the cooled saffron water. Cover and cook over medium heat for 1 hour.

3. Stir in the red wine vinegar and the lemon juice. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover, taste and adjust for salt. Cook uncovered until all of the liquid has evaporated from the pot, about 20 more minutes.

4. Meanwhile, place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with an inch of water. Boil the potatoes until fork tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain the potatoes, place them back in the pot and return them to the stove. Place over low heat for about 10 minutes until all excess moisture is released.

5. Let the meat cool, then pulse in a food processor for about 10 seconds until coarse and fluffy.

6. In a large bowl, beat the potatoes with a hand mixer or hand blender until combined. Add 3 eggs and continue blending. Add 3 more eggs and salt to taste and continue blending until potatoes are light and fluffy.

7. Preheat the oven to 350°.

8. To assemble: grease a 9x13 inch baking dish. Coat your hands lightly with oil and layer the bottom of the baking dish evenly with a ½ inch thick layer of potato. Next, take a handful of the meat mixture and flatten it out on your palm. Place the flattened meat on top of the potato layer. Continue creating small flat patties in the palm of your hand and unifying them as one layer over the potatoes. Place the hard boiled eggs yolk down in a pattern of your choosing on top of the meat layer. Cover the eggs with another ½ inch thick layer of potatoes (oiling your hands again to prevent the potato from sticking). To the potato layer, add a last layer of the ground meat. Top the final meat layer with a layer of potato. Using a fork, create a pattern in the top layer of potato by drawing horizontal and vertical lines and making a design.

9. Bake for 50 minutes until golden on top.

Photos by NItzan Rubin

Photos by NItzan Rubin

Tomato Salad with Capers

Serves: 4-6
Time: 30 minutes

4 large tomatoes, peeled and deseeded, chopped into large chunks
1 medium green bell pepper, ¼” dice
3 tablespoons capers, drained
4-5 scallions, whites only, finely sliced
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

1. Place the tomatoes, green bell pepper, capers, and scallion in a medium bowl. Add the oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Toss to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning adding more salt or lemon to taste.

2. Serve immediately with your favorite summer spread or over couscous like Kathy.

Kathy and friends picking grapes on a kibbutz in Israel.

Kathy and friends picking grapes on a kibbutz in Israel.

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