Gia Winsryg-Ulmer grew up between Martha's Vineyard and New York City. As a young American woman traveling the world, she met the man who would become her husband in his hometown of Essaouria, Morocco and then moved there in 2010. That’s where she learned how to cook Moroccan food side-by-side with her mother-in-law.
Today, the couple has three small children and for now, has settled on the Vineyard.
One day I went to visit Gia and she was making lunch for me. Her baby, Samir, was wrapped tightly and slung on her back. Music played quietly in the background and the eight-month old boy was cooing, crying and gurgling, as babies do.
“Let me start off by telling you what I made,” Gia said. “Usually when you go to a Moroccan restaurant you’ll have something typical like preserved lemons and chicken, or meat with prunes and almonds. But I wanted to make something that millions of Moroccan homes are preparing, probably right at this moment, and something that I’ve eaten with my mother-in-law – just a very simple lunch that a family would have together.”
She was stirring a pot on the stove with minced local cod that she had rolled into balls the size of large marbles. They simmered away in a tomato sauce and were seasoned with garlic, paprika, cumin, and black pepper. Turmeric stained the dish a silky golden color.
If we had been in her home kitchen in Morocco, she would’ve cooked this meal with sardines. She admitted to thinking that sardines were kind of ‘a stinky fish in a can’ before she lived there. But then she learned and tasted subtle differences.
“The same fish has different seasons,” she said. “One season they’re kind of fatty, so they’re for grilling. Another season they’re leaner, and then you grind them up and have them in various ways. You fry them in their kind of lean state, and then you also do this with them.”
She was moving around the kitchen with grace and deliberation. Grounded, it seemed, embracing her life living within and between two different cultures in family and food.
“One of the things that has surprised me is how much I’ve learned from Moroccan women about sustainable cooking – and just a sustainable life,” she said. “But in particular, in relationship to food. Because it wasn’t till I went there – I would spend six or seven months at a time there over a four year period – I’d never really understood ‘local, seasonal, organic.’ We kind of throw these words around, and there’s privilege to being able to eat in that way. But in Morocco I saw that eating local, seasonal food was the cheapest way to eat.”
Gia talked about a reckoning of sorts, of what it means to cook influenced by a culture that lives closer to the land.
“I find Moroccan food to be delicious and beautiful, but also very practical. There’s no utensils, you share one plate, you eat with the bread, there’s not a lot of dishes, and you don’t use a lot of extra water…it’s very economical.
Cooking for her is an exploration. Moroccan in spirit, she melds these distinct cultures with a common denominator: fresh local ingredients. For example in the spring, she’ll make a fiddlehead tagine, and in the summer, a couscous with caramelized rosehips.
“Foraging is an interesting way to integrate the sweet and savory combinations that they do a lot in Moroccan food,” she said. “They do a lot of fruit and meat combinations.”
She comes by her opinions about local food from her first-hand experiences. Part of this dynamic is about how people shop in Morocco because, when not everything is available all the time like it is here in the States, eating in season is what regular people do.
“There’s these sweet potatoes that they have that are caked with black dirt,” she said. “Only two months of the year you get them. For two months we’re eating sweet potatoes with olives and chicken, and the food is loaded with vegetables – seasonal vegetables. You have meat always, but it’s a little bit, a very little bit. It’s like one chicken thigh for six people. I was very impressed with this idea that there’s so much we can learn from low-income women in the so-called developing world. In a healthy food system, this local seasonal organic food should be cheap. If it’s not – something needs to change.”
Recipes By Gia Winsryg-Ulmer
Moroccan Fish Ball Tagine (Querri)
1 pound fresh fish (like a cod or pollock)
2 large cloves garlic
1 small bunch of cilantro
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tomato peeled and chopped
2 cups water
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1) Put fish, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice, spices and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor until fully blended and dough-like.
2) In a tagine or heavy bottomed pot, simmer water, olive oil, paprika, salt and tomato for about 45 minutes or until the tomato has broken down but the sauce is still somewhat thin.
3) When the sauce is ready, quickly form 1/2 inch balls with the fish mixture and drop into the liquid. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes or less if desired. Add water as needed.
No Knead Whole Wheat Moroccan Bread
4 cups whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon yeast
3 Tablespoons oil
1 3/4 cups cool water
1) Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until combined. Cover with a plate or wet towel and set in a warm place. Wait 5-7 hours.
2) Sprinkle risen dough with flour and form 2 balls with hands.
3) Place dough on oiled cookie sheets and pat down with finger tips until they are about 1 inch thick disks. Let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.
4) Prick dough with a fork all over and place in a cold oven. Set oven to 400 degrees and bake for about 30 minutes or until the bread sounds hollow when you tap the top of it.