My Pretty Apron: Taking Paleo from Morocco to New York

I’m in a souk in Marrakesh admiring all of the incredible handmade tapestries and beautiful artistry of the fabrics and clay pottery. 12th century architecture surrounds me as I listen to the melodic symphony of languages weaving through the halls. The scents from the brightly hued spices piled high in burlap sacks lining the narrow aisles perfume the air and leave me feeling hungry….Suddenly I’m jerked awake by the feel of my phone shaking in my hand to let me know that I had a new text message from home. Ah right, home. I’m in New York, not Morocco as I had been dreaming about at my desk. Another quick game of ‘anywhere but here’ has left me feeling bereft as I glumly go back to the reality of my day to day, humdrum life.

I love to travel.  Sure, who doesn’t, but no, I REALLY love to travel. From the airport check-in to the waiting forever to take off (16th in the runway line at JFK?? Come on, really?!) to the baggage pick up to the scramble to get to my digs to the walking around aimlessly: I love it all. I soak up that adrenaline rush of being completely out of my element in a new environment. It’s probably the only part of my life that I don’t let fear in, so I make an effort to take at least one trip a year, usually international. I’ll keep myself from buying clothes that fit just so I can squeeze in a flight, because to me that’s money well spent. So what if I won’t have anything to wear once I get there? I’m there, you know?

Between each trip, however, I’m left dreaming of the next time I can pull out my luggage and flex my type-A planning muscles (I’m ridiculously anal about trip schedules), so what do I do? I cook. There’s no better way to explore the place that you want to visit then by paying homage in your kitchen. I can’t go to Morocco? Well then I’m bringing Morocco to me!

My transitioning diet into the Paleo lifestyle has encouraged me to be a lot more creative with my meals, which I’m really stoked about. Before I started blogging my recipes I was on a robotic diet of yogurt, PB & J, and whatever was easiest for dinner, usually a pasta or cereal or some kind of stir fry. Not very healthy. With all the limitations of the Paleo diet I’m forced to try harder to incorporate more variety to my plate, which ironically, brings me full circle. That was the whole idea behind My Pretty Apron. How do I make cooking simpler, healthier, and more fun? This led me to explore dozens of sites run by crossfit fanatics and paleo obssessives who post their recipes. I’ve scoured Pinterest and scoped out the cookbook section at Barnes & Noble. Then my eyes fell on this lovely Moroccan burger recipe I found on the same site that I lifted the Pumpkin Cookies recipe this past weekend. I thought, that’s it. That’s what I’m making for this week’s recipe. Only…with a twist.

Pack your forks and get ready folks! I’m taking you to Morocco!


Let’s get the science out of the way first.

Portobello Mushrooms

Since I’m not eating bread of any kind right now, I needed an alternative for these burgers. The first thing that came to mind was the meaty portobello mushroom cap. It’s sized perfectly and loaded with healthy nutrients.

  • Vitamin B: Portobellos contain a number of B vitamins including riboflavin, niacin and pantothenic acid, which help metabolize carbohydrates, fats and proteins. These vitamins also aid the liver in removing toxins from the body and help create hormones, hemoglobin and essential fatty acids. B vitamins are water-soluble, so your body excretes what it does not use.
  • Minerals: Portobellos contain essential trace minerals including selenium, zinc and copper. Selenium functions as a coenzyme for some antioxidants and regulates thyroid hormones that contribute to regular development. Zinc plays a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, is essential for growth and helps regulate nerve impulses. Copper is part of many enzymes that facilitate energy production, iron metabolism, creation of connective tissue and healthy function of the brain and central nervous system. Portobello mushrooms are high in potassium and a source of manganese and iron.
  • Protein:  A 100-gram serving provides more than 3 grams of protein, which contributes to muscle and tissue health, produces enzymes and hormones and helps transport the mushroom’s other nutrients around the body.
  • Calories: A grilled hamburger patty can have more than 235 calories — before the bun and condiments are added. However, a grilled portobello — which you can use as a hamburger substitute — has 30 calories. It is also low in cholesterol and oil, which makes it appropriate for dieters who want a low-calorie, low-fat meal but don’t want to give up burgers.

Source: Livestrong

Eggplant is loaded with vitamins and minerals, but its health benefits extend beyond just adding vital nutrients to a meal. Eggplant contains other compounds that promote good health as well, even to the point of helping to prevent cancer and lowering cholesterol. Once you realize how beneficial eggplant is to your health, you may want to give more consideration to it becoming a regular part of your diet.
  • Chlorogenic Acid: Chlorogenic acid is a plant compound that is known for its high antioxidant activity. Chlorogenic acid has a great capacity to fight free radicals, and is also able to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Chlorogenic acid is also antimutagenic, which means it can protect cells from mutating into cancer cells; and it is also antiviral.
  • Nasunin: Nasunin is an antioxidant compound found in the peels of eggplant that prevents angiogenesis, or the ability for cells to develop and increase their own blood supply. This is especially dangerous in cancer cases because it allows tumors and cancerous cells to grow quickly. Nasunin inhibits this process.
  • Fiber, Vitamins and Minerals: Eggplant is also an excellent source of dietary fiber, which can help protect against colon cancer and keeps the digestive system regular. The vitamins in eggplant consist primarily of vitamin A (in the form of beta-carotene), B vitamins, folate and vitamin C. Eggplant is also rich in minerals, boasting a large quantity of potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphorous. With no fat, six carbs and 27 calories in a 1-cup serving, eggplant makes an excellent addition to any diet.

Source: Livestrong

So what exactly am I making here?


Instead of the beet salad that was paired with the burger recipe (see link above) I’m adapting from Everyday Paleo, I wanted to do something that was more authentic. In my hunt for paleo recipes (get it?) I tend to get disappointed with what I find that’s labeled “paleo.” I’m finding tons of recipes out there that are classic, amazing, and appropriate to the diet, but don’t fall under the heading. As long as it’s grain-free, dairy-free, and I’m careful about the ingredients than we’re good to go. Just a tip for any paleo followers out there!

Zaalouk is a cooked eggplant and tomato salad that’s commonly eaten as a side dish or dip and can be served hot or cold. I decided to make this is a side for the burger for a couple of reasons. First, I hate eggplant. Hate’s a strong word. I dislike eggplant. But I think that’s because I haven’t given it a chance. I also know that I have to be more well-rounded in my produce selection and eggplant is a winner in the Paleo world since it’s so hearty. Second, I wanted an alternative to the sweet potatoes I originally planned and this seemed more authentic and in the spirit of the flavors I was attempting to evoke. And lastly, I wanted the challenge of making something completely new and different. I like all the components of this dish and it’s not hard, so why not?

Let’s get started! Here are the ingredients:

Notes: I used hothouse tomatoes for the zaalouk. Tomatoes are out of season around this time, so I suggest going for a type that’s packing more flavor as opposed to that tomato imposter you get at the supermarket that’s 90% water. Also, I have a red onion here but I didn’t use it. I had the intention of caramelizing the onion to put on top of the burger but scratched the idea. I did cook the onions for but lunch the next day, so it all worked out. 🙂

I just want to draw your attention to this super ingredient that I picked up at Whole Foods.  I fought myself on this for a bit because my spice cabinet is bursting at the seams, but I couldn’t resist.

First of all it smells AMAZING! Za’atar is the Moroccan arabic word for Mediterranean oregano, but it’s essentially wild thyme. This particular mix has roasted sesame seeds and saffron which I don’t own. It’s very fragrant and robust, so I decided to add it to the burgers as a prime ingredient. But what I’m loving is that this was prepared by the hands of women in cooperatives in Palestine and that my purchase would help benefit them in at least a small way. I’m not as conscious of fair trade goods as I should be, but it’s definitely something I aim to support as much as possible. This was a win.

Time to cook! Begin with the portobello mushroom caps. Clean off any excess dirt with a napkin or kitchen towel (don’t rinse the mushrooms), and cut off the stems. Soak the caps in a bit of EVOO (extra virgin olive oil- shorthand is easier!) and salt the tops and bottoms LIGHTLY. Paleo doesn’t believe in using a whole lot of salt, but if you’re not paleo then go ahead and salt a bit more carefully. Let the caps soak will you prepare the zaalouk.

I found the recipe for zaalouk here and there are all kinds of variations on this dish as well as a number of other Moroccan dishes that  I’m DYING to try. I need a tagine stat!! Okay, I digress. I followed the recipe nearly verbatim with a tiny adjustment.

The suggested ingredient list:

  • 1 large eggplant, peeled and chopped*
  • 4 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or pressed
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro and parsley, mixed
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional) **
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup water
  • small wedge of lemon (optional)

**ALTERATIONS: Instead of using cayenne pepper, I used turmeric. I bought a jar of this stuff months ago and I’ve been looking for an excuse to use it, and here we are. I also don’t like food with a lot of heat because I’m a wimp. If your attitude is “the hotter the better” than don’t sub here. Also, I halved the recipe because it’s just little old me here. Even with leftovers, it’s a ton of food.

There was a note in the recipe to roast the eggplant, but our oven has been acting all wonky and I didn’t want to risk the broiler. I opted to peel and chop the eggplant instead.

Next, seed and chop the tomatoes. The easiest way to get the seeds out of the tomatoes is to just take a spoon and scoop them out. That’s it! When you’re left with the shell, just give it a rough chop and add it to a big bowl with the chopped eggplant.

I’m a mortar and pestle devotee so I mashed up my garlic there, but if you don’t own one then use a garlic press or mince with your knife. Add the garlic to the bowl with the tomatoes and eggplant. Next take a big handful of both parsley and cilantro. I favor cilantro more heavily than parsley so my cilantro pile was bigger. You do what works for you. Make sure to rinse the dirt off the herbs, especially in the cilantro. Pat dry, cut off the stems and roots, and then twist the leaves in ball to chop. It’s easier to chop through this way than to lay the leaves flat. Leave about 2 tbsps of thinly chopped herbs (think ribbons) on the side for the burgers. Add the rest to the bowl with the veggies and garlic.

Now add all of your spices to the bowl as per the list and measurements above. Adjust for serving size. Since I halved the recipe, I halved the ingredients and added the turmeric in place of the cayenne. Add the olive oil and mix well to incorporate all of those flavors.

Add everything to a deep skillet or pot and also add the water at this point. Lower the heat to a simmer and cover with a lid. Then let it cook for about 30 minutes.

In typical Maribel fashion, I decided to be extra ambitious today and squeeze in a HIIT workout. I decided to channel my inner Wonder Woman and take the downtime to workout with one of my best friends. Note, this friend is in Philadelphia, a solid 100 miles away, but that didn’t stop us from working out together through the powers of technology. Or as I like to call it, our ‘superhero prowess.’  😉

Once I gave my workout a smackdown, I was back in Morocco/my kitchen to finish up the zaalouk. All of the veggies have broken down and I can smell all the spices working together happily. It’s awesome! The next step is to help the dish along by mashing up eggplant and tomato and letting it cook for another 10 minutes without the lid. Then you’re done! Let the zaalouk cool off in the pan for a little while before squeezing the lemon juice over the top.

Onto the burgers. Take the portobello caps that have been soaking and place them on a hot grill pan that’s been sprayed with EVOO. Let them cook for about 5-7 minutes on each side depending on the size. Unless you’re like me and decide to get one overly large mushroom and one tiny mushroom at the same time. Strange. Once these guys are done, place the cap on your dinner plate while you get started on the burgers.

Time to form those patties. I’m using 96% lean ground beef for this recipe. I suggest you stick to the 90% and up range for your ground beef when buying at the supermarket. Of course paleo insists on grass-fed, organic meats at all times, but this isn’t easy for everyone. Plus it’s expensive. So just try to keep it as lean as possible. If you have a butcher nearby, you can have them custom grind a lean cut of sirloin for you. That’s a great option and one I wish I had handy. Also, I made these beef burgers but I bet this would make an amazing lamb burger and would take it a step further with the whole authenticity thing. Or not, but it would taste great!

Moroccan Burger Ingredients:

  • 1lb of lean ground beef (90% lean or higher)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed or pressed
  • 2tbsp of chopped fresh cilantro and parsley, mixed
  • 1 tbsp special Za’atar or just regular dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoons salt

I decided not to go for cumin or cinnamon here because I really wanted that Za’atar to pop on it’s own without being overpowered by the other spices. This amount of beef will make about 3 4oz patties which is a decent portion. Mix the ingredients in a bowl and gently form the patties. Don’t overhandle the meat because it will toughen up. Next take a flattop pan and let it heat up. There’s no need for grease here because the meat will release it’s fat while it’s cooking.

Why flattop and not the grill? This is a super lean beef we’re using here so we want to maximize the fat it has to really up the flavor content. You lose that in a grill pan because it drips off and into the grooves. A flattop helps you keep that fat where it belongs; right by the meat. I know this might go against the idea of healthy eating, but trust me, it makes a better burger. Start with a lean cut of good quality meat, and you’ll be fine.

Once the pan is super hot, add the patties and leave it alone. Let me repeat that. Leave it alone. Resist the temptation to press you’re spatula into the burger or to flip it over and over. Let it sit and hang out in its juices. It’s happy there.

I like my burgers medium and a bit on the rare side, so I let this cook for about 3-5 minutes on each side. If that’s too red for you then just add another couple of minutes to each side. Flip them over once or twice but only after it’s cooked completely.

I added some spinach on top of the grilled portobello to make a pretty bed for the burger and to sneak in yet MORE nutrients. Take one of the finished patties and place it on top of the spinach. Spoon about a cup of the zaalouk salad on the side. Garnish and serve.

I’ve never been to Morocco and I can’t imagine that they’re serving up open faced burgers with portobello buns (I mean, it’s beef for crying out loud), but I don’t care. This meal was a winner in my book. The scents in my kitchen and the color on my plate made me forget where I was at least for the time being. And one last thing: I will never say a bad thing about eggplants ever again.

Hope you enjoyed this recipe! As always, stay tuned for my next healthy recipe invention on My Pretty Apron, every Thursday. 🙂

13 Replies to “My Pretty Apron: Taking Paleo from Morocco to New York”

  1. I loved how you set up this post…it was like a journey to another place which I loved so much! I too LOVE to travel, I mean just like you the planning, the trip to the airport, the line-ups that rush is amazing! It is also where I lose all my fears! How incredible? You and me are twins I tell you 🙂 I have travelled for hours by train alone without speaking a word of Italian to visit my friend who lives outside of Florence…It was so liberating! Then I come home and everything goes back to my”normal” routine…so your post got me super excited 🙂 I love exotic spices and flavors. I actually love eggplant and Zatar has a wonderful flavor. I must try this recipe as I decided to go high protein and cut all grains from my diet as well. I’m not sure if what I’m doing is Paleo because I had goat cheese in my omelette this morning but that’s ok 🙂 AWESOME Post Maribel! I love your literally flows and tells a story so beautifully!
    xo Éva


    1. Can I just say that this response totally put a lift in my day? I read it in the afternoon when I stepped away from work for a couple of minutes and it was such a boost- so thank you!!! 🙂 We share the same brain Eva, I’m convinced. It sounds like you’re doing mostly paleo too. It’s hard to go 100% and I feel like I’d rather go 90% feeling good then 100% and miserable. Which is why I still eat greek yogurt, lol. I miss goat cheese though! DEFINITELY give the zaalouk a try because it was delicious. Almost like a chunky ketchup for the burger. I just started strength training with a PT this week too so all the protein is really good for me. I hope your diet is going well. And thanks again for your comments. Another type-A travel obsessive like me- love it! 🙂


      1. Dear Maribel! YOU made my day by your response! I am so happy to have been able to lift your spirits 🙂 I am too convinced that we share the same brains, crazy right? I am doing mostly high protein, no grains, no sugar BUT I’ll keep my goat cheese thank you lol lol 🙂 and my coffee and mine is like an Atkins diet (I hate the word diet btw) but I cannot be so strict. Good for you for the PT! That is AWESOME!!! And yes, all the protein will do you good as you know it is key to building muscle. I will try your recipe for sure. Overnight I made my slow cooker boneless chuck so I’ll be chomping on meat all day lol. Oh and type A and travel obsessive? Don’t even get me started! I make check lists, you name it I do it. It is quite maddening to my family but guess what? I seldom if ever forget anything 🙂 HAPPY FRIDAY my friend! xoxo Éva


  2. I love burgers and am always looking for ways to make them a little new and different. This recipe looks amazing, and I love playing with recipes to find a way to make a Paleo version. Sometimes it’s as simple as substituting a lettuce leaf or portabella for a bun, and other times quite a bit of invention goes into it. Paleo eating can be an adventure!


    1. Thank you! I really really enjoyed this meal and the whole process of putting it together. If there’s anything I’d add it would be to maybe up some of the spices in the burger, or maybe even adding some of that cinnamon. Definitely something to think about for next time!


  3. I love to travel too! And it has been awhile. New York City is still one of my favorites. I love how you illustrate your posts together with health benefits and delicious foods! This looks delicious and I love the spinach addition!


    1. Aww thanks so much for saying that! Sometimes I feel like maybe it’s too much and that people just want me to get on with it, but I write how I speak and it just sort of flows that way, lol. This was one of my favorite meals in a long while so it was great all-around. I’m DYING to make one of these tagine recipes!


  4. Droooool. That looks amazing! I’m with you on the eggplant train, I had a bad experience with it my freshman year of college – aka I was a veg, my dad made eggplant parm for me, I went back to school, drank, and it didn’t stay down ha – so not the eggplants fault but still I dislike it. Perhaps I will pick one up at the store for the coming week, it’s worth a shot!


    1. Ha! That’s funny about the eggplant. Yeah, everytime I’ve seen it cooking when my mom made it, it looked so….gloopy and gross. And I admit this isn’t the prettiest dish either, but it does taste amazing! It was like a chunky ketchup or salsa for the burger. Try it out and see what you think!! If you don’t like it, I won’t be offended. 🙂


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