A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
~A.P. Herbert

Merguez, which has Bedouin and then Tunisian and Moroccan antecedents, has some assorted Arabic spellings:  (mirkas (ﻤﺮﻛﺲ), pl. marākis (ﻤﺮﺍﻛﺲ),mirkās (ﻤﺮﻛﺎﺱ), markas (ﻤﺭﻛﺲ) and mirqāz (ﻤﺮﻗﺲ).  After the French invasion, occupation and colonization of the Maghreb (“sunset” or “west”) which are the lands west of Egypt in coastal North Africa, the lamb/mutton or beef piquante sausage naturally spread to France and elsewhere.  The Maghreb was cordoned off from the rest of the continent by the immense Sahara Desert and peaks of the Atlas Mountains also their ports, often built by Phoenicians, look out on the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.  The area was conquered and settled by the Spanish, Italians, French, Arabs, Ottomans, Vandals, Carthaginians, Romans, Phoenicians, Berbers, Islamics, Turks, to name a few at differing times.  Sadly, there is nothing like conquest to make cuisine sublime.

Merquez is often served grilled, with tajines and stews, next to couscous or lentils, and in baguettes or buns with pommes frites — now, the latter is a scrumptious charcuterie and street food both.

Not that there exist constraints or restraints by any of these culinary means — with the exception of personal imagination.

A must.

MERGUEZ

1/4 C+ extra virgin olive oil
4 pounds spinach, stems removed, washed and dried well

2 medium onions peeled and cut into small cubes
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
2 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 T fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
2 T harissa
Freshly ground black pepper
2 t  quatre epices (recipe follows)

2 C water
2 C chicken stock
A splash of dry white wine
1/2 lb dried garbanzo or cannellini beans, drained

2 lbs fresh merguez sausage
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/4 C lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt

Preheat the oven to 300 F

Heat 1/4 cup of the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook, stirring throughout, until all the spinach has wilted and browned slightly and all the liquid has evaporated, about 20-30 minutes.

Add the onions, garlic, mint, cilantro, harissa, black pepper, and quatre epices and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

Pour in 4 cups water and stock and a dollop of dry white wine to the mix above, then add the garbanzos or cannellini beans. Stir, bring to a quiet simmer, and cover. Braise gently in the oven for 2 hours, or until the beans are nearly tender.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 T extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Sear the merguez on all sides, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain well.

Stir the lemon juice into the beans and place the seared merguez on top. Cover and continue to braise until the beans are tender and the sausage is cooked through, about 30 minutes more. Season with salt to taste.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix. Use as needed, then store remainder in a tight, glass container in the cupboard.

Bon appetit!

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Just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics will not take an interest in you.
~Pericles

Ancient, mystical lands ever praised for mesmerizing skies, colorful souks (markets) and seductively rugged landscapes, just became critically strategic. Morocco is seen in the West as a bulwark against the threat of instability from the terrorism and violent fundamentalism spreading throughout North Africa. Faced with the challenges posed by the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI adroitly negotiated and then held a constitutional referendum on political reforms which was soon followed by multiparty elections. One of Washington’s closest allies in the region, the State Department has now been working feverishly to cement relationships with this land of contrast since the recent appalling deaths of four members of the embassy staff in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has even praised Morocco as a “leader and a model” in the region.

Threats from Mali after the northern half of the nearby central African state fell under the control of militant, radical concerns have now been coupled with the perceived peril posed by Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Maghreb. The assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, the almost sudden revolutions that toppled leaders elsewhere (including Hosni Mubarak, the former leader of Egypt who was a long-time U.S. ally), the seemingly unending strife in Syria, and the profound uncertainties in Tunisia, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, the region just seems ablaze. The kingdom of Morocco seems a haven of sorts from intolerance and could emerge as a crucial partner there. This makes some sense given recent events and because historically Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence in 1777.

So, on to a memorable Moroccan staple, past and present. Praiseworthy stuff. Couscous should be light and fluffy, not gummy. So, allow the grains to absorb the liquid.

COUSCOUS WITH CHICKPEAS & MINT

1 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t caraway seeds, toasted and ground

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
Sea salt, to taste
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 T turmeric
1 T pimenton agridulce
Pinch of cayenne pepper

2 C chickpeas, soaked in water overnight and drained
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt water, warmed
Bouquet garni of parsley and cilantro, tied with twine

1 T tomato paste
2 T harissa, plus more for serving

2 C couscous
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C stock (reserved)
1 1/2 C water
1/4 C dried currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 t finely grated orange zest
3 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a heavy medium dry pan lightly toast the coriander, cumin and carraway until fragrant. Grind in a spice grinder and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it is tender, about 5 minutes, and stir in a generous pinch of salt, the garlic, coriander, caraway, turmeric, pimenton and cayenne. Stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant, then add the drained chickpeas, stock, water and the bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour. Add the tomato paste, the harissa and salt to taste. Bring back to a simmer and simmer another 45 minutes, until the chickpeas are tender. Strain but reserve and keep warm 1 cup of the broth and set aside for the couscous.

Add the couscous to a heavy large saucepan with olive oil over medium heat and stir. Then add the warmed stock and water. Gently stir with a fork to combine and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Add the currants and orange zest and fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the mint, tossing gently to combine.

Pass harissa in a bowl at the table.

Harissa

2 T cumin, toasted and ground
1 t coriander, toasted and ground
1 t carraway, toasted and ground

1 lb small hot red chilies, roasted and peeled
2 large red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 C cilantro, roughly chopped
1 T sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil

Lightly toast and grind the cumin, coriander and carraway. Finely mince the chilies, roasted peppers, lemon and garlic with a knife or food processor. Combine with the cilantro and salt. Transfer to an airtight jar and cover with a light splash of olive oil and place in the refrigerator until needed.

Two Resolutions: Quinoa

January 11, 2010

No diet will remove all the fat from your body because the brain is entirely fat. Without a brain, you might look good, but all you could do is run for public office.
~George Bernard Shaw

Now that the bubbly clinking and sloppy midnight kisses with bosses and wives have become faint memories, the time has come for many to pursue and accomplish those well intentioned yet often unattainable resolutions for the upcoming year. That annual ritual of setting goals for the new year—an effort to start afresh and recast our role in life—is now in the past. Now, we have to endure the tedium of making good on them. Lose weight, live for the day, find a mate, stop smoking, exercise more, cease biting your nails, get a promotion, find a job, quit your job, get a tattoo, have more sex, travel exotic, sleep more, drink less, bungee jump…and the list goes on.

Other primeval civilizations, including Babylonia, celebrated the vernal and autumnal equinoxes with revelrous festivals as a means of ringing in a new year. The western tradition of new year’s resolutions began in ancient Rome when worshippers offered resolutions of good conduct to the deity named Janus, the god of beginnings and guardian of doors and entrances. Always depicted with two faces, one on the front of his head and one on the back, Janus could look backward and forward simultaneously—an innate skill sorely lacking in today’s politicians. When the Roman calendar was reformed, the first month of the year was renamed January in homage to Janus, establishing January 1 as the day of new beginnings. So, at midnight each December 31, the Romans envisaged Janus looking back at the old and forward to the new. Retrospect and foresight at once.

Unfortunately, studies have suggested that new year’s resolutions are often a pointless exercise. Few of us achieve them, and most revert to our previous bad habits. We break our carefully crafted resolutions of self-renewal and denial, and become dispirited, even despondent in the process. Some research has suggested that some 80% of adult Americans completely give up on their new goals by Valentine’s Day (especially the ones about finding mates or lovers). Many of those who fail neurotically focus on the downside of not achieving their declared goals.

Neither new year’s resolutions nor “how to’s” are my bag. And do not expect me to sermonize about “health food.” But, it has been suggested that those who do attain their resolutions usually choose specific and deliberate objectives which have staged or shortened deadlines and commonly treat occasional lapses in the plan as just temporary setbacks. A suggestion for those who absolutely demand resolutions for 2010? Shun the traditional deprivation diet with its woeful success rates and focus instead on eating well. Eat to savor, not to diet. Prepare a simple inventory of healthy foods, preparations and menu options…including a list of wellness foodstuffs (e.g., beets, swiss chard, legumes, nuts, avocados, blueberries) that you enjoy but have not been eating. Food that is vibrant and light, full of nutrients but not spartan or bland. Incorporate them as staples. Then, buy, cook, eat and repeat.

Well textured and slightly nutty flavored quinoa fits that 2010 resolution bill. And stylish to boot, with all those self enthralled Hollywood waifs scarfing up this mother seed of the Incas. From the plant Chenopodium quinoa, quinoa are actually seeds related to their hale and hardy cousins, beets, chard and spinach. Protein rich quinoa’s fully rounded amino acid profile is especially well endowed with the amino acid lysine, which is essential for tissue growth and repair. It is also a superb source of manganese, magnesium, iron, copper, riboflavin and phosphorus.

Now, on to my flagitious potato pancakes tonight.

QUINOA & CHICKPEAS

1 t cumin seeds
1 t coriander seeds
1 t red pepper flakes

3 C chicken stock
1 1/2 C quinoa, well rinsed
1/2 t sea salt
2 sprigs thyme

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, minced

1 C canned chick peas, rinsed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large, heavy skillet over medium high heat, and add the cumin seeds and coriander seeds. Toast in the pan, stirring or shaking the pan, until they begin to smell fragrant, and transfer to a bowl. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then add red pepper flakes and coarsely grind by pulsing in a spice or coffee mill. Set aside.

In a medium heavy saucepan, add the chicken stock, quinoa, salt and thyme. Bring to just a gentle boil over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to reach a low simmer, cover the pan and cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 12 to 15 minutes. Discard thyme sprigs. Set aside.

Return the skillet to medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, salt and pepper, cumin, coriander and red pepper, and stir together for about 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the remaining olive oil and stir in the cooked quinoa and chick peas. Stir over medium heat to heat through, several minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Mold the pilaf into ramekins or timbales and unmold onto the plate.

QUINOA WITH LEMON & HERBS

3 C chicken stock
1 1/2 C quinoa, well rinsed
1/2 t sea salt
1 bay leaf

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1/4 C fresh lemon juice
3/4 C fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/4 C fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 T fresh thyme leaves, chopped
2 t lemon zest
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium heavy saucepan, add the chicken stock, quinoa, salt and bay leaf. Bring to just a gentle boil over medium high heat. Reduce the heat to create a low simmer, cover the pan and cook until all the liquid is absorbed, about 12 to 15 minutes. Discard bay leaf.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, basil, parsley, thyme, and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Pour the dressing over the quinoa and toss until all the ingredients are coated. Season to tasted with salt and pepper, and serve.