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!

Advertisements

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.

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
it’s always our self we find in the sea.

~e.e. cummings

Escapist fare on a bleak winter day—in the cozy confines of the kitchen, transport yourself to the sun, sand and azure sea of the French West Indies without airfare or hotel.

My young wandering gnome of a son is going to St. Barths for spring break, so I could not help but reminisce about my torrid affaire there with dainty, yet spicy, accras. Now, this is not meant to slight you or cause jealousy, Mme. boudin noir, as our liaisons there were equally ardent. And both of you cavorting on my plate while sharing a viognier or Côtes de Provence rosé overlooking that seductive blue, was resplendent, almost sacrosanct. Spicy, white hot indulgence with curled toes in the sand.

St. Barthélemy (a/k/a St. Barts, St. Barth, St. Barths), an exquisite volcanic speck of some 8 square idyllic miles (ironically contrasted with the 8 square epically demonic miles of Iwo Jima in early 1945), was “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and was named after his brother Bartolomeo. The native Caribs, who called the island Ouanalao, ferociously resisted European attempts to settle on the island. In 1648, a colonization foray was made by French settlers sailing from nearby St. Kitts. Several years later, a raid by angry Caribs destroyed the settlement, killing all the invaders. The victims’ heads were mounted on poles lining Lorient beach to discourage others with similar notions.

Around 1660, a second attempt was made to invade and settle the island, this time by French mariners from Normandy and Brittany. Unlike its predecessor, this colony survived and prospered.

The island became a part of the France realm and an archipelago of another French leeward island, Guadeloupe. But, in 1784, the French King Louis XVI ceded St. Barths to the Swedish King Gustaf III in exchange for warehouse and trading rights in Gôteburg. The king dubbed the capital Gustavia, laid out and paved streets, built three forts, and turned the community into a thriving free port. There are still reminders of Swedish rule—such as the capital city (Gustavia), the duty free status, several buildings, a cemetery, assorted street names, and the remains of forts.

In the 19th century, numerous misfortunes including hurricanes, droughts, yellow fever epidemics, and a ravaging fire befell the island. Sweden sold the now burdensome island back to France in 1878 for 320,000 francs. Provisions of this treaty required the island remain duty free and that the population never pay taxes.

After World War II, France reorganized its former colonies and St. Barths became a sous-préfecture (district) of Guadeloupe that is now a Département d’Outre Mer (Overseas Territory). It was not until 2003 that the population voted in favor of “independence.” Since 2007, the islands of St. Barthélemy and St. Martin have been governed under Collectivités d’Outre Mer status.

The first air service came to St. Barthélemy in the 1940s, when former mayor Remy DeHaenen discovered that he could land a small plane on the flat savanna which leads up to St. Jean beach. On one trip years ago, I had the distinct, disquieting honor of being piloted by M. DeHaenen in his later years—no seat belts and one of us seated on a wooden crate on an unnerving, almost harrowing, flight.

St. Barts remained relatively unfettered, almost undeveloped, until the last few decades of the 20th century when celebs began to escape there. But, thanks to building restrictions—no rambling high rise resorts, no casinos, no all inclusives and no golf courses—the island still maintains its quiet grace. A slice of paradise.

ACCRAS DE MORUE (COD FRITTERS)

3/4 lb salt cod
Water, for desalting
Court bouillon

4 green onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 limes, zested and juiced
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley leaves
2 t chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2 habanero chile, seeded and finely chopped

1 C all purpose flour
1/2 C whole milk
2 eggs
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil, for frying

Rinse the salt cod under cold running water. Place in a large bowl and cover with cold water and then plastic wrap the bowl. Refrigerate for 24 hours, changing the water 3 times in the process until the cod is sufficiently desalted for you. Bear in mind that you can always add salt, but you cannot remove it once the dish is finished. Drain well and set aside.

In a medium heavy pan, poach the cod in gently simmering court bouillon until it flakes easily with a fork, about 12-15 minutes. Allow to cool. Remove any skin, and bones from the cooled cod, then shred it.

In a large bowl, combine the cod, onions, garlic, lime zest and juice, parsley, thyme and habanero pepper.

In another bowl, combine the flour, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Then add the eggs one at a time, and finally the milk, mixing well. It should be the consistency of thick oatmeal. Add these dry ingredients to the cod mixture. Stir well to combine.

Heat 3″ of canola oil in a heavy, deep sided pan to 375 F. Spoon out a rounded tablespoon of the batter, scrape it into the oil using another spoon and fry until golden brown and cooked, 2-3 minutes. Keep the fritters well spaced, cooking in batches. Remove with a spider or slotted spoon. Drain on a baking sheet lined with paper towels or a paper bag.

Serve with aioli, harissa or sauce chien (see below).

Court Bouillon

2 quarts water
1/4 C white wine vinegar
1 T sea salt
10 peppercorns
1 carrots sliced
1/2 onion, peeled and sliced
2 celery ribs chopped
Celery leaves, chopped
3 parsley sprigs
3 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Combine all ingredients in a heavy stock pot, bring to a boil covered. Lower heat and gently simmer 20 minutes. Strain through a colander or chinois, then add salt and pepper to taste.

Sauce Chien

1/4 C fresh chives, finely minced
2 T flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
3 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1 Scotch bonnet or habanero chile, seeded and finely minced
2 t fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
1 shallot, peeled and finely minced
Grated zest of 1 lime
1/2 t sea salt

1/4 C boiling water

1/4 C fresh lime juice
1/3 C extra virgin olive oil

In a bowl, combine the chives, parsley, garlic, Scotch bonnet chiles (deseeded), ginger,shallot, lime zest and salt. Add the boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk in the lime juice and oil. Whisk well.

Sauce chien comes from the French West Indies knife with a small dog engraved on the side which is used for dicing the ingredients.

…rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe.
~King Hassan II

Al Maghreb means “furthest west” or “where the sun sets,” as when the Arabs first arrived in northern Africa in the 7th century, the lands of present day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were considered to be the outermost western region in the world.

Morocco is situated on the northwest coast of Africa at an intersection of and bordered by Algeria and Western Sahara, the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea…its northernmost tip nearly touches the Iberian peninsula. So, it is little wonder that these lands display a captivating cultural mosaic with traditional cuisine borrowing culinary influences from the indigenous Berbers, invading Arabs, as well as more recently French and Spanish colonialists.

Generous hospitality and custom are the touchstones of Moroccan entertaining, and it often centers around food. Guests are often treated to an abundant tiered feast served at a low communal table covered with brightly colored cloths while seated on pillows. The central meal is usually served at midday. A ritual of handwashing over a basin is performed before serving with perfumed water sprinkled on the right hand as Moroccans eat using the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand only. (Food eaten with your fingers tastes better, remember?) Savory homemeade bread is also offered for use as a utensil.

The resplendent meal is served in several profoundly aromatic courses and culminates in a palate cleansing mint tea.

This succulent lamb dish and the accompanying couscous makes immediate use of the recently posted recipe for Ras El Hanout (08.11.2009)…certainly by now some has made its way into your pantry. The complex, colorful aromas created by the luscious fresh lamb, varied spices and dried fruits will pervade your abode through the night.

MOROCCAN LAMB SHANKS WITH DRIED FRUITS & COUSCOUS

4 1-1 1/4 lb lamb shanks, not trimmed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-6 T Ras El Hanout (North African spices)

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, halved across and then quartered lengthwise
2 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 T tomato paste
1 C dry red wine

1 28-ounce can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
3-4 C chicken stock
1/2 C dried figs
1/2 C dried apricots
1/2 C pitted prunes

Preheat oven to 450 F

Season the shanks with salt and pepper and then rub the Ras El Hanout spice mix all over the surface, massaging it into the meat some.

Place the shanks, standing heavy side down and narrow end up in a large, heavy Dutch oven or heavy bottomed pot. Roast in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour. Transfer lamb to a platter or baking dish and loosely tent.

Place the Dutch oven or pot on the stove over medium high, and deglaze briefly with a little red wine, scraping up cooked bits off the bottom. Reduce to medium heat and add olive oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking the onion and carrots and a couple minutes or so later the garlic and season with salt and pepper and a pinch of Ras El Hanout. Cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, about a total 4 to 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and wine and cook another 4 or 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and dried fruits to the casserole; and then nestle the lamb shanks in the liquid. Cover the pan and return it to the oven. Bring to a simmer and braise, basting occasionally, until the meat is quite tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and again transfer lamb to platter and tent. Strain the sauce into a bowl, gently pressing on the vegetables and skim off any fat. Reserve the vegetables for serving. Return the sauce to the Dutch oven or pot and boil over high heat until reduced to 1 cup, about 10-15 minutes. Keep sauce warm.

Mound the couscous somewhat off center of each large dish or platter. Arrange the lamb shanks atop the reserved vegetables slight atop and to one side of the couscous and spoon over with sauce. Have a bowl of Harissa (04.02.09 post) on the table for passing should some want heat.

COUSCOUS WITH ALMONDS, CURRANTS AND HERBS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T green onions
1 T Ras El Hanout
1/4 C whole almonds toasted, coarsely chopped

1 c instant couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, warmed
1/2 t lemon zest

1/2 C black currants, plumped in warm water and drained
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

In a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat add olive oil. Reduce heat to low and add the green onions, Ras El Hanout, and almonds and sauté gently until softened and slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Let sit for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the currants, mint and cilantro. Fluff again with a fork. Toss gently to combine.

Except the vine, there is no plant which bears a fruit of as great importance as the olive.
~Pliny

Harissa is a hot chili sauce or paste that is commonly found in North African cuisine, added to a range of dishes, including couscous, soups, and grains.

MORROCAN OLIVES

1 1/2 C fine green olives and 1 1/2 C fine black olives (with pits), lightly smashed to crack open slightly

4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2 t tomato paste
1/2 C harissa
3 fresh thyme sprigs
2 lemon slices, thinly sliced

Cover olives with water in a small saucepan and briefly bring to a gentle boil, then drain and allow to dry.

In a heavy skillet, saute garlic in olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat until garlic is light golden, about 2 minutes. Do not burn the garlic. Remove from pan and discard. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in harissa, thyme, and olives and simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, until liquid is thickened and coats olives, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon slices. Transfer to an airtight jar and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

HARISSA

1 lb small hot red chilies, roasted and peeled
2 large red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
1 preserved lemon (see preserved lemons)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled

1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
2 T ground cumin
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground carraway
1 T sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil

Finely mince the chilies, roasted peppers, preserved lemons and garlic with a knife or food processor. Combine with the cilantro, cumin, and salt. Transfer to an airtight jar and cover with olive oil and place in the refrigerator until needed.

Pourboire: For a smokier more hedonistic version, grill the chilies, peppers and garlic over medium high hot coals on the barbeque.