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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Za’atar (زَعْتَر‎) is an aromatic and ancient spice and herb blend found in North African, Middle Eastern and other Mediterranean rim cuisines. Since BCE days, it has been dubbed zaatar, zahatar, satar, zahtar, zatar, and za’atar. Alternatively said to be a type of wild thyme, a type of savory, a type of hyssop, or a type of oregano — it may be better stated that za’atar refers to members of the herb genus Lamiaceae (which includes each). While the history is occasionally blurred, as with many gastronomic delights, za’atar differs regionally and from kitchen to kitchen, sometimes even concealed.

Za’atar has a sunny, zesty flavor with deep nutty, woodsy, and herbal accents. The medley is not only sprinkled onto food to season but is also used in marinades with roasted or grilled meats, fish and vegetables and in recipes as a spice. A versatile soul, it is also sublime atop cheeses, flatbreads, pita, breads and pizzas or infused in olive oil or yogurt.

Sumac (from the family Anacardiaceae), which can be found at food specialty stores, has a vibrant, citrusy flavor that enlivens the other herbs.

Simply put, there is little excuse for not always having a jar of za’atar in the pantry.

ZA’ATAR

2 1/2 T sesame seeds, toasted

3 T dried sumac leaves
2 T dried thyme leaves
1 T dried oregano leaves
1 t sea salt, coarse

Add raw sesame seeds to a dry, heavy skillet over medium low heat. Shake the pan back and forth until fragrant, but not taking on color. Immediately pour the toasted sesame seeds from the pan into a bowl to prevent them from scorching.

Once the sesame seeds have cooled, add all of the ingredients to a spice blender, food processor fitted with a blade, or mortar and pestle. Pulse several times to blend and slightly break up, but not obliterate, the herbs and salt. Be able to recognize the sesame seeds in the blend. Transfer to a jar with an airtight lid and store in a cool, dark place.

Pourboire: Sometimes marjoram leaves and toasted cumin or fennel seeds are added to the mix. Just depends upon the region and personal likes.

The soul is healed by being with children.
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

A time to celebrate, venerate! No, not by those archetypal yuletide jingles or hallelujahs. Rather, a new luminous face will grace us in the not too distant future…a precious one from my oldest and his winsome partner. Another beloved generation begins rife with bliss and trial, and we rejoice. Félicitations à vous deux.

A festive North African dish which derives from the Arabic word šawa (“roasted on a fire”), méchoui is a whole spit roasted lamb. The lamb is sometimes buried in a pit or nestled in a specially designed subterranean oven. While there are regional variations, traditional méchoui is a nose-to-tail lamb cooked with the organs still inside the cavity, each lending their own distinct flavors. The term can even be applied to grilled vegetables and other meats prepared in a similar fashion.

I am not accoutred to roast an entire beast, but a shoulder will more than suffice. Lamb shoulder is such an amiable soul—blessed by succulent, abundant gelatin with savory bone, connective tissue, collagen and more than a little intramuscular fat. Best yet, it is less expensive than its ovine cousins, the leg and loin chops. The soulful, yet too often forsaken, shoulder need not suffer envy.

MECHOUI ROAST LAMB SHOULDER

One whole bone-in lamb shoulder, about 5-6 lbs
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and halved

2 T whole coriander seeds
1 1/2 T whole cumin seeds
2 t sweet paprika
1 t raw sugar
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
Sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1-2 T ras al hanout

2 T honey

Carefully trim any leathery, silverskin membrane and some of the excess fat from the exterior of the lamb, but leave a thin layer of fat to protect the meat from becoming dry. Rub the shoulder with the cut garlic cloves.

In a small, dry skillet set over medium low, toast the coriander and cumin and toast, while shaking the pan occasionally, until just fragrant and beginning to turn golden, about 2-3 minutes. Do not brown or burn. Let the spices cool slightly, then grind them to a coarse powder in a mortar or spice grinder. Transfer the powder to a small bowl and stir in the paprika and sugar. Crush the garlic cloves with the flat of a chef’s knife, sprinkle on some sea salt, and mince well. Pour about a tablespoon of olive oil on the garlic and mash continuously with the knife, rubbing and pressing to make a soft purée. Add the garlic paste to the spices and then work in the butter until evenly mixed.

Make a dozen 1″ deep punctures in the meaty parts of the lamb. Rub the lamb all over with ras al hanout, then the seasoned butter, smearing some into the incisions. Set the lamb in a large glass baking dish and refrigerate overnight, loosely covered. Let the lamb sit at room temperature for at least 1 hour before roasting.

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Place the lamb in a large roasting pan or dish, skin side up. Roast for 25 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325 F and continue roasting, basting throughout with any pan drippings, until the meat is tender and beginning to fall off the bone, about another 2 1/2 to 3 hours. During the last hour drizzle the top with honey. The meat thermometer should register 145 F when the lamb is done to medium rare, but the shoulder should be cooked longer so that it can be shredded with forks.

Place the lamb on a carving board with a trough, tent loosely with foil, and allow to rest for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, pour off any excess fat from the roasting pan. Place the pan over medium high heat on the stove, add about 1/2 cup of wine or water, scrape up the bits and stir with a wooden spatula to reduce. Drizzle the reduced pan drippings over the meat and serve.

Accompany with dried apricot and currant couscous a dollop of Greek whole milk yogurt and a small bowl of harissa, a classic hot pepper paste.

Pourboire: recipes for ras al hanout, couscous and harissa can be found within by using the search box.

Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook.
~Chinese proverb

Another culinary history debate? Another being of undecided ancestry? Another grain in progenitor limbo?

Some claim rice was introduced to Mexico during Spanish colonization via the galleon trade route from Manila to Acapulco, known as the Nao de China. The story goes that over a millenium before, marauding North African Moors acquainted the Iberian peninsula with rice which ultimately led to this Mexican import centuries later. Others, however, fervently assert that the region’s earliest rice cultivars arrived in slave ships from West Africa. Is this yet another example of black history erased? There are ethnographic, historic and genetic markers supporting, fusing and refuting both theories which just cannot be fully fleshed out here. Common threads exist though: conquest, occupation, ships and food.

Polemics aside, rice is and has been extensively cultivated in Vera Cruz, Campeche and other flood plain regions in Mexico. The two basic varieties of rice grown in Mexico are Sinaloa (long grain) and Morelos (short grain), joined by a number of sub-versions.

Arroz a la Mexicana does differ from Spanish rice, although some use the names interchangeably. The Mexican version derives its reddish hue from tomatoes, while Spanish rice is tinted with saffron.

This is simple, almost requisite, table fare. A traditional rice sidled up to tomatoes, onion and garlic all blithely bathed in broth. This version adds a poblano chile and carrot—maybe even peas or giblets if the urge strikes.

The initial browning is essential and imparts a rich, nutty flavor to the rice.

MEXICAN RICE (ARROZ A LA MEXICANA)

3 C chicken broth

2 T canola or extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 C long grained rice
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced

1 15 oz can high quality peeled tomatoes, drained and seeded
1 t cumin, toasted and ground
Pinch of sea salt

1 medium carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 large poblano chile, roasted, peeled and chopped
1/2 C chicken giblets, chopped (optional)

Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat chicken broth to a gentle simmer.

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add rice and onion and cook, stirring, until both are just lightly browned, about 7-10 minutes. During the last minute, add the garlic.

Purée the tomatoes in a food processor or blender. Add the puréed tomatoes, cumin and salt to the browned rice mixture and cook for a minute, stirring. Add the warm broth, carrot, poblano chile and optional giblets. Stir, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Cook until the rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Resist the urge to peek, but the rice is done when small dimples appear on the surface, sometimes called “fish eyes.” Set aside off heat, still covered, to allow the rice to absorb the rest of the moisture in the steam and swell, about another 10-15 minutes.

Add cilantro to the rice, fluffing with a fork. Serve.

Ras El Hanout (رأس الحانوت‎), which means “head of the shop” in Arabic, is a complex and distinctive mixture of multiple spices and herbs. The recipes vary according to the individual spice blender, but it remains basic to the cooking of North Africa, commonly used with meat, game, poultry and couscous. Ras el Hanout can be purchased commercially at specialty stores, but also can be made at home depending on spice availability. This recipe does not include the highly exotic, nearly impossible to obtain, ingredients such as ash berries, belladonna leaves, cantharides, orrisroot, galingale, and monk’s pepper.

A pantry must.

RAS EL HANOUT

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 T allspice berries
1 T cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
1 t anise seed

1 T black peppercorns
1/2 T white peppercorns
6 whole cloves
1 T ground ginger
I T turmeric
1/2 T sea salt
3/4 T ground cinnamon
1/2 T cayenne pepper
1/2 T grated nutmeg
1 t dried lavender

Heat the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, allspice berries, cardamom seeds, and anise seeds in a heavy skillet. Dry sauté them until aromatic, about a minute or so. Do not brown or burn. Mix together with the remaining ingredients in a bowl, then transfer into a food processor, spice mill or mortar and pestle and process until finely ground. Take care with the food processor or spice mill to grind in pulses, so the rapidly moving blade does not burn the mixture during the process.

Lamb Chops with Charmoula

February 4, 2009

Charmoula is a lively, fragrant North African herb and garlic concoction which enhances the natural flavors of vegetables, meat, poultry and fish either as a sauce or marinade. It is equally comfortable ladled over asparagus as over grilled swordfish.

LAMB CHOPS WITH CHARMOULA

1 8-bone rack of lamb, trimmed and frenched,* carved into 8 individual chops
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter

*Frenched is when the meat at the tips is trimmed and cut away, exposing the ends of the bones.

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds

1 C fresh Italian parsley leaves
1/2 C fresh mint leaves
1 C fresh cilantro leaves
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, pealed and cut in halves
1 T sweet paprika
1 t sea salt
1/2 t cayenne pepper

6-8 T extra virgin olive oil
juice and zest of 1 fresh lemon

Heat skillet over medium heat, then add cumin and coriander seeds; toast until aromatic and slightly darker so as the release the essences, about 2 minutes. Transfer seeds to food processor along with parsley, mint, cilantro, garlic, paprika, salt and cayenne pepper. Pulsing the processor on and off, blend until a coarse paste forms. With maching running, gradually add 4-6 T of olive oil in a slow, narrow, steady stream; continue blending and add 1/2 of lemon juice.

Stir together and retain chilled in a bowl a couple tablespoons of the mixture and the remaining lemon juice and zest to serve over the finished lamb chops.

Season lamb chops with salt and pepper; then, the rest of the charmoula should be liberally lathered over the lamb chops and then placed covered in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight. A heavy plastic bag could be used for this coating process. Remove lamb and retained charmoula in bowl from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature before cooking.

Melt butter and olive oil in a heavy large skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, carefully place lamb chops in pan and saute around 3 minutes on each side, until medium rare. Do not constantly turn the meat or you will damage the connective tissue and mar the surface. Remove and allow lamb to rest for at least 10 minutes, then when served, top with retained charmoula.

In Morocco, it’s possible to see the Atlantic and the Mediterranean at the same time.
~Tahar Ben Jelloun

A tajine (طاجين), is a cooking vessel—a partially glazed earthenware dish with a pointed, conical lid. But, tajine also refers to the traditional North African method of slowly braising succulent meat (often lamb and chicken) with sweet & savory fruit woven in a prolific complexity of aromatic spices.

Couscous is a coarsely ground semolina pasta which has been a staple in North Africa since the 12th century. It is often steamed in a device the French call a couscoussier. which resembles a double boiler with the upper part having a perforated bottom which is set over a pot of boiling water or over the tajine served with the couscous. The recipes below are created using more conventional cookware.

Couscous scents are unmistakable—intricate, ambrosial with thoughts drifting to Paul Bowles’ contemplative Moroccan sojourn in The Sheltering Sky and the doleful blue magic of Ali Farka Touré’s guitar and plaintive voice.

CHICKEN MAROCAIN

1 1/2 T coriander seeds
1 1/2 T cumin seeds
6 cardamom pods

1 T paprika
1 T turmeric
1/2 T ground cinnamon
1/2 T cayenne pepper
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

4 local, free range, organic chicken leg-thigh quarters or one whole chicken cut into 8 pieces, room temperature
Extra virgin olive oil
3 peeled, slightly crushed fresh garlic cloves

3/4 C medium yellow onion, diced
1+ T fresh ginger, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1 T red pepper flakes
2 cinnamon sticks
2 jalapeno or other chile peppers, diced

1 C dry white wine
1 T tomato paste

1 28 oz can of san marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 C chicken broth
1 C canned chickpeas, drained and well rinsed
3/4 C kalamata olives, pitted and halved
2 T honey
2 preserved lemons,* cut into wedges
2 bay leaves
1/2 C chopped dried figs
3/4 C currants, plumped in warm water, then drained

Toast cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cardamom pods in a medium saucepan over low heat until fragrant. In a spice or coffee grinder since devoted to spices, blend until fine. Combine with remainder of rub spices, then rub over chicken liberally. Let stand for at least 1/2 hour or refrigerate longer. Keep unused spice rub in pantry for later use in other dishes.

Heat 3 TB oil a high-sided, heavy bottomed pan or dutch oven over medium high heat with smashed garlics. Remove garlic, then add chicken skin side down, sauté chicken until browned on both sides, 5 minutes each side. Remove and loosely tent. Pour off all but 1-2 TB drippings.

Add onions and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in peppers and saute another minute. Then, stir in the ginger, garlic, pepper flakes, cinnamon stick. Cook until fragrant, for another 1 minute.

Deglaze with wine and tomato paste, stirring. Simmer gently until liquid almost evaporates.

Add tomatoes, broth, chickpeas, olives, honey, lemons, bay leaves, figs, currants and stir to combine. Arrange chicken in pan, cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and sauce is somewhat reduced, about 20 minutes.

Finish with:

Fresh mint & cilantro, chopped
Grated lemon rind
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

*Preserved lemons are among the most widely used ingredients in Moroccan cuisine.

4 large lemons (preferably thin skinned), scrubbed
2/3 cup coarse sea salt
1 cup fresh lemon juice
4 caradamom pods
olive oil

Dry lemons well and cut each into 8 wedges. In a bowl, toss wedges with salt and transfer to a glass jar (about 6-cup capacity). Add lemon juice and cardamom pods; cover jar with a tight fitting glass lid. Let lemons stand at room temperature 7 days, shaking jar each day to redistribute salt and juice. Add thin layer of olive oil to cover lemons and store, covered and chilled, up to 6 months.

COUSCOUS WITH APRICOTS

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 small or medium yellow onion, peeled and minced

1 T turmeric
1 t coriander (toasted & ground)

1 cup couscous
1 1/2 C chicken stock, slightly simmering
1/2 t lemon zest

2 T green onions, sliced
1/4 C dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/4 C whole almonds, toasted & coarsely chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan add olive oil. Sauté onion in oil until soft and translucent. Add the turmeric and ground coriander and sauté gently over low heat until slightly fragrant. Add the couscous then the warm chicken broth. Stir with a fork to combine, add lemon zest and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes, then uncover and add the green onions, almonds and apricots. Fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine.