Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Roasted Veggie Couscous with Harissa and Preserved Lemons (E.A.T. World: Tunisia)
We're still in Africa for our third stop on the E.A.T. World tour, where the Atlas Mountains meet the sea, in Tunisia. The sun is shining in a clear sky, the Mediterranean is a sparkling blue, and I'm on the beach. North Dakota in January, with our ice storms and blizzards and Minnesota Vikings, are far, far away. Life is good.
I didn't know much of anything about Tunisian food, besides those four words in the title: couscous, harissa, and preserved lemons. That's a shame, but learning about food traditions is what makes E.A.T. World so much fun. Tunisia, as a coastal nation with indigenous diversity and historical influences from Spain to Syria, has a stunningly diverse food heritage. I began at the beginning, with a simple combo of roasted vegetables and couscous, as a base to experiment with the signature flavors of harissa and preserved lemons.
My veggie couscous contains a variety of roasted and stir-fried vegetables (cauliflower, sweet potato, carrots, zucchini, raisins, asparagus, eggplant, red bell pepper, chickpeas, onions, and garlic), seasoned with a little salt, pepper, cinnamon, and cumin. Toss the veggies with prepared couscous, and you have a versatile and easy meal. I used a ton of veggies because I roasted a bunch over the weekend.
Harissa is a hot chili sauce that seems to be mandatory in any Tunisian meal. I looked at a half dozen or so recipes, and no two are the same. I made this with dry pan-toasted caraway and coriander seeds and garlic cloves, along with chili powder, one fresh fire-roasted hot chili pepper, olive oil, and white wine vinegar.
My harissa is mostly based on the recipe in Robin Robertson's Vegan Planet. That's a great cookbook of international recipes, and also the name of Robin's blog. Here's my minorly adjusted harissa recipe:
1 tbsp. caraway seeds
1 tbsp. coriander seeds
3 cloves garlic
1 small fresh chili pepper (I don't know the name of the one I used, but it looked like a red jalapeno pepper, but a little hotter)
1/3 cup chili powder
1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. salt
Dry toast the coriander and caraway seeds until they become fragrant - just a few minutes. Dry toast the peeled garlic cloves as well, watching that they don't burn. I did these in my cast iron pan, without any oil. Because I had that mystery pepper around, I fire-roasted it on my gas stove, and peeled and seeded it after allowing it to cool down. If you have a spice grinder, grind the whole spices, and mix with the ground chili and diced garlic and any fresh chilis, and the liquid ingredients.
For me, it was another chance to use the mortar and pestle - fast becoming my favorite kitchen gadgets. Here's the final product, with a little water added to thin it out a bit.
I introduced my preserved lemons in a previous post, and I'm trying them here for the first time, after letting them cure for nearly four weeks. Upon opening the jar, I was pleasantly surprised! They didn't go bad, which means the jar was sterilized well, and I managed to follow an extremely simple recipe. Good for me, I guess :)
To make one quart of preserved lemons, I used two pounds of organic lemons (organic is important here, because you're eating the peels) and a half cup of sea salt. After sterilizing the jar and lid in boiling water, fill the jar with alternating layers of quartered lemons (with the pulp and seeds still intact) and salt, and a few spices if you like - I used one cinnamon stick, 1star anise, 5 cardamom pods, 4 whole cloves, and a few whole black peppercorns. After the lemon quarters are filled to within a half inch of the jar top, squeeze juice from the remaining lemons into the jar until all the lemon quarters are submerged. Different recipes suggest letting the lemons cure for different periods of time, but three weeks seems about average. After curing the lemons in the sealed jar at room temperature, the lemons keep in the refrigerator for months.
To use, scrape out the pulp and seeds, and rinse in water to remove some of the salt. The flavor is - surprise! - salty and lemony. Use the diced or sliced lemon peels to season North African stews or tagines or wherever else a dose of salt and citrus sounds like a good idea. As with harissa, it makes sense to serve these as sides or relishes, so anyone can use them to their taste.
One final thought on harissa - I made much more than I could use with this couscous, so I have one thing on my mind: vegan harissa wings, which I remember seeing on someone's blog. I like the idea of combining North Africa with sports bar food, though I won't be bringing them to any Superbowl party. Thanks Vikings...though if Brett Favre is reading this, we'd love to have you back next year :)