Sunday, August 23, 2009

Harissa Soup

For years now, Do and I have grown progressively more interested in the culinary culture of the Tunisian Sephardic community, where Do's maternal side hails from. A recent family reunion, complete with spirited arguments over the proper way to make Malmoula, so fueled this interest that we picked up Tess Mallos' North African Cooking cookbook the next time we were near a good cookbook bookstore. (P.S. Culinary Institute of America in Napa has an outrageous collection of cookbooks in their shop). We have very high hopes for this book: it has all the Tunisian classics of Doran's childhood memories, there are beautiful photos of every recipe, and the dishes seem exotic yet do-able given our time/energy constraints.

So last Thursday we tried it for the first time. We made Harissa Soup.

Yes, you got the name right. Harissa, as in the super fiery hot condiment that is ubiquitous on Tunisian tables. In a soup. Yup. :) It's like saying, "oh we had Tabasco soup tonight." Even my Texas self was a little apprehensive about that one.

Let me just say, it was amazing. I had seconds, Do had thirds. This recipe is going into the regular dinner rotation, and into the "All Time Favorites" category on this blog.

Some reassurance: it was nowhere near as spicy as I was expecting. In fact, I doubled/quatrupled most of the spicy ingredients just to suit our taste, and it still was a perfectly reasonable dish to serve company. Well, maybe not our German friends, but all others. It's spicy, but more in the complex, deep, exotic way than in the fire-in-your-mouth way. It's spicy and complex the way Indian food is spicy and complex: the heat is fun but not essential and definitely not all-encompassing. And it's perfect like that; I wouldn't try to make it hotter.

The soup itself is beautiful - the color is very vibrant in a way that my camera couldn't capture in the kitchen light. Unlike most soups, this one has great texture thanks to the couscous, the potatoes, the bits of tomato, etc. Every bite is interesting, texturally.

I'd be interested in trying to replace the can of tomatoes with fresh tomatoes, especially given how fantastic our tomatoes are out here in California. Do cautions me that some Tunisian dishes, like Malmoula, just aren't as good with fresh tomatoes. I'm thinking that with fresh tomatoes, and chilled, this soup could be a (much more interesting) Algerian take on gazpacho. In the winter, the soup's heartiness could be preserved with the canned tomatoes and Kale would be a fine addition.

Oh, and it's vegan.

Chorba hara bi keskou (Harissa soup with couscous). Serves 6.

4 Tbs Olive Oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed (Neen: use more if your Harissa isn't garlicky)
1 tsp Harissa (Neen: Er, no. If not using imported Harissa, use 4-5 large dollops.)
1 Tbs Paprika (Neen: make that ~3 Tbs)
14 oz can chopped tomatoes, undrained.
6 cups water (Neen: add 3 cubes veggies bouillon cubes)
2 medium potatoes, ~12oz in total
1/2 cup instant coucous
3 Tbs finely chopped cilantro. (Neen: or more. We heart cilantro and used one bunch).

Heat oil in soup pot. Add onion and cook gently until transparent (~10min). Add garlic and cook for 1 min. Add Harissa to taste and cook gently, stirring, 1-2min. Add paprika, tomatoes in their liquid, water, and veggie bouillon cubes. Bring to Boil.

Cut potatoes into 1/2" cubes and add to soup. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender (~20min). Stir in coucous and boil gently, uncovered, until coucous has swelled and softened (~10min). Taste, add more harissa and/or salt and pepper if desired. Stir in cilantro, let stand 5 min.

Serve hot in deep soup bowls with bread.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Quick and Elegant Salmon with Israeli Coucous Salad

Major success on the cooking front last night:

1. Had an unexpectedly delicious dinner
2. Rediscovered an old cookbook
3. Made up a successful dish from scratch
4. All prep took less than 20 min.

Did I say major success?

When we were planning the weekly menu last weekend, I picked up our copy of New Kosher Cuisine. It's a community cookbook that I'd gotten back in D.C. on recommendation from a good friend. It turned out to be too practical for our cooking style back then (though the Challah recipe is still our go-to challah recipe), but our interests and time constraints have changed radically in the past year or so. Like all community cookbooks it can be hit or miss, but I've gotten better at guesstimating what a dish would taste like based on reading the recipe. And oh man, was "Company Fish" a hit.

It's supposed to be a Shabbat dinner meal, when you have company over (hence the title of the dish). I'm not sure that would work for the super observant unless they were also super prompt (the fish needs to go straight from the broiler to the table, meaning your guests must already be home from shul and/or you don't mind using your broiler after sundown), but it's otherwise perfect for inviting guests over on a weeknight. The dish is super quick: since you marinate it ahead of time, it takes literally no more than 10min to have it from the fridge to the table. It's also quite impressive: strong complex flavors infuse all of the fish, and you really can't help but make sure the last drop of sauce is consumed. And the marinade ingredients are all standard (inexpensive) pantry fare -- what's not to like? Added bonus: the flavor of the sauce and the texture of the fish are on showcase here, so it's good for folks who are apprehensive about "fishy" flavors AND you don't need to feel compelled to buy expensive cuts of fish. Fresh fish, and voila.

The other success was the impromptu salad. Again, very simple: it was all ingredients we had in the fridge, and the chopping was the longest part. But it was so full of flavor and the freshness of summer that (don't read this part Mom) we totally started digging into the serving bowl with our forks once we we'd inhaled the servings on our plates. Great showcase for those uber fresh farmer's market veggies.

Israeli Couscous Salad
, serves 4 generously

1 cup Israeli Couscous
1 cucumber
1 beautiful heirloom tomato,
4 oz feta
1 small-medium red onion
2 lemons
1/2 cup chopped mint

Toast the israeli coucous in a little bit of oil, stirring regularly. Meanwhile boil water in a kettle. Once the couscous is toasted to your taste, pour ~2 cups boiling water into the pot (slowly, and stand back, it's pretty exciting). Simmer water for ~6min, or until coucous is done. Drain couscous, put into salad bowl.

Mince 1 red onion, chop 1 cucumber, 1 tomato, and 1/2 cup of mint, and all it all to the salad bowl. Crumble 4oz of feta into the bowl. Add the juice of two lemons. Salt and Pepper very generously.

Company Fish (New Kosher Cuisine cookbook), serves 8-10.
Neen: don't bother being too precise with your measurements. And don't be afraid to cut the recipe down -- fish is always best straight out of the oven.

1/3 cup soy or tamari sauce
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs Dijon
Grated zest of two limes (Neen: or a couple tsp lime juice, if that's what you have)
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4-1/2 cup scallions, chopped
4 lbs ocean perch or salmon, skin removed.

Combine marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Place fish in a non-aluminum dish and cover with marinade. Refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours.

Preheat broiler. Broil fish 4 to 8 min until brown. Transfer to platter and spoon sauce over fish. Serve immediately.