Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Hidden gems of Algerian cooking
A couple of days ago, my husband came back from a business trip to Europe and an agreeable, though extremely short, one to Algeria where he visited our family and feasted on some of our beloved, dearly missed dishes that we can’t find or have difficulties duplicating here in Michigan due to the lack of ingredients. While most of our cooking is based on spices, fresh seasonal vegetables and grains, most of them widely available in the US, some more regional recipes are based on local herbs, techniques and just the heritage of our cherished native country.
Mexicans have Mole and Algerians (mostly Eastern part of the country) have M’loukhiya. While all Mole preparations begin with chili peppers, M’loukhiya (which in Ancient Egypt means “for kings and nobles”) is made using the leaves of Jute, removed from the stem and ground to a fine powder. It is cooked with olive oil, lamb, beef or chicken, garlic, fresh bay leaves, dried mint leaves, ground caraway and coriander and other spices. While the meat and garlic and spices are cooking, jute powder is mixed with water or broth and slowly poured into the meat mixture. M’loukhiya simmers until it thickens to a smooth mole like sauce, between 5 to 7 hours. And though the smell can be quite strong and reminiscent to some people to Henna, it is simply exquisite, with complex flavor that only calls for a crusty French baguette and a hungry stomach. Algerian and Tunisian M’loukhiya is different from Egyptian and Middle Eastern M’loukhiya where they use a different variety and the whole leaves of Jute. I might see Indian stores if they have the same variety of Jute to recreate this recipe at home.
I know what you’re thinking: spaghetti and meatballs? The dish in itself is one of a kind, but look closer to the dish and you will see Merguez sausages. Merguez is childhood memories, summer sandwiches at the beach, lazy dinners with tomato sauce and poached eggs. Merguez is Algeria: warm, bold, irresistible and memorable. While my husband makes killers Merguez at home, It can be a hassle to make them using the sausage maker attachment of our Kitchen Aid and I simply miss the convenience of just walking to the butcher and pick up some Merguez sausages for dinner.
Rechta noodles are your typical wheat-flour-based-noodles, but what makes them unique is not only the shape but also the cooking method: fresh Rechta noodles, and even dried ones, are steamed, never cooked in bowling water. This way, they have a bite even when cooked and a lovely elasticity and chewiness. Rechta is traditionally served with a spiced, magnificent chicken, chickpeas and parsnip stew. May be one day I should take the plunge and try my hands at making homemade Rechta.
Some of my fellow Michigan food bloggers may recall the day I bombarded them with my pleas about finding sheep caul fat in Michigan. After numerous trips to different butchers in the area, none of them seemed to have caul fat and only some of them knew what caul fat is. This is yet another dish my husband and I, especially my husband, crave when we go to Algeria. Caul fat is the very thin fatty membrane which surrounds the internal organs of an animal. Lamb liver wrapped in sheep caul fat is a delicacy where liver is marinated in spices, grilled then wrapped in sheep caul fat and grilled for a second time just enough to melt the fat and create a caramelization, but without burning the liver. As you can see from the photo, fat and fire is a dangerous combination.
The abundance of fresh fish and selfish in Algeria makes not only unforgettable meals but also for a vibrant and very animated market. Fishmongers in Algeria, and usually all over the Mediterranean, are loud, in a lovely kind of way, singing out the beauty of their caught of the day to every passer-by and giving you even tips and recipes on how to cook the fish. While shrimps and others are found all around Michigan and the US, though the taste is not the same, sardines are a different story.
Sardines are one of the most beloved and affordable fish in Algeria. They are fried, grilled and eaten whole when small, turned into spicy meatballs and served with couscous or in a stew. They are flattened, deboned and two pieces of sardine fillets sandwiched together with a Chermoula spice paste and either dipped in batter and fried (photo above) or baked in a fragrant saffron based broth.
And last but certainly not least is “Kaak de Tlemcen”. These ring shaped biscuits take their name from the Western city of Tlemcen where my husband is originally from. Whenever a family member send us Kaak Tlemcen from Algeria, he can’t hold it in his hands without having his eyes smiling and recounting how many times he dipped this somewhat hard but wonderful and very fragrant biscuit in hot café au lait to get it to soften. I love this caak as much as I love my mother’s caak. But what I like about the former, beside the fact that it keeps very well for more than a month, is the aromas of fennel seeds, anise, sweet clover and orange blossom water that makes it irresistible and the perfect start to a beautiful day. This one is also on my to-do list of gems of Algeria to try at home, especially when I see how much my daughters love it.