Tuesday, May 22, 2012

North African Chicken Ragout

Chicken Ragout

Not to be outdone by the far reaching tentacles of British Imperialism, the French dabbled in the fertile soils of North Africa a century ago and upon withdrawing it’s cultivating hand, left behind patisseries, baguettes and ragouts which Tunisians decided were impositions they would happily embrace.  In order to de-colonize and adapt those frou-frou flavors, rustify the subtle tomato with a robust and piquant character, more in culinary stride with the earthy Berber tradition, tabil and harissa jumped into the mix and “Voila” or (in Arabic) – it became a mélange of flavors, not unlike the local dialect itself, where the reply to "Bonjour" became "Bonjouraine" - roughly meaning "hello back at you" - an Arabic construction.  Ragout, from the French "to revive the taste", does just that.  Recipes are many and varied, generally implying meat cooked in a thick, well-seasoned sauce.  Ragout Aux Poulet et Petits Pois is a simple, hearty dish, the piquant local spices tickling the tomato sauce to where you want to sop every last swipe from the bottom of the bowl with your French baquette. Peas sweeten the sauce of  flavors so rich you almost want to swim along with them in the dish!  

Ragout Aux Poulet Et Petits Pois
1/3 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, slivered
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole chicken, skinned and cut into pieces
         (chicken on the bone makes sauce more flavorful)
1 tsp. pepper
1 tab. salt
1 1/2 tab. tabil (see bottom of blog for recipe)
         (or 1 tab. ground coriander, 1 tsp. ground caraway,
           and 1 tsp. ground cumin)
2 green peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch slivers
         (mild or hot depending on individual preference)
1/2 cup tomato paste
1 tsp. sugar
1 tab. harissa (more if you like it hot)
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups chicken broth or stock
dash of cayenne pepper
1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen peas
1 cup finely minced flat-leaf parsley

-Saute chicken pieces in large saucepan in oil, with onion, salt and  pepper until chicken is browned on all sides and onion is soft.  Add garlic, tabil (or coriander and cumin), harissa, water, chicken broth, cayenne pepper, and sugar.  Cook ragout uncovered over medium-low heat for 30 - 45 minutes until chicken is tender.  Stir occasionally.  Add peas and green pepper and simmer an additional 10 minutes.  Toss in parsley last 5 minutes of cooking time. Serve in large open soup bowls with crusty French bread.  Serves 6 - 8.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Morroccan Almond Filo "Snake"

Almond Filo Snake

If Amal knew how to make filo pastry, she never showed me how. I suspect
the truth is that her mother had never made it and that with the coming of
mechanization, even her grandmother dropped her rolling pin, dusted off her
hands and raised them to heaven with exclamations of "Il hum-dil-allah"! (Praise God). Can you imagine rolling and stretching a dough of flour and water to the prescribed 1/32 of an inch thickness, let alone the counter space required? 

So this is one pastry we don't make just like grandma did, although you too, can become adept at reaching for the boxes of frozen filo in the back of the grocery store freezer section to select the perfect one (the boxes in the front tend to be older and somewhat dried out). Melted butter is filo pastry's "partner in the
sublime" and accounts for the buttery, golden crunch of the final product!

Finicky Filo:
(secrets I have discovered about the pastry in our long association, beginning with the meat filled rolls prepared for my wedding!)
*Be sure filo is completely thawed before using. It may be kept in the fridge up to a week or in the freezer for up to 3 months.
*Don't work with filo when you are in a hurry with 5 minutes to spare have a grumpy toddler pulling on your leg or workmen are drilling in your basement. Though not difficult the separation of the paper thin layers can be tedious and a calm spirit tends to a neater result!
*Unroll filo and lay the stack of pastry sheets flat on work surface. Keep stack loosely covered with plastic wrap to prevent drying out as you work with the individual sheets.
*Brush all exposed surfaces of the pastry with melted butter, including tops, bottoms and sides of shaped and completed dish. Though margarine can be used and some recipes opt for olive oil or cooking spray, please don't use anything but butter - and certainly don't offer me any if made with anything else - a persnickety cook indeed!
*Score pastry before baking if served in pieces with a sharp, serrated knife,
then cut again through the scorings after baking. (The almond snake is
an exception - do not score before baking.)
*Alas, you will not have success freezing filo dishes after they have been baked...they loose their crunch and morph into a heavy, soggy version of their former glorious selves. However, some dishes do well if frozen before baking, such as baklawa. It can be prepared, thoroughly brushed with butter and covered with foil. Uncover and set out for 20 - 30 minutes and bake as directed. Filo dishes are best stored at room temperature only lightly covered with foil. No airtight containers or plastic bags or there goes the crunch!

Almond Filo Snake
1 cup ground almonds (in food processor)
1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 egg, separated
2 tsp. finely grated lemon rind
1 tsp. almond extract
1/2 cup melted butter
24 sheets filo pastry
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Powdered sugar to dust

-Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease an 8-inch round pan.

-Place the ground almonds in a bowl with the powdered sugar.  Put the egg white in a bowl and lightly beat with a fork.  Add to the almonds with the lemon rind, and extract.  Mix well.

-Remove 2 sheets of  filo and cover the rest with plastic wrap to prevent it drying out.  Brush the filo sheets with butter, then cover with 2 more sheets and butter, repeat one more time with 2 more sheets of filo, using a total of 6 sheets.  Spread 1/4 of almond mixture along the length of the buttered pastry and roll up to enclose the filling.  Form into a coil and set the coil in the center of the pan.  Make 3 more snakes and use butter to join to the other rolls and continue shaping to make a large coil.

-Add the cinnamon to the egg yolk and brush over the snake.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Let cool for 10 minutes then dust with powdered sugar, sprinkle with toasted sliced almonds and serve cut in wedges.  

(The snake will keep for up to 3 days but should not be refrigerated.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tunisian Salad

Tunisian Salad

My mother said Sabiha, our "bonne", watered down the dish-detergent, my mother-in-law said she stole her mumu, my husband said please don’t let her cook, but I did anyway, one night each week. The dishes were always interesting – cous-cous sewn up in sheep stomach for example, and often delicious – Tajin Malsouka (see last week’s blog) a more appetizing example.  

Among the less exotic, entrail-entailed, was Tunisian Salad, which my mother in-law as well as husband grudgingly noted as one of Sabiha’s talents, and forgave her her thievery.  Most often, a dish prepared from emerald green peppers, meaty tomatoes, onion and garlic (never dried but purchased fresh on the stock with soft purplish skins), the addition of olives, tuna and boiled eggs, elevate this salad to a meal. French baquette is the untensil used to sop up the salad and to this day I must eat salad dressed with vinaigrette with crusty French bread. When the basic ingredients didn’t volunteer themselves in the kitchen, Sabiha scoured the  flower garden for leaves that spoke to her of digestion.  Though hesitant and wondering if she had any axes to grind with me, I found that the UFV was delicious.  

I have searched the gardens of my various homes in the years since, for the same leaf but it must be a uniquely Tunisian citizen.  I quickly learned the words for survival at the produce stand from my husband the linguist, chief among them “piquant”  for hot and "doux' for mild.  The boxes of emerald jewel peppers all looked the same to me, varying only in shape and the vegetable merchants, hoping the Americans would shop another day, kept their axes unground if they had any, by directing me to the milder varieties.  Sabiha taught me to roast veggies on the flame of the gas burner and peel the scorched skins to create Salata Mechouia,  first cousin to Salata Tunsia.. The smokiness of the roasted vegetables velvetized with olive oil and lemon juice become my favorite but I was always happy to be in control of how much "piquant" pepper was used!

Salata Tunsia  (Tunisian Salad)  
4 large roma or plum tomatoes, chopped
2 large sweet green peppers, chopped
1 small hot green pepper, finely chopped
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 eggs, hard-boiled and quartered lengthwise
1 tab. tabil (see recipe http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/tabil-spice-mix)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tab. fresh lemon juice
1 can light chunk tuna or albacore, drained
10 - 15 mediteranean type olives
Romaine lettuce leaves

-In medium bowl, combine tomatoes, peppers, onion and garlic.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and allow to sit for 15 minutes.  Drain excess liquid from vegetables.  In a small bowl, mix tabil, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper.  Pour over vegetables and toss.  Chill for 30 minutes.  On a serving platter, arrange romaine lettuce leaves.  Mound vegetable mixture on the leaves, then top with tuna chunks.  Arrange eggs and olives around edges.  Drizzle with additional olive oil and sprinkle with paprika or sumac.  Serve with a fresh, crusty baguette.  Serves 4 - 6.