Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Week 39: A Journey to Algeria

Prior to this week’s project, my definition of Algerian cuisine was limited's like Moroccan.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that many dishes I consider Moroccan actually originated in Algeria and Tunisia.  The cuisine of all three countries is distinguished from other world cuisines by their use of dried red chiles and “warm” spices like cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, coriander, fennel, ginger, mace, star anise, saffron, and caraway.  Spice blends, such as ras el hanout, vary depending on the spice shop owner or chef.  Although Algerian cuisine clearly originated through its strong ties to Berber and Ottoman cuisines, the Spanish occupation of the late fifteenth century brought olives, oranges, plums and peaches from across the Mediterranean to Algeria, in addition to fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, and chiles from the New World.  France’s colonization of the land from 1830 to 1962 greatly influenced the cuisine by introducing tomato purees, baguettes, pastries, and the establishment of sidewalk cafes.  With such a significant number of worldly influences, Algerian cuisine differentiates itself through a global interpretation of dishes with sweet, savory, and balanced flavor profiles.  For this week’s project, I selected dishes that emphasize those influences.

Harissa and Merguez Sausages
Until this week, I was thought of Harissa and Merguez sausages as Moroccan.  Then, I found this fascinating commentary from Algerian Chef Farid Zadi on his Mediterranean Creole blog:

“Merquez are Algerian and Tunisian sausages made with lamb. Merguez are not ‘Moroccan sausages’. While I'm at it, I'll add that harissa is also Algerian and Tunisian. Packaged ‘Moroccan harissa’ as a ‘traditional Moroccan sauce’ is a marketing invention. Merguez sausage and harissa entered tourist areas in Morocco to meet foreign demand.
One of my sources for this information is my Moroccan friend Rachid of The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research). We had an interesting discussion about how merguez and harissa became increasingly common in tourist areas in Morocco during the past several decades.”
Fascinated by this declaration, I found several examples of such marketing while researching Algerian cuisine.  First , I googled “Buy Harissa” and found that the first page of search results returned noted that Harissa is a Moroccan Spice.  Regarding Merguez Sausage, I found that both Whole Foods and Daily Bread Marketplace label it as Moroccan Sausage.  I also discovered that the ingredient labels on the Merguez Sausages in Whole Foods and Daily Bread included only a few of the basic seasonings traditionally included in Merguez Sausage:  Garlic, Cumin, Paprika, and Salt.  After reading these labels, I wondered if I had ever even tasted a full-flavored proper Merguez Sausage, so I set out to remedy that situation.
I began by making a homemade harissa.  Like any spice blend or chile paste, the recipes for Harissa vary, but after reading several, I found the key ingredients included dried red chiles, caraway seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, dried mint, olive oil, salt, garlic, and fresh lemon juice or zest.  I loosely followed a recipe from Saveur using dried ancho, guajillo, and pasilla chiles from my pantry, plus I added a teaspoon of cumin.  This final chile paste was smoky, spicy, and balanced.  Not only did it add a great base flavor to a few dishes I made this week, it also acted as a delicious spread for my Merguez sausage sandwiches.  It keeps for weeks in the refrigerator, too…that is, if there is any left in a few weeks.  It’s good stuff!
homemade merguez sausage
I read several recipes for homemade Merguez sausage and determined that no store bought version with a few spices could ever have the flavor of a proper Merguez.  I found recipes with more than twenty different spices.  Chef Zadi’s recipe seemed like an authentic presentation, so I followed his lead.  For starters, his recipe called for freshly ground lamb shoulder and leg, plus diced hard lamb fat to aid in keeping the sausages moist while they cook.  I needed to “grind” the lamb myself, because I found several sources that noted Merguez sausage should be a bit chunky and textured.  I found lamb shoulder blade “steaks” at a local grocer (Milam’s), and I butchered them dividing them into three groups:  hard fat, cubes of lean meat for stew, and cubes of lean-meat-with-a-little-fat-that-just-didn’t-have-that-perfect-cube-appearance for a stew.  I set aside the nice cubes for a stew to use later in the project, and I proceeded to add a 1/4 pound of hard diced fat and 1 1/4 pounds of the lean/fatty pieces to my food processor.  To the meat, I added garlic, salt, harissa, fresh cilantro, and one tablespoon of the merguez spice blend I made, which included cumin, turmeric, caraway, coriander, fennel, thyme, sumac, sweet paprika, ancho chile powder, cayenne pepper, and black pepper.  I pulsed it until the mixture just came together making sure it still had actual pieces of lamb in it for texture.  I didn’t see any reason to mess around with casing for a few sausages, so I just formed the mixture into individual sausages and wrapped each in cling wrap so they could set up in the refrigerator.
Merguez Sausage Sandwiches
Merguez sausage sandwich
Merguez sausages have been served alone, as an appetizer, with couscous, or in a tagine throughout North Africa for years.  When the French brought baguettes to region, the Merguez Sausage sandwich was born.  While I found several ideas for making these sandwiches, I chose to make mine with grilled Merguez sausage, thick layers of harissa on both slices of bread, and a salad of onion, cucumber, and tomato seasoned with mint, parsley, olive oil, and white wine vinegar.  I also made the sandwich on ciabatta bread, instead of a baguette, because I thought the larger, flat surface would allow for a bigger, more delectable sandwich, and that it did.  I am so proud of this one.  The sausage was a perfect balance of lamb flavor complemented by all of those spices, and I got the texture exactly right.  This sandwich was a textbook example of balance:  warm, spicy sausages; cool, crisp, bright salad; soft, sweet bread; and smoky harissa.
Chakchouka (also shakshouka) is a thick stew of tomatoes and peppers with eggs poached in its broth.  The dish is a staple of North Africa, and it is also popular in Israel where immigrant Tunisian Jews introduced it.  For me, all I had to read was “eggs poached in its broth” to know that I had to try it.  For the record, this is the best and easiest one-pot meal I have ever tried.  I don’t know why it hasn’t found popularity in the rest of the world, because the flavors are unbelievable, and it doesn’t even have meat or onions in it!  I followed a recipe from Global Gourmet that included red peppers, green peppers, garlic, chilies, tomatoes, harissa, caraway, paprika, and cumin.  I simmered that mixture for about fifteen minutes, and then I made little indentions in the top of the stew and added an egg in each spot to poach.  About eight minutes later, I had a big pot of heaven.  We ate the stew with fresh pita bread.  This was my favorite dish of the week!  Yes, it was even better than the Merguez sausage sandwiches.

Lahm Lhalou 
lahm lhalou
When I began researching Algerian cuisine, I found that most “Algerian” dishes were actually better described as “North African” or “Tunisian/Algerian” as there seems to be quite a bit of overlap in cuisine throughout that region.  Lahm Lhalou is the one of the few dishes that I found which is given full credit as an Algerian dish.  The name for this lamb stew means "sweet meat" in Arabic, and the dish is traditionally served during Ramadan.  The lamb meat is seasoned with cinnamon, turmeric, ground ginger, and saffron, and the stew includes dried fruits, sugar, and sometimes, orange blossom water, to provide its sweet profile.  Interestingly, the recipe specifically stated that salt is not added so as not to cause thirst during the next day’s fast.  For my presentation, I used prunes and raisins in the stew, and I served it over couscous.  The flavors were definitely better than the picture looks.  It was warm, rich, sweet, and the lamb was incredibly tender.  While it wasn’t the most exciting dish of the week, I can imagine how great it would taste after a day of fasting.  I would definitely make it again…but I’d add a little salt.

Makroud el Louse 
makroud el louse
I found numerous references to these little Algerian Almond Cookies and decided to try them out.  While I never found any details regarding their origins, I found the same recipe on about ten different sites.  The basic cookie is only almonds, sugar, and egg.  The almonds are pulverized until they are basically an almond flour although I did not process mine quite that much.  In my cookies, the small chunks of almonds were definitely discernible.  What intrigued me about these cookies is the steps taken after the cookies are baked.  They are dipped in orange blossom simple syrup and then powdered in confectioners’ sugar.  The slight floral note of that syrup with the richness of the almonds resulted in a sweet, refreshing cookie.  A perfect cookie to serve with a cup of mint tea.  

My week of Algerian cuisine provided me a more specific understanding of North African cuisines’ origins and Algeria’s contributions to that region.  Although chakchouka is definitely the dish that I will serve again and again, making harissa and Merguez sausage proved to be the most valuable lesson of the week.  I’ll never again wonder if I’ve tasted a proper Merguez sausage, because now I know I’ve made my own.

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