Tunisian fish couscous

March 18, 2010

When growing up, my sister and I were lucky enough to have been exposed to some rather unusual foods – unusual certainly for Britain in the 1970s. My mum was always an adventurous cook, but she and my dad had so many international friends – Indian and Pakistani, Italian and French – that she picked up lots of recipes from them over the years.

Punjabi chicken curry, fresh artichokes with vinaigrette, spaghetti bolognese (in the days when most Brits thought pasta only came in a tin) all made regular appearances on our kitchen table. But, my absolute favourite of all these exotic dishes was chicken couscous – by which I mean the proper caboodle of broth, vegetables, chickpeas, chicken or lamb and harissa, plus steamed couscous.

Mum would poach a whole chicken in an enormous pot with baby turnips, carrots, onions and chickpeas, all simmering in a delicious broth tinged bright yellow with turmeric. On top of the broth would sit a vast sieve-full of couscous, steaming to soft perfection.

She always made far more than a family of four could possibly eat, but that family of four would inevitably eat it all! (I don’t know what it is about couscous, but I just seem to be able to fit an inordinate amount of the stuff in my belly.) I can still remember the first time I cooked it myself, as a student in London, after phoning Mum for her recipe – and the friends I have since cooked it for have, without fail, loved it as much as I do.

I still cook it fairly regularly, and every now and then, I have such an urge for those familiar flavours, that really nothing else will do. Which is what happened last night. The only thing was, I had taken a mackerel out of the freezer, and I really needed to eat it, or it would have to be chucked.

Now, I know that there are fish couscous recipes, but I have to admit, I’ve never made one. So, turning to my trusty copy of A New Book Of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden, I found just what I was looking for.

The recipe I used was described by Claudia as Tunisian in origin, and she said that any kind of fish could be used. I’m not entirely sure that mackerel was the best thing for it, but it worked well enough for me.

Once again, I incorporated a couple of variations on the recipe – but just the replacement of green pepper, which I didn’t have, with some frozen peas, because I always feel like a meal isn’t complete without some green stuff in it! She also said to include quince in the broth, but I certainly didn’t have any of that lying around, so I just left it out. (Although, I’ll definitely give it a shot the next time I see some at the market.)

I’ve become a bit lazy when it comes to cooking couscous these days, and usually just steep the grains in boiling water until they are soft. But I decided to make a bit of an effort with this dish, and cook it properly. Which is why you see the sieve sitting atop the fish and broth in the picture above.

This is a dish that is quite hard to make in small quantities, so I made a pretty large pot, intending to finish it off today. However, that plan somewhat fell by the wayside once I’d started digging in. And, reader, I ate the lot!

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A sauce for all seasons

March 1, 2010

I’m off to Istanbul for a few days on Wednesday, so my shop on Saturday was minimal. Luckily, I don’t need to worry about finishing every scrap in my fridge, as my little sister is flat-sitting (and job-sitting!) for me while I’m away.

Anyway, last night’s supper was a fuss-free affair of griddled mackerel fillets with a tomato and caper sauce, and some lovely steamed organic broccoli on the side.

The tomato and caper sauce is so easy to make and so full of flavour, it’s really worth having all the ingredients on stand-by. As well as going with any kind of fish, it tastes great with chicken, and may even be a good flavour combination with lamb chops – although I may try it out and come back to you on that one.

To make enough for two, simply fry a chopped onion in some olive oil. Once soft, add a chopped clove of garlic and about four chopped anchovy fillets. Cook for a minute or so to release the flavours, then add half a tin of chopped tomatoes and a splash of Balsamic vinegar, bring to a gentle simmer and leave for about five minutes.

When ready to serve, add a couple of teaspoons of rinsed, chopped capers and a handful of chopped fresh parsley, check the seasoning, and spoon over your fish or meat of choice.

Last night I used the remains of the weekend’s fishy purchases – the mackerel. I’m very fond of mackerel, but it is fairly oily so I like to cook it with something quite sharp, to offset the fatty taste (which I know is what a lot of people don’t like about it).

In among the vegetables I’d bought at Borough Market on Saturday was the first of this this year’s chicory. I love bitter salads, and this crispy leaf is definitely one of my faves. I usually eat it raw in salads, but it can be cooked too, and I thought its flavour would be perfect with the mackerel.

So I cooked the chicory in some olive oil, before adding a leek, for some sweetness, then flavoured the braise with some rosemary, a bay leaf and a splash of Balsamic vinegar. As a side dish to the mackerel it worked really well, but if you want to make it into a veggie main course, a tin of butter beans goes with it very nicely.

Fishing for compliments…

January 25, 2010

This weekend, my shopping at Borough Market was all about fish. I’d recently noticed a new-ish stall and, yesterday, took a closer look. It was selling a small but perfectly fresh selection of fish that had come direct from some Devon boats, and when I checked the prices, it was significantly cheaper than some of the other more established fish stalls in the market.

A box of shiny silvery-black mackerel caught my eye, so I asked for one, plus a small-ish squid. Then, as I was about to pay the whopping £3 for the two items, I saw two large roe sacks.

“What fish is that from?” I asked. “Sea bass,” the guy informed me. “You can have it, and your other bits, for a fiver.” Now, in my books, that’s an offer you don’t refuse!

The mackerel has gone in the freezer for later in the week, and I’ll have the squid tonight, but last night I decided to eat the roe while it was super-fresh.

Some online research led me to discover that bass roe is something of a delicacy in the States, where it’s cooked simply by poaching in some stock. So that’s what I did. Although, me being me, I had to add something else – and this time it was a lemon and chive sauce.

Once cooked, the roe resembled a fishy boudin, but the tiny eggs gave it a very smooth texture. It was quite mild in taste, with just a hint of sea-saltiness – but it was very rich, and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to eat the whole thing.

I’m not sure it’s something I would bother buying if I saw it again, but hey, you have to try these things once in a while…