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Tunisian Charmoula – a versatile recipe

After a very long time away from this blog, I felt that I needed to come up with an original recipe, one that doesn’t follow the lines of my previous posts. This particular one, is neither French nor Macedonian, it is not a recipe “a la minute”, but rather a ritual dish that can be stored for a while and used at many different occasions. It is called Charmoula or Chermoula and comes from Northern Africa. How do I know the recipe?One of the perks of living in an international city is that you meet cooks from all over the world. I recently met a girl that grew up in Tunisia, who kindly offered to share the secrets of this traditional dish with me. This particular Charmoula is a sweet marinade that is spread on a semolina bread and topped with dried and salted cod-fish. In the part of the country where her family is from – near Sfax – the tradition is to serve Charmoula on the first day after Ramadan.The two main ingredients are red onions and raisins. As for most recipes, knowing how to choose your ingredients can dramatically improve your final result. One of the first advices from my friend S. were ” buy small and rather dry onions and raisins”. The reason for that is – I should guess – the length of the cooking time. The ingredients are slowly – very slowly – melted in a frying pan, with olive oil, cloves, rose petals, and cayenne pepper. The process takes a few hours altogether, but your presence in front of the pan is much less long and the result is incredibly flavorful, buttery and well worth the effort. It literally melts in your mouth.

You can either spread it on bread and add a couple of slivers of salt-cod, or use it as a base for a sauce that would complement a fish or a meat dish (lamb for instance).

Charmoula sauce recipe :

Ingredients :

2 lbs red onions

3/4 cup olive oil (1st cold pressed, extra virgin)

1/2 pound red raisins

1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tbsp rose petals

4 cloves

Steps :

1. Slice the red onions

2. Add halve of the olive oil in a large sautee pan and and stir fry the onions until the volume in the pan is divided by two. At this point stirring from time to time is enough. Add the rest of the olive oil and keep stirring until the onions caramelize (until they turn dark brown, but before they get burned).

3. While the onions are caramelizing toss the raisins in a blender and add one cup of water. Blend well.

4. Sieve the raisin juice.

5. Once the onions are caramelized (the process rakes about 1 1/2 hours but doesn’t require you to be present all the time), add the raisin juice and the spices to the onions.

6. Stir and let the mixture simmer for at least one hour (1 1/2 to 2 hours is better), stirring it from time to time.


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Hawaiian style marinated raw fish

Let’s take a little break and think of quiet beaches, lush nature, sun-filled moments and rest. Hawaii. More precisely the Island of Kauai, its magnificent North shore, its delicious, fresh and crunchy fish. We were very fortunate this Summer to be able to spend some time on this generous and gorgeous Island. There, I learned this recipe of a local dish from a sweet lady at a family shop called “Pono Market”.

Hawaii offers a cuisine as International as its sister states, however local flavors are also a fusion of multiple cuisines. A little bit of history. It was first settled by Polynesians, then visited by Spanish Explorers, then officially “discovered” in 1778 by the English explorer Captain James Cook. He brought to the island new animals and plants that changed the traditional polynesian cooking. Once the sugar plantations began to flourish, a substantial number of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Puerto Ricans, Portuguese and Filipinos arrived in the islands. Each of these groups of new settlers played their role in shaping the local cuisine by influencing the choices of crops on the plantations and by demanding their own foods at plantation stores.

Now, if you are in Kauai looking for fresh fish, you can find treasures at the Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market on the North Shore. As its name indicates, the market is close the the Hanalei Bay, one of my favorite beaches surrounded by mountains, waterfalls, palm trees and traditional residences. The town of Hanalei is a colorful, busy, welcoming place with plenty of local and international shops, restaurants, cafes (our favorite : Java Kai) and other smothie and fresh fruit juice trucks. We did stop there often for a break before our next adventure on the island.

Back to this dish : we make it whenever we don’t have much time to spend in the kitchen and our favorite local market has inspiring new arrivals. You can use different types of fishes. I have tried Ahi Tuna, Sea Bass, Yellow Tail. I always ask for sashimi type of fish at the market. It takes approximately ten minutes to prepares it and it tastes like vacation.

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Fresh ratatouille-inspired “verrines”

Once again, our trip to the produce market was a very inspiring one. Colorful displays, friendly staff sampling fruit, the sight and scent of fresh flowers, what a wonderful place to feel energized and inspired. As we stopped by one of the vegetable stands, we could not help but notice the large variety of eggplants available to us. They are very different from on another in size, color and shape.

Almost every single variety ended in our cart so that Loulou and I would be able to decide which would be most suitable for our dish. Chinese and Japanese eggplants have thinner skins and more delicate flavors. The Globe and Italian eggplants vary in sizes but are fairly similar in taste – firmer skin and flesh. Finally the Rosa Bianca, also know as the heirloom italian eggplant, has a creamy flesh and softer skin than the Italian and Globe.

My friend C. recently asked me about a recipes with eggplants. “I like eggplant in meals a lot, but don’t know how to prepare it myself”. Here is a second recipe for her, inspired from the French “ratatouille”.

Classic ratatouille is a warm dish, with eggplants, zucchini, red bell pepper, onion and tomatoes. In most of the classic ratatouille recipes that I know, vegetables are stir fried separately, then combined, and cooked together for about 30 minutes.

In these “verrines”, I decided not to use pepper and to layer the other vegetables in glasses. Another difference with the classic ratatouille is that the tomato and zucchini remain raw so that a spoonful of the “verrine” will mix crunchy and creamy textures.

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Those meals that feel like home – eggplant, red bell pepper and parmesan shavings “tartine”

“A yearning for the past, often in an idealized form” is the definition that wikipedia provides for the word “nostalgia”. For me, it is very much associated with tasting, smelling or preparing food.

Nostalgia tastes like an eggplant and red bell pepper spread on a slice of bred accompanied with a salty cheese and a salad.  A bite of that sunny melange and I think countryside, foggy mornings, jogging in our village, and sunflower fields.

For the eternal expatriate that I am, those kind of meals are more than just comfort foods, they represent constants in a childhood spent traveling from a place to an other, from a culture to an other. They made me feel at home no matter where we were and how far from our roots we had gone.

This dish can be served as an appetizer as well as the main course for lunch – you would just need to adjust the size of the slice of bread to your appetite. It is very easy to make, does not require any other tools than a frying pan, a knife and a cutting board. I served it with a salad – greens, steamed small potatoes, Kalamata olives – seasoned with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, fleur de sel and pepper.

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Red and Yellow Bell Pepper Tartare, a French and Macedonian fusion dish

– pronounced “peeh-per”- means pepper in Macedonian. Piper is to Macedonian cuisine what corn is to a 4th of July meal, a must. It is central to every aspect of cooking, used as the main piece on the plate, as a side dish as well as a spice. Dozens of varieties flavor the local life, each particular piper having its own use. Round peppers with four lobes are used for stuffing, long green peppers for frying in a pan, firm short green or yellow ones are pickled, the long flat and sweet or diabolically hot ones are roasted and prepared with garlic, oil, salt, pepper and vinegar. Finally, and historically  the most important, are the peppers grown for spice.

In our family, the smell of pepper immediately triggers memories of our trips to the farmers’ markets, of our grand-father biking home with a huge bag of green yellow and read shapes dangling over his shoulder, of our grand-mother cooking lovingly and caning delicious spreads for the winter.

It also reminds me teenage years, when every summer was spent traveling through this wonderful country, swimming in the mountain lakes, strolling through colorful and lively streets, visiting small churches, relishing delicious honey bought from small producers…

Summer-Ohrid Lake-piper, a delightful recurring trilogy.

About this dish : it is a combination between the macedonian memories and the French flavors that I grew up with. Macedonian piper meets goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

The preparation goes very easily once the peppers are roasted and pealed. The easiest is to prepare them twenty four hours in advance. The rest takes about 10 minutes.

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Zucchini and Goat cheese Millefeuille

As we can finally feel some warmth, fresh dishes start to become more appealing. My first step was to look inside our refrigerator searching for fruits and vegetables that shout “refreshing“. Fresh herbs, zucchini squash…how about something sweet and zesty to add to that, maybe a tad tangy too…yes, a green apple will do. Don’t forget le fromage (cheese), preferably fresh as well…and I was ready to let my imagination flow.

This is my process most of the time. I think of a mood, I think sensation, and then open my fridge for inspiration. Then I look at Loulou to confirm my intuition – always making sure that I choose something she might like, something healthy too. We are very fortunate to leave next to a great produce market and if the fridge is empty, the produce is at hand just steps away.

For this recipe you will need a few tools like aluminum rings and a mandolin. But once everything is on the table, the next steps go really fast.

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Beet Carpaccio with pears, parmezan shavings and baby arugula

“Rain, rain, go away…” is the new song Loulou learned today at preschool. Sunny days are finally back, along with the lush blooming front-yards and the smell of Spring. Some fresh and colorful vegetables are lying on the kitchen table and waiting for our afternoon ritual of cooking together. Her curiosity for new flavors and colors is always inspiring. She loves to smell and touch, hands me the ingredients on the table and we mix and match colors, shapes, sweet and savory. A healthy and tasteful afternoon snack for both of us. This beet salad is the result of that mix and match game.

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Goat Cheese Mint Tomatoes

This is the first of many recipes to come. Why pick this one? So many reasons. Well, first because I found these pretty tomatoes this morning at the market. Also because the recipe is fairly easy and rewarding. Mainly because I love eating it. Especially when you pick your tomatoes in season, especially if you find them in different colors and shapes. Add to that the smell of the fresh mint spreading throughout my kitchen… now you probably understand my choice.

There is almost no need for recipe. Just imagine the bright colors on your plate and the texture of a fresh goat cheese. Add some mint, chives, lemon and mint…That makes me hungry already and it’s barely past coffee time.

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