Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Rock the Casbah

I was lucky enough to be born into a family that ate weird food. My family was unlucky enough to get a child who was the pickiest eater in the world. I wouldn't eat onions, I wouldn't eat mushrooms, I wouldn't eat peppers, okra was the most terrifying creature on the planet, I wouldn't eat ketchup or mayonnaise or mustard, I wouldn't eat peanut butter, I wouldn't eat anything spicy, I wouldn't eat fish, I wouldn't eat any sort of dressing or sauce - I made my mother wash the gravy off the meat.

One day she sat me down and told me "When you're an adult, you're going to like all of this. You're going to like spicy food, you're going to like fish. You're even going to like onions." I told her she was crazy. My mother, however, ends up being right about everything.

When I say my family ate weird food, I refer to the fact that we are fundamentally Texas/Cajun people via Algeria and Switzerland. We had staple dishes like red beans and rice, green chili, gumbo, fondue and couscous with chorba. You know. Like grandma used to make. It took me until my adult years to realize how thoroughly awesome this was. I had to call my mom from college once to ask her how to make chorba.

"Are you sure? It's slimy. It has lamb in it and lamb is icky."

"I can handle it, Mom. I'm realizing the wisdom of your ways after all these years."

"What was that you said? I didn't quite hear."

"I said I was wrong and you were right."

"That's what I thought. OK, first you're gonna need some cumin..."

So today at the Chinese house we are rocking the Casbah with lamb chorba over couscous. I'm not sure how close to authentic it is - as far as I know, the Algerian version is very similar to Moroccan, but I've seen some of the more original Algerian recipes (once I found an old typed-with-a-typewriter cookbook of my grandmother's that had a collection of recipes from American expatriates living with them in Algeria) use sweeter ingredients as well as the savory - raisins, dates, little silver dragées. Why would you put little silver dragées on a stew? I don't know, but it sounds absolutely exotic and lovely, doesn't it? See - there are things in this globalized world that can still shock our Western sensibilities.

I learned something monumental after I cooked this meal. My mom called me and said she had been reading my blog and said my problem was that I was putting the cumin in too early. Apparently, cumin's flavor disappears. (Loses its savor, as it were. Cumin, you sinner.) So you have to add it at the very end, and if you do this, you don't have to use so much. Geez, Mom. You do it again. The secret to this dish, though, is cumin and coriander - those are the two that will make it taste Algerian. You could throw in some cinnamon if you want. But these are your magic spices, and now we know that the secret is that we add them at the end.

You can use whatever vegetables you like for this stew. I like things that grow underground plus some zucchini for color. You can use eggplants, turnips, all kinds of lovely things. Today I used onions, carrots, parsnips and zucchini. I started by sautéeing everything but zucchini in olive oil and then adding the lamb stew meat. You can also use chicken if you like, or you can make a vegetarian version. I made a vegetarian version in another pot.

You then add enough broth to make a nice stew - either actual broth or bouillon. I have a lovely vegetable bouillon I get in bulk from the health food store. Now add the softer vegetables - the zucchini and the garbanzo beans (magic!) and let it simmer. It'll be done in 20 to 30 minutes but you can leave it simmering all day if you need to.

I'm not sure what the purpose of turmeric is other than to turn things yellow, but I really enjoy turning curries and middle eastern food yellow, and having an excuse to do so. Also, I own this giant jar of turmeric. So here you go. Yellow chorba!

You know what else is lovely? Fruit for dessert. What if you had dates? Ooo. What if you had dates and almonds and mint tea? Your Casbah would be utterly rocked. I had a limited budget, so here are some lovely little clementines.

Couscous is extremely easy to cook - just follow the directions, but it's nice to add some olive oil or butter and bouillon or broth. Some places have whole wheat couscous. Then your Casbah would be responsibly and healthily rocked.

The group liked it overall - MK says it's the most delicious thing she's ever eaten and eats it for three days, but I also pay her to say that. People had issues with the fact that the lamb stew meat had bones. It wasn't meaty enough for them, I suppose, but I like to maintain that the world isn't supposed to be ridiculously meaty. Also I told them it was more authentic this way. And I promised them next time to roast the lamb over a spit so they could have all the meat they wanted.

1 comment:

  1. The dessert paragraph blew my mind. I'm am led farther and farther out on the limb, then *chop*!... clementines. So beautifully anticlimactic.