Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Flavor Trip to Tunisia

Years ago, when a Food Network Star contestant was asked to tell viewers what harissa is, he responded, "It's the devil's toothpaste!" From that first moment of learning of this spicy chili paste's existence, I was afraid of it. But I kept seeing it pop up in magazines and food blogs, and while the fear lingered, I also always felt drawn to it, because its name and my name are almost the same.

Well, after exploring Peru's cuisine in January, I wanted to hop over to a country in Africa next ... and since harissa hails from Tunisia, I decided it was time to conquer my fear of the stuff. I looked at prepared harissa paste on Amazon, and even found this excellent article on The Kitchn about how to make your own harissa paste, using different kinds of chilies for sweeter, smokier, or spicier flavor profiles. And suddenly, I could find very few Tunisian recipes using harissa paste, and even fewer (none?) that used enough to warrant making a whole batch of harissa paste myself.

So harissa got pushed to the back burner once again, but the Tunisian idea stuck. Here's what I made a few weeks ago:
  • Tunisian Chicken Kebabs with Currant and Olive Relish - This dish packs some serious flavor, bringing together sweet currants, briny olives, mild peppadew peppers, and smoky roasted red bell pepper. Since peppadew peppers were nowhere to be found in the grocery stores I searched, I substituted sweet cherry peppers with excellent results. And I cooked the chicken in a cast iron skillet on the stove. I was a bit concerned that the relish and marinade would be too puckery and briny, but it turned out very nicely balanced with the sweetness of the currants and the earthiness of the roasted red bell pepper.
  • Slata Mechouia (Tunisian Grilled Salad) - Versions of this dish showed up a lot in my online searching for Tunisian recipes, which leads me to believe it's pretty authentically Tunisian. You grill/roast/char a bunch of veggies, chop everything up nice and fine, throw in some spices and olive oil, and top with olives and hard-boiled eggs. Most recipes also recommended topping it with canned tuna, but I left that off. It's kind of like a thick, chunky, not-real-soupy-at-all salsa. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would definitely recommend that you give it a try. I could see potential for spooning this salad over eggs or serving it with hummus and pita.
  • Tunisian Orange Almond Cake - Okay, I don't generally like cake all that much, but this cake was stellar! The batter is nutty, sweet, rich, and laced with orange and lemon zest. And if that wasn't tasty enough, it's drenched in a syrup made from sugar, cinnamon, clove, star anise, more orange and lemon, and orange blossom water. Although the orange blossom water makes the cake feel a bit magical, you could leave it out and would still have a scrumptious dessert. You can even underbake your cake and have it completely fall apart on you so you're quite literally left with an ugly pile of cake pieces, and it will still be superb. (Not that I know that from personal experience.) The recipe calls for caster sugar, which I made myself by taking granulated sugar for a spin in my food processor. You want it to be finer than granulated sugar but coarser than powdered sugar. Also, the recipe is all metric and weight measurements, which inspired me to finally give in and buy a kitchen scale. I got this little guy for $12, and he did great!

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