Saturday night was Algerian Night in our house. An unctuous lamb and prune tagine, lemon scented couscous, khobz flatbread flavored with wood smoke from the fireplace. I was dressed in my best Dorothy Lamour Goes Bedouin outfit, Jeff was suavely chic in his embroidered tunic.
Blame it on Foodbuzz. We won round 1 of the Food Blog competition and our next challenge was to make a classic ethnic dish. In Umbria, eating Tuscan food is considering exotically ethnic. Fortunately, inspiration was playing in the street outside our house. Algerian! We have a few Algerian families living on our block and we’d already been treated to some of their couscous so the pieces fell into place.
Armed with that flavor memory and a recent conversation with one of the kids about how they make couscous, I was almost ready. A Google search for recipes turned into an odyssey. This is a cuisine that comes straight from the Garden of Eden: lemons, oranges, vegetables, spices, nuts. A crazy quilt of culinary influences: African, Berber, Arab, Moorish, Jewish, Turkish, Italian, even French. It all made me hungry. I wanted to jump on the first camel and join a Bedouin harem just so I could eat with them.
By now, It was getting late so we had to dash to the Halal butcher for lamb and spices and hopefully some advice. We discovered the only butcher we knew of had closed and the guy at the nearby kebab store had no idea where we could find a Halal butcher. He was floored we were even asking. Italians would never ask, and we were Italian speaking ‘stranieri’ so he couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then we ran into our friend Carla, who thought she knew where to find a Halal butcher, so we set off at a sprint because it was nearly lunchtime and literally burst into the Moroccan butcher shop which brought all conversation in the store to a halt. What on earth were two very non-Muslim looking women doing in the Halal store? Two Moroccan men slid to the back corner of the store and warily watched us. It’s an uneasy, sometimes suspicious coexistence between the Muslims and the Italians. That’s a scenario that is playing out in more than one place, isn’t it?
Regardless, the shopkeeper was friendly, but clueless on the subject of couscous. His only explanation for the two different types of couscous was that one was yellow. I guess he’s the butcher, but his wife is the cook.
With supplies in hand and kisses to Carla, we headed back home to get ready for Algerian NIght.
The first order of business was to build a fire so we could get a good bed of coals going and Jeff took care of that while I tried to follow Chef Zadi’s instructions for making his Aunt Farida's khobz flatbread. It’s a simple dough of whole wheat flour, water, salt and olive oil that gets thoroughly kneaded then cooked in a screeching hot pan and finally reheated on the grill to soak up some of the wood smoke flavor.
I blended spices: cinnamon, allspice, paprika, black pepper, grains of paradise, chili, turmeric and tossed this fragrant mix with the lamb pieces. Big chunks of carrot and lamb went onto the bottom layer, then onions, shallots, garlic and finally potatoes and prunes. I had steeped some saffron in broth and that went into the pot. The lid went down and the tagine went into the fire place.
The tagine bubbled, the Arab music lulled us into an exotic frame of mind. A pomegranate cocktail put us further in the mood...and voila` it was time to eat.
In a few minutes, the couscous was ready. Fresh mint and cilantro, sweet raisins and tangy lemon peel all made for a beautiful balance with the luxurious and rich lamb.
By this time, we were starving and it was worth the wait. The lamb had caramelized on the bottom, so there was crisp, crunchy lamb attached to meltingly tender lamb. Now that is nothing short of finger licking divine. The vegetables had absorbed all the spice flavors and were fork-mashing tender.
In short, we had an absurd amount of fun putting this remarkable meal together. I’ve now added North Africa to our long list of places to visit. The whole experience of researching Algerian food reinforced one of my central beliefs: food could be the ultimate peacemaker if we gave it a chance.