31 July 2012

An Average Day at the Market

1. Get home, wash all vegetables and fruits like tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, peaches, and cherries to remove dirt. Let dry thoroughly.

2. Separate lettuce leaves, the outer most of which will be caked in dirt. Tear into bite sized pieces. Working in batches, rinse the lettuce leaves, then place the lettuce leaves in a large bowl of ice water. Let the dirt from the lettuce leaves settle to the bottom of the bowl. Scoop out leaves and repeat to ensure all dirt is removed. Continue with more batches of lettuce leaves. Since it is summer and the water stored on your roof is always warm, you will use up all your ice in this process. Spin lettuce leaves in a salad spinner to dry. Pack lettuce in a tupper ware lined with paper towels to absorb excess water. (On the upside, this methodology means you don't have to use bleach to clean you lettuce - yech - and the lettuce keeps crispy for about 10 days this way.)


3. Trim ribs from swiss chard and cut into bite size pieces. Repeat cleaning procedure used for lettuce leaves, though usually only one cold-water soak is necessary.


4. Peel/shuck cranberry beans. Stew cranberry beans for about an hour, with lots of lemon juice, until tender. Set aside for use later in the week.


5. Scale and gut fish. Be happy that your husband takes on this task. If you aren't using the fish in 24 hours then freeze fish.


6. Cut heads off the shrimp you bought, because you realize that despite your best intentions, you probably won't cook the shrimp until after the heads have gone mushy.

7. Put away the delicious harissa, preserved lemons, and olives you got at the market.


8. After everything is put away and properly stored, be grateful that you hoarded some beer in preparation for Ramadan.

26 July 2012

Nectarine, Plum, and Chicken Tagine


Ramadan has started (رمضان كريم!), which means things have gotten quiet in Algiers - no traffic in the morning on the way to work, the pleasant silence as the sun sets for iftar. Everyone here talks about how the prices have gone up for Ramadan, and indeed they have. Food is not cheap here to begin with (fruit and vegetables are relatively inexpensive but meat and cheese prices are often more than in the U.S.), and there are lots of news stories about prices and food insecurity.


We've been here a month and we realized that we've barely had any traditional Algerian food - that is couscous and tagines and the like, and sadly most of the restaurants are closed for Ramadan. Having made a few tagines before (beef and prune, chicken with olive and preserved lemon), I was searching for a new variation. I came across this recipe for nectarines an plums (in season!) stewed with chicken, and interestingly with black olives thrown in.

Tagines are dishes that involve very little stirring or active time, the whole idea is to layer flavors in a pot and simmer them slowly until they break down into one cohesive delicious mass. I found this tagine to be particularly excellent, with the fruity sour-sweetness and pervasive spice almost like a delicate curry. The olives and preserved lemon melt into the background so that they are virtually recognizable, but they contrast the sweetness of the fruit. I highly recommend making this while good stone fruits are still in season.


Nectarine, Plum, and Chicken Tagine
Really ripe nectarines and plums should be easily peeled by just pulling the skins off. If you don't have the preserved lemon here it's okay to omit it or just substitute some lemon zest. If you don't have harissa, any chili paste will do.

olive oil, salt, pepper
4 chicken thighs, bone in and skin on
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon ginger, minced or grated
4 nectarines, peeled and sliced
4 plums, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch saffron
1/4 preserved lemon, peel rinsed and sliced
1/4 cup kalamata olives, chopped
1 tablespoon harissa
1 tablespoon honey
chopped parsley and cilantro, for serving

1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper all over. Heat a bit of olive oil in a tagine or a large heavy-bottomed pan with a lid. Add the chicken to the pan and brown on all sides. Set the chicken aside.
2. Add the onion and saute for a few minutes, stirring occaisionally. Add garlic and ginger, stirring for a minute, then add the nectarines and plums, water, paprika, cayenne pepper, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, saffron. Season with salt and pepper and let the mixture simmer, covered for 15-20 minutes. You may want to mash the fruit a bit to encourage it to break down.
3. Add the chicken, preserved lemon, olives, harissa, and honey. Cover the pan and simmer for 25-35 minutes, until the chicken is tender and the fruit is cooked down and stew-y.
4. Serve over couscous and garnish with parsley and cilantro.

23 July 2012


Proof that birthday carrot cake can be made even in Algiers. Albeit with the only cake pan available:


14 July 2012

Fig and Camembert Pizzas and Salmorejo Soup


I imagine it will take us a little while to get into our cooking groove here - new stove and oven, different ingredients and textures. One of our first nights here I cooked green beans and had to boil them for what seemed like an eternity before they were tender, though it could have been the terrible cookware we're using until our stuff arrives from the States. We bought lamb chops the other day and discovered we had to French the bones ourselves. And if anyone has any tips on cooking halal meat so it doesn't smell weird, it would be much appreciated (seriously).

This was the first meal I made where we actually remarked, oh this is pretty good. It was the first meal where I looked at things in the market and figured out how to do something a bit more interesting with them. First, the fig and camembert pizza was delicious and a great thing to make with two ubiquitous Algerian ingredients. We chose an recipe for a simple unleavened dough, but if you have time a standard pizza dough would have a bit more spring to it. On a side note, the baking pan we're using warps so terribly in the oven that the cheese completely ran off half our pizzas from the practically 90 degree angle. We'll be happy when the pizza stone arrives.

Secondly, given the amount of good tomatoes and the hot weather, gazapacho seemed in order. Salmorejo is a variety of gazpacho distinctly named because it involves almonds and toasted bread. (Kind of like one of my other favorite kinds of gazpacho.) It's super simple to make, no cooking required, and has a really great texture. We topped ours traditional-style, with chopped hard boiled eggs. These two items, eaten on the patio with a class of chilled rose, make for a great summer meal.


Fig and Camembert Pizzas
Very loosely adapted from Bon Appetit.

dough (or use your favorite pizza dough recipe):
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup water
1 red onion, thinly sliced
3-4 ripe purple figs, sliced
1 wheel camembert
1 sprig rosemary, leaves chopped

1. Place flour in a bowl and sitr in the salt. Drizzle the olive oil over. Slowly add the water, stirring with a spoon until the mixture comes together as a dough. Knead the dough a few times in the bowl until it is smooth, adding extra flour to keep from sticking if necessary. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rest for 2-3 hours.
2. Meanwhile, heat some olive oil in a pan and saute the onion over medium-low heat until it is soft and starting to caramelize. Set aside.
3. Preheat oven to 450 F. Working on a lightly floured surface, separate the dough into about 6 balls. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface into small rounds. Transfer to a greased baking sheet. Top each dough round with some caramelized onions, then several slices of camembert. Arrange the fig slices in a pinwheel formation on top and sprinkle with rosemary.
4. Bake for 6-8 minutes, or until the crust is firm on the bottom, the cheese is melted and bubbling, and the figs have gone soft and caramelized. Enjoy immediately.

I recommend the blender, not the food processor, for making this soup. If you don't have Sherry vinegar a splash of lemon juice will do.

3 lbs tomatoes
3 slices thick sandwich bread, toasted and chopped
1 clove garlic, smashed
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds
1 teaspoon Sherry vinegar
1/2 cup olive oil
for topping: 2 hard boiled eggs, chopped, or toasted Serrano ham or proscieutto

1. Place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl. Halve the tomatoes and use a knife to scoop out the seeds/pulp of the tomatoes into the sieve. Using the back of a spoon, press the seeds against the sieve to extract all the juice. Discard seeds. Chop the tomatoes and add to the bowl with the liquid.
2. You may have to work in two batches to do the following, if so try to divide the ingredients evenly in each batch. Add the tomatoes and their juice to the blender. Add the salt, garlic, chopped bread, vinegar, and almonds to the blender. Blend the mixture well in the blender. With the blender running, add the olive oil in a slow stream from the top hole. The emulsion of the olive oil will lighten the color of soup slightly. Place the soup into the fridge and let chill for at least 2-3 hours.
3. Ladle into bowls and top with your topping of choice.

05 July 2012

Chez Nous


That's our new kitchen up there, as you can see we have a view of a park and I love having big windows to look out when I'm doing the dishes. There's a playground nearby and you can hear children and the splashing of a fountain when you open the windows or sit out on the patio.

I'm not really sure what to say about Algiers. I've traveled and lived in the Middle East a lot over the years, but I've never moved to somewhere I'd never even visited before. So for now, we're just taking it all in. So far we've been pleasantly surprised. Algiers is lush, there are trees and plants and huge mountains of bougainvillea and plumbago and trumpetvine hanging over every wall. Also, everyone we knew who had been here before had given us some pretty negative advice - how terrible the drivers are, how hard it is to get around, how you can't get flour, spices, cheese, etc.

I have no idea what these advice-givers were doing, but we managed to prove them wrong within our first day in Algiers. The traffic is no different than Beirut or Amman, and it seems easy to get most things we need nearby. Like most of the world, we don't have big supermarkets, but the superettes have most things you need (including spices!), there's at least three locally made kinds of camembert, plus gouda and cheddar, goat cheese and big wheels of roquefort that the guy will happily slice for you. One superette near us even has Skippy peanut butter and a section of gluten free items.

The fruit here is fantastic - figs, apricots, so many kinds of plums. The produce in general is actual real produce, full of flavor, and ready to be used right away, or it will go bad in a few days, because it's not bred to sit on the shelf for weeks. There are a few disappointments - there's no good local yogurt or labne (tragic), there's virtually no lettuce or greens that look edible, and while there's good bread you may have to drive to find it, as the local subsidized baguettes are not very good. But overall we're happy,and I plan to keep the gelato shop down the street in good business.


Algerian-Style Peppers (FelFel)
Algerians love to use spicy green and red peppers. This dish is my imitation of something a friend's housekeeper made. It's good as snack with some bread or as part of a mezze plate.

olive oil, salt
1/2 a large red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 large tomato, chopped
2 large or 3 medium sized poblano-type peppers, light or dark green

1. Preheat the oven's broiler and set the oven temperature to 500 F. Rub a baking sheet with olive oil. Halve the peppers and set them cut side down on the baking sheet, rubbing their tops with a bit of olive oil. Broil until the peppers skin is blackened and bubbly in spots - this could take anywere from 15-25 minutes depending on your oven, so just keep an eye on them and be sure not to burn them.
2. Immediately place the peppers in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, this will allow the peppers to steam and the skins to loosen. When the peppers are cool carefully peel off the blackened skins and discard. You don't have to be perfect about it. Slice the peppers lengthwise and cut them in to rectangular pieces. Set aside.
3. Heat some olive oil in a small pan. Add the onions and the garlic and saute until softened. Add the tomatoes with their juices and season with salt. Let the mixture simmer until the tomatoes are nice broken down, about 15-20 minutes. Add in the peppers and simmer another 5 minutes to blend. Drizzle some more olive oil over the whole thing, taste for seasoning. Remove from heat and let cool.