23 August 2013

Chraimeh (Fish in Spicy Tomato Sauce)

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We have a running joke about all the things you need to stock a true Algerian pantry:
  • A 60-pound bag of fine grain semolina, which is used to make most breads and doughs. 
  • Giant cans of tomato paste - I can't tell you how many times I've bought a big can thinking it was canned tomatoes, and found it to be filled of tomato paste. It wouldn't be an Algerian recipe without copious amounts of tomato paste. 
  • Peppers- fresh, dried, ground, harissa, salads, etc.
  • Olives
  • Tuna, lots and lots of tuna
  • Honey
  • Paprika, cinnamon, cumin, caraway, canola oil
  • Couscous, preferably multiple varieties including barley couscous
  • Selecto
You get the idea here.
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Chraimeh is a dish that is found throughout North Africa, but is probably best known as being a specialty of Tripoli, Libya and is also often found in Morocco (though Saveur recently published a Tunisian one). It involves thick fish fillets bathed in a spicy tomato sauce. You'll see based on the ingredient list that it fits squarely into that North African pantry tradition. It's a very simple dish to make, but has tons of flavor, and comes together quickly for a weeknight dinner. I've used the wholly untraditional salmon, but sea bass and swordfish are the most common fish for this dish. You want either very thickly cut pieces or a steak cut of the fish. Pair it with a semolina bread and a grilled pepper salad and you've got a classic North African meal.

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Chraimeh (Fish in Spicy Tomato Sauce)
I originally coated the fish in flour when sauteeing it, which prevents sticking but also prevents the fish from absorbing the spicy tomato flavor later on, so I've removed that step. If you have particularly large pieces of fish you may want to let them finish cooking in a preheated 400 degree oven.

olive oil, salt, pepper
1 onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon hot paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper or harissa or chile paste
1 small red chile, seeded and finely diced
1 teaspoon sugar
6 ounces (1 small can) tomato paste
1/2 cup tomato puree or diced canned tomatoes
2 lemons
4 steak-cut pieces of salmon or swordfish, or thick slices sea bass
a lot of chopped cilantro, probably half of a typical cilantro bunch

1. Season the fish with salt and pepper and squeeze some lemon juice over the fish. Heat a generous amount of oil in a wide deep skillet (12" cast iron is great). Sear the fish briefly on each side until just browned, but not cooked though. Remove the fish to a plate.
2. In the same skillet, saute the onions in olive oil over medium heat.
3. Meanwhile, bash the garlic in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt to get a thick paste. Add in a tablespoon of olive oil, the caraway seeds, cumin, paprika, cayenne, and fresh chile, and pound in the mortar and pestle to make a paste. Alternately, you can do this in a small food processor, though the texture will be less smooth.
4. Add the garlic-spice paste and the tomato paste to the pan and let toast a bit. Add in 2 cups water, the tomato puree, sugar, and the juice of one lemon, and stir everything to combine. Let simmer on low for about 5-10 minutes or until flavors are combined and sauce is thickened
5. Nestle the fish into the sauce and let cook for 5 minutes, then turn the fish over and cook another 5-10 minutes, or until done. The cooking time will really depend on how big your fish pieces are. Sprinkle the cilantro over and serve immediately.



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