So, there we were on our little lawn.
Our new Rs1,500 plastic table nestled in a dark corner of our patch of green, looking posh in the soft glow of candlelight. We must have looked sinister though, our heads poking above the dark spot to be bathed in the unearthly glow of the new high-power, sodium-vapour street lamp outside our home in Delhi.
Light bite: (left) Chermoula works well with vegetables; and (right) use firm, flaky fish for a different variation. Photographs by Samar Halarnkar
Frequent incursions of the desert wind from the west had left a fine layer of dust on everything. But the loo (as the dusty north Indian winds are called) had also sent the temperature plunging from the week’s high of 46 degrees Celsius, or thereabouts. It wasn’t cool, but it wasn’t hot.
It was fortunate that we had food to match the season. In a previous column, I wrote about the quick-fix wonder that is couscous. On this dusty evening, I decided to take the Moroccan feeling further and make my version of chermoula, a simple, north African marinade full of zest, variation and a lightness of being that is ideal on a warm summer’s night.
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The great thing about chermoula is that it is easy to make and has as many variations as you can imagine. While it’s ideal with seafood, I find it works very well with vegetables. Chermoula is also a great base for a tagine, an edgy stew that I would highly recommend to anyone who likes, or needs, light but flavour-suffused food. Tagine is also the name for the special cone-like pot in which it is cooked. I don’t have one, so I used my normal non-stick pan. Improvise when you must.
If you can’t find couscous—freely available at almost every store that stocks foreign foodstuff—feel free to use fresh bread to soak up a tagine. I think the Mumbai pao is a good match. Red rice also appears to go well with tagines. I’ve also tried the Indian version of couscous: Barnyard millet, or mandua as it’s called in the lower reaches of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Mandua is hard to get though. I found it at one of those Delhi handicrafts fairs. Unlike couscous, it needs one whistle in a pressure cooker.
If you do make couscous (simply follow the instructions on the box or check my blog for a step-by-step guide), the advantage is that you can make large quantities and marry it with a variety of food: light Indian curries, stews and salads. In two weeks, I’ve produced more than 10 variations, and I feel like a whole new world has been revealed to me.
While chermoulas, tagines and couscous are quick and easy to make, it takes a while to chop, pare and peel the accompanying vegetables and herbs. So it’s best to plan ahead and divide the work. In our case, I did the cooking, and the wife handled the outside arrangements. Since the food wasn’t spicy and heavy, there wasn’t much sweat to wipe off our brow. Didn’t the dust get into the couscous? If it did, we didn’t notice. They seemed to complement one another.
As we sat under—well, I can’t say starlit skies with that mother of a sodium-vapour lamp overhead—a murky summer sky, the C, C&W (chermoula, couscous and wine) dinner couldn’t have been more perfect. Try it—and tell me how it went.
The chermoula paste
2 garlic cloves
Coarse salt (I used sea salt)
2 tsp cumin (jeera) seeds
1 tsp red chilli powder (this is up to you) or paprika
Small bunch of fresh coriander
1 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon (I used lime because I couldn’t get a lemon)
Grind into a coarse paste.
Tagine of sole
750g sole (or any firm, flaky fish), cut into flat fillets
4 sambar onions, peeled and chopped into half
6 large garlic pods, crushed
1 green bell pepper, broiled and blackened, skinned, deseeded and cut into strips (optional)
4 tomatoes, chopped fine
K cup fish stock or water
3 tbsp red wine (I was drinking it so I poured it in)
Marinate the fish for at least an hour in 2-3 tsp of chermoula paste. In a little olive oil, sauté the garlic pods until they start turning golden. Add
the onions and sauté till translucent. Add the tomatoes and cook until softened. Add
bell peppers, if using, and stock. Add the leftover chermoula, toss and flatten everything. Place marinated fish pieces on top. Close the pan and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes. Adjust salt. Serve hot with couscous, bread or red rice.
Sauteed vegetables with chermoula
7-8 small aubergines (baingan), sliced into roundels
K yellow zucchini, sliced round, then halved
K green zucchini, sliced round, then halved
4 large garlic pods, crushed
In 1 tbsp of olive oil, saute the garlic until golden. Add aubergine slices and fry until soft. While they are frying, add zucchini. Add chermoula (make two-thirds the quantity used in the fish), salt and toss the vegetables. Season with freshly ground pepper and serve hot with couscous, red rice or bread. Remember, this is only a rough guide. We used these vegetables because they were in our fridge. You can use almost any combination.
This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes a blog, Our Daily Bread, at Htblogs.com. He is editor-at-large,Hindustan Times.
Write to Samar at email@example.com