Regular readers of this column may wonder: Moroccan food? Again?
I can’t help it people. It’s light. It’s refreshing. It’s great for the summer. It’s emerged as a hit with friends and family. They’re happy. I’m happy.
This all-around summer happiness over my extended foray into the Maghreb may continue, but I promise this is the last instalment for this column.
While I waded through my summer with couscous and the flavours of north Africa, I wondered: Might I not be well-served by smuggling in some Indian twists? I did not go as far as to mix and match spices. That sounded like too much of a hash.
As I mulled over this existential dilemma—in the Halarnkar household, all food-related dilemmas veer towards the metaphysical—I consulted two books. I have a large stack of books on cooking, but I don’t consult them as often as I should. The problem: When I do pick a recipe, I find I don’t have many ingredients. When I have the ingredients, I have forgotten the recipe and end up doing what I wish, aided sometimes by the faint memory of what I once read.
Colonial cousins: (above) The Chennai chicken teams up with the roasted vegetables; pound the harissa the traditional way or use a processor. Samar Halarnkar/Mint
This particular Sunday dawned with a more determined me. I know this column is about quick, inventive cooking, but I figured I could drop the quick this once. Perhaps I could also be less inventive and more traditionalist? I couldn’t have picked a better time.
With ideas for vegetarian food from the Maghreb fast petering out, I found fresh inspiration from Food and Cooking of Africa and the Middle East by Josephine Bacon and Jenni Fleetwood. I had most of the ingredients, so this was a good sign. Nevertheless, I added some of my own, and the end result was none the worse—a grand-looking dish of roasted vegetables, Casablanca style, according to Messrs Bacon and Fleetwood. To this, I added the harissa paste, a tart, spicy chutney that the Indian palate will greatly love.
Since the main dish was vegetarian to please the wife (and was she pleased!), and took more than 2 hours to organize and cook, I realized I would have to use my least favourite but fastest-cooking meat, chicken. Somehow, I thought a spice-ridden chicken from the south might go well with the couscous, vegetables, harissa and bread (don’t ask me why I thought this. I just did. Call it intuition. Mostly, it works for me).
So I dug deep into my library of cookbooks and selected Aharam by Sabita Radhakrishna, an evocative exploration of the traditional cuisine of Tamil Nadu. It is her I must thank for the recipe below.
For once, I used some fancy-looking plates (purchased from craftsmen in Delhi’s wonderful Dilli Haat, the crafts market), and served up a late Sunday meal. We ate under a whirring fan, ignoring the sultry weather, sipping our wine and spending a leisurely 45 minutes over lunch. The summer heat never seemed so welcome.
Roasted Casablanca Summer Vegetables
1 zucchini, halved along its length and cut into three-four large pieces
1 red pepper, deseeded and quartered
1 yellow pepper, deseeded and quartered
4-5 small aubergines (baingans), halved
2 potatoes, peeled, halved lengthways and cut into strips
3 large onions, cut into quarters (or 8-9 whole small onions, peeled)
8-9 pods of garlic (unpeeled is fine)
5-6 large sprigs of rosemary
2-inch piece of ginger, sliced or julienned
2 tsp honey
5-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Tumble all the vegetables into a wide casserole. Tuck rosemary, garlic and ginger along sides and between vegetables. Pour honey and olive oil over the vegetables, add salt and grind fresh pepper.
Increase oven heat by one mark and roast vegetables for 60-80 minutes. Remove and turn over vegetables in the oil and juices when they brown; don’t let them burn. Add more olive oil if needed. Remember, the vegetables shrink as they become tender.
For couscous: Pour a large cup of couscous in a flat dish. Pour boiling water over. Keep two cups handy; first add one cup and let the couscous swell. Add 2 tsp of sunflower oil and fluff up with fork or fingers.
20 dried red chillies
3 tsp coriander (dhania) powder
2 tsp cumin (jeera) powder
1 tsp caraway seeds (shah jeera)
3 tbsp olive oil
Boil water. Soak red chillies so they are covered. After 30 minutes, remove. They should be softened. Remove stalks and deseed. Grind to a paste with half the olive oil and salt. Add spices and grind, drizzling the rest of the olive oil. Add more if needed. Store in a glass bottle. Pour 1 tbsp more of olive oil and it should keep for a week.
Pile couscous on a large plate in a mound and make a little volcano cone on top. Pour vegetables into the cone; let them spill over. Serve immediately with harissa (if you wish, lighten the harissa by adding yogurt) and bread.
From Chennai, the non-vegetarian addition to your roasted vegetables:
Kozhi Molavu Varuval: Chicken Pepper Fry
1kg chicken (I used full legs, cut into three pieces)
3 large onions, sliced
15 curry leaves
3 tbsp olive oil
Make a powder from
3 tsp whole black pepper
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 pieces of cinnamon (around 1-inch each)
For the marination
Juice of 1K limes
3 tsp garlic paste
1K tsp ginger paste
K tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp clove powder
K tsp grated nutmeg
Marinate chicken and set aside for at least 2 hours. Make the powder and set aside. Heat oil gently in a non-stick vessel. Add curry leaves, wait for 10 seconds and add onions. Fry till golden brown. Add the powdered spices, sauté for 2 minutes. Reduce heat, add chicken and turn over till spices and onions are properly mixed. Add half a cup of water, increase heat to medium for 10-15 minutes. Cover and cook for half an hour on reduced heat. Open and cook further, sautéeing occasionally, until water is absorbed. You can keep some residual gravy if you wish.
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