Saturday, June 25, 2011

Algeria and the food of the desert

Our recipe spotlight today is on Algeria.

Algerian cuisine has become very close to my heart. I have been initiated into the art of couscous and the spice of harissa. Algerian cuisine  is a blend of flavors originating from the native Berbers to the influences from Spain, France, Italy, indeed the entire Mediterranean basin to the newar east and Arab influences. In short, it is delicious!

Algerians have gone through much...invasion, war, colonisation, independence and fighting terrorism. They know hardship and suffering.
The following humble yet wonderful recipe comes from a great Algerian chef, Chef Zaidi! But you don't have to recreat this exactly. Couscous in Algeria is prepared a thousand different ways. There is no wrong way...use what you have and it will be wonderful!

Here is the recipe and text from Chef Zadi:

There are as many variations of this dish as there are possible combinations for the vegetables we have available in the Maghreb. Some say the number seven is lucky. Some say it's a Badwi or Bidawi (Bedouin) dish. Others say any cook with seven vegetables makes this dish.

I chose my seven based on what I had and also the other dishes I was thinking of making. I knew that my guests liked piquant dishes so I planned on making a few along with a side of harisa. I decided a mild version of couscous with seven vegetables would be a nice contrast to the heat and spice of the soups in particular. I also did not want to add eggplant, tomatoes and peppers because I was making Badenjal chteta or Badenjal zaloka (eggplant ratatouille*).

Pumpkin (carefully peel with a very sharp knife. peel away from your body)
Cauliflower (I MUCH prefer carrots, but I did not have any)
1 onion

I really would have preferred to use carrots in this dish. The smell of cauliflower is not one that I like. But these recipes are not about my personal preferences. I will say though that carrots would have been much better for the sweetness. It would have produced a more delicate dish. I also like to add butter to this dish more than olive oil. For me buttered root vegetables are a good thing.

1) Cut the vegetables as shown. Maghrebi cooking is not about fancy knife cuts. Vegetable cutting is often done directly over the pot or onto the cutting board, not on the cutting board itself. So don't worry about fancy French chef knife cuts here.
2) Some cooks will throw everything into the pot at the same time. Others will add the longer cooking vegetables first. My parsnips were quite thick and tough so I added those in first along with the pumpkin and fennel with about a cup of water. The fennel was also a bit old. I cooked them for about 30 minutes on very low heat, then added the onions, turnips, kohlrabi and cauliflower (carrots would have been better), the butter, seasoned with salt and cooked on low heat until all was tender.

I added a stick of butter for about 2 kilos of vegetables.
Optional spices are saffron, turmeric or cinnamon.

*Don't jump to the conclusion that it's a French influenced dish because of the ratatouille. It is not a French influenced dish at all.

Is shopping a form of entertainment?

Years ago I recall driving along the highway that passed a larg shopping mall..I remember it was a beautiful, sunny day, with clear blue skies and the temperature was just perfect. And I thought to myself, "What in the world are all those people doing INSIDE a shopping mall on a day like today?"

I am not saying that to go shopping is some sort of sin. But to spend every free moment, all weekend long, during the course of any given year inside a shopping mall is, in my humble opinion, insane. I admit, I have never been a fan of shopping but naturally, I do it from time to time. But let's face it.Once we start going out of boredom, as a form of entertainment, we have crossed the line to lazy and crazy. Isn't there more to life than this? Can't we muster a tad more creativity and effort than reading the Sunday ads and dashing to the car with keys in one hand and credit cards in another?

And the financial effects of this habit can be far more destructive that we all care to believe, even when it comes to food shopping!

How many of us walk into a grocery store just for a couple of things and walk out with two bag fulls because we enjoy looing at all the great stuff? I was doing this so often I could cringe!  Here are just a few tips from a great article I found on this topic...stop overbuying and stop wasting!


This year, my husband and I resolved to spend way less money than we've been spending. But to be fair we've done this before. We've tried to budget, but for the longest time we weren't sure where all our money was going. We thought we lived quite frugally, staying away from too much consumerism and unnecessary junk.

But it seemed we were coming up short. So for a month straight, we wrote down every cent we spent from morning coffee to shampoo and meals out. We wrote it all down and kept receipts. At the end of each week we divided what we had spent up into categories including food, toiletries, gifts, gas, and utilities.

Neither my husband nor I buy a lot of clothing or gadgets, and we never have. But what we found is that we were spending an astronomical amount on food and dining. We were left wondering what to do because we're both self-proclaimed foodies and refuse to give up high quality, local, organic eats. And in the end, I found out that you don't have to.

Try this experiment for a month and I assure you that you'll be able to save the leftover dough for a rainy day, here's how:

1. Stock your pantry efficiently
If you don't have a few meals that you can cook in a flash, you're much more likely to eat out more than you'd like.

If I'm zonked, I'll go with a crowd-pleaser like my Tempeh Reuben, Tan Tan Noodles, or Homemade Veggie Burgers. We eat out very rarely, but by no means do I prep a four-course meal each night.

Have your go-to meals, whatever they are, and always stock the pantry with ingredients to make them. If you're hitting the grocery store each night, you're bound to pick up stuff that you don't need.

2. Try ethnic cuisines because they're veg-friendly and less expensive
You're likely spending way too much money going out to eat, that's generally where we spend cash on entertainment. While you don't have to sacrifice eating out, choose wisely.

Ethnic cuisine such as Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, and Thai often gives you more bang for your buck. I love this Asian fusion café here in Columbia because its appetizers are well-executed, and I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to make them at home. What's more, I never need a main course because I'm way too full.

Indian cuisine is also great because you never need meat, which is what costs the most. Think outside the box, and you'll come out on top.

3. Be flexible with your recipes
When it comes to dinners at home, it doesn't have to be perfect, and if you're not flexible with preparations, you'll waste a host of ingredients. You don’t need every correct spice the recipe calls for all the time. Always keep garlic, fresh herbs, onions, olive oil, and local butter on hand.

If your recipe calls for cilantro and you only have flat leaf parsley, it's not the end of the world. If you have a sweet potato just waiting to be used, add some color to that stir fry or maybe some fiber to a traditional potato salad. Use up your produce in creative ways and don't buy more until you have.

4. Buy groceries by category
To avoid constant return trips to the store, make sure you buy by category. Sounds strange, I know, but if you want to stay healthy and have tasty meals, it's the best way to buy. You'll notice that most of my foods come from the bulk aisle, which is always the least expensive way to buy.

When I'm buying for the week I make sure that my list fulfills the following categories but obviously adapt to your favorite healthful foods:

Grains: Rolled oats (breakfast), spelt pasta, basmati rice, barley, local loaf bread.

Protein: Dried beans, tempeh, raw nuts, nut butters.

Vegetables and Fruit: This is a separate trip to the farmers' market and depends on the season, but I always buy some sort of greens, along with seasonal local veggies and fruit choices. We usually go through about 12 pounds of produce per week for the two of us.

Dairy and Dairy Substitutes: Coconut or soy milk, local cheese, local eggs.

Condiments: Any that I'm out of at the time.

Desserts: Organic, fair-trade certified dark chocolate is always on hand.

5. Buy spices in the bulk aisle

ometimes you have to have certain spices for the recipe to come out correctly, but spices are pricey and some recipes call for tons of different ones. I love to prepare ethnic cuisine, but it's an expensive venture if you buy four different kinds of spices for one meal.

Here's the deal: Buy spices as you need them in the bulk section of the store. If I need garam masala and I'm out of it, I buy what I need. It's much cheaper this way, and if you're concerned with quality, dried spices go bad in a really short period of time anyway.

6. Grow your own herbs, even if you don't have a green thumb
Fresh herbs are the biggest rip off at the store. Actually, no matter where you buy them, it's the same deal, you buy too much, they're pricey to start off, and they go bad without you getting to use them all.

Even if your thumb is far from green, grow your own herbs. It’s a two-fold saver: You save cash because you have herbs on hand, and more importantly, you can pick what you need when you need it, so nothing is wasted.