Sunday, May 02, 2010

Algeria - May 1st 2010

Back to A. Not as in back to square one, mind you, since I definitely have come a long way since that day in the fall of 2002 when I started the culinary journey across the world... back to A as in Algeria. Now, this is a country that has a special meaning to me since I actually knew quite a bit about it already and had had many many Algerian style dinners in the past: it so happens that my first husband was from Algeria and so there was a bit of cooking going on at times... in between Mc Donald and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Those that know me now might be quite surprised to know that I was quite the fast food junkie in my early 20s but you have to understand that to me it was some kind of novelty. I had the good fortune to be born and grow up in Italy, and most people would agree that Italian cuisine is the best in the world. So, I already had had the fresh food so why not explore the junk food? I happen to really like Kentucky Fried Chicken for your information, even brought Annetta (my mum) there on one of her first visits to see me in London. I actually remember we had gone to the store in Leicester Square and we had to be in line for a while before being able to get the food and her reaction was: "so, we've been waiting all this time to eat these ends of chicken wings?". She was not impressed.

Anyway, back to the past Algerian dinners: my husband was a devoted Muslim (it really went in cycles: today I am not drinking, today I am not eating pork; pass me a beer, this salami sandwich made me thirsty) and once a year it was customary to celebrate Ramadan. He would cook all day and then eat all night. He used to make a delicious couscous. He also was a big fan of Harissa, a bloody hot sauce. It makes Tabasco taste like fresh water. He had a couscoussiere, a 2 pieces cooking implement that was used to steam couscous. There were no lumps in his couscous. When we divorces he took the couscoussiere (and I took the house :)

When I started to plan the meal and research recipes over the web I was sure of one thing: there would have been couscous and lamb. Both of those are staples in Algerian cuisine. The question was, how can I make the meal interesting and not too heavy? I wanted to stay away from stews as I figured in May it would have been hot (and I was right: today we're in the high 80s and yesterday it was even more humid). Here is the other thing; I wanted this to be a special evening as I really - for about 3 weeks at least - thought this was going to be my last alphabetical dinner in Atlanta. I had applied for a job in Ireland with my company and was very close to getting it too... until a management reorganization in Europe forced the head of the project not to fill this position. Oh well. A bit disappointed, I can't deny it but I am confident there will be other opportunities soon. Besides, the weather in Ireland sucks (but the Guinness makes up for it).

Guests for the evening were Anne and Tony but Tony couldn't come as he had to babysit. On Zimbabwe's night it was the other way round. I have promised Anne (and now I have it in writing) that I will continue to invite them to every alphabetical dinner until they can both make it together. Pat and Laurel I hadn't seen in ages so it was great to be able to catch up over food and drinks. Lynn came too and she really is a riot. She was just back from Boston and she looked like she had just left a beauty salon rather than a plane (how do some people always manage to look great?). Joanne and Dan are more like family since I see them pretty often so I think it was more fun for them to catch up with the others. And of course Eric and I. I have been trying to find a way to slip in the blog that I have lost 18 lbs since January with Weight Watchers and I don't look too bad myself (...) but I can't quite figure out a reason to enclose it in a context. Then I had a revelation. This is my blog after all so I should be able to brag all I want. Had quite a great day last week shopping. I needed to buy EVERYTHING. Went with my colleague Christine to the outlet mall and we literally shopped till we dropped (from 10am to 6pm with 45 minutes break in the middle for lunch).

Here we go, disgressing again. Back to Algeria. Did you know it is the second largest country in Africa? Well, probably not since it isn't as popular as many other countries. Most of it is made up of the Sahara desert so not a lot of population. I never visited - my ex and I talked about it but he used to tell me it was very dangerous for foreigners and so we never went.

While reading Bon App├ętit magazine one evening this week, I came across the recipe for a limoncello and champagne cocktail that sounded delicious so I made that as a welcome drink. Yeah, I know, not an Algerian drink but there is no such thing as an Algerian drink containing booze and there is no way I would host a dinner with no refreshing adult beverages. By the way: Dan showed up with a bottle of Fre. He and Peter were talking about it on Friday night while the three of us were strolling around the Botanical Gardens but I thought they were kidding around. No sir, he really did bring a bottle of red grape juice and we all had to make sure that it didn't make it in our glasses by mistake (one of these days I'll have to better understand what was that about: I have a vague recollection of his saying something about saving the liver...).

The limoncello cocktail was really delicious. I have to make that again. But first I have to make a new batch of limoncello. I was hoping to be able to make it out of my own lemons but the lemon tree did not survive the cold and long winter we had so I'll have to buy them. Maybe next week end. For the recipe, click on this link:

The dinner was a success. As appetizers I served Bourek (meat filled pastries) and Green Beans with almonds. The bourek were quite easy to make although I had some concerns about working with phyllo pastry (it's so thin that I was afraid I'd destroy most of it but actually I managed to make most pastries without creating holes). I love the way the kitchen smelled when I combined the cinnamon with the ground lamb that was sizzling on the pan. This spice really goes well with lamb in my opinion. The recipe was calling for 1/2 lb of ground lamb for 8 people but that yielded just 9 boureks so I decided to use some of the left over mixture for the marguez (read on, I'll talk about it later) to make more boureks. The marguez is more spicy since it's made with Harissa and those at the table that tried both said they preferred the spicy bourek over the regular ones although they were both good. Since the pastries are baked and not fried they are not too heavy.

The green beans were basic: I had the fresh ones that you microwave in the bag (they were on offer at Publix and Eric picked them - he then told me they were French beans not green beans and people thought they were a little though but that might have been because I didn't microwave them long enough and not because they were not the green beans that I had asked Eric to buy...). They were seasoned in a sauce made with canola oil (I didn't have peanut oil as the recipe called for) and a mixture of spices and slivered almonds. They are the only leftovers, we ate everything else (aside from a small slice of cake which I'll probably have after dinner tonight).
As a main course, I prepared roasted lamb shoulder. The recipe called for 300gr of butter (2 sticks) but it really sounded like too much so I used "only" one. The butter was mixed with a lot of fresh herbs and then rubbed on the lamb pieces before cooking in the oven for approximately 2 hours. It was yummy. I served it with some light gravy made from the juices of the lamb roast. It was quite difficult to separate the juices from the actual fat dripping off the lamb while roasting but Eric had a great idea: he suggested we used a large eye dropper; I dipped it in the bottom of the pan and sucked the juices from the bottom since the fat was floating in a thick layer on the top - it worked but it wasn't going to yield enough sauce so, again on Eric's suggestion, I mixed it with some veal stock we had in the pantry.
I made a delicious eggplant ratatuoille. I cooked it really slowly and for a long time and - as the recipe called for - lots of olive oil. I think I've used close to a cup. I just kept on adding ingredients and more olive oil. It was really really good. I think I'll make this again. I love eggplants and the flavor of this ratatouille was wonderful; probably the best I have ever tasted. I was surprised how many recipes in Algeria called for paprika (the beans, the lamb, the ratatouille); somehow I always associated with spice with Eastern Europe and frankly I don't recall my ex using it a lot but that might have been because he went straight for the Harissa as I mentioned before. There were quite a lot of other spices in the ratatouille and I could really taste the cumin. I particularly liked the brightness of the veggies given by the turmeric (which is yellow). I chose this photo as it really shows the colorfulness of the dish.
And of course, the couscous. This recipe was interesting and since it called for saffron the couscous was a lovely yellow color. Unfortunately I rushed it and as a result it was quite lumpy. I still liked it. It was tasty even if quite lumpy. Ok, very lumpy (most of the guests gave the same comment: it should have been fluffier but it was tasty). I need more couscous practice. Maybe I'll get a couscoussiere. The mint gave it a really interesting flavor but a few guests did not quite care much for the raisins but perhaps this is more of a personal preference.
You'd think that all of this would have been quite heavy - particularly on account of the fact that most dishes called for a lot of fat and lamb shoulder is a fatty cut of meat, but surprisingly, the meal was not uber heavy. Or at least I didn't think so. But maybe I am simply a pig and didn't notice. I didn't make many suggestion on how to combine the 3 dishes but I chose to prepare a bed with the couscous, cover it with the ratatouille and the top it with the lamb. I thought the combination went well together.

Finally, dessert: it was a semolina cake with honey and almonds. The recipe called for a cup of honey but I didn't use quite as much and even that was too much. It took a long time to be absorbed by the cake. I mixed some rose water with the honey and it gave it a wonderful aroma. You could really smell it and taste. Instead of whole almonds I used slivered almonds and sprinkled them liberally all over the cake. As a result it looked really pretty but Laurel thought that whole almonds would have gone much better with the cake texture. She also said it reminded her of sweet grits and she likes grits. Lynn said it reminded her a bit of the semolina pudding they used to serve in school when she was in Britain. She didn't like the consistency back then and didn't like it in this cake either. Someone commented that it was too dense and too sweet, then someone else said it wasn't sweet enough. Oh well. Joanne told me today that she had the leftover slice I gave her last night with her coffee this morning and it was really good: she said she kept the cake in the refrigerator and the coldness of it went perfectly with the hot coffee. Eric didn't like the cake. But that's because he doesn't like sweets. I think I will stop insisting that he tries them as he always gives me the worst scores and they are not necessarily a reflection of how good or bad the recipe is. Maybe he's just got what he's been wanting for a while: "if I continue to give her a 4, she'll ask me to stop eating her cakes" I can almost hear his brain churning away...

Finally the gift bag: it contained all food delicacies typical of Algeria. A bag of dates, a bag of homemade almond cookies (my ex mother in law used to send both of these to us in London whenever some friend or family member visited from Algeria) and 2 marguez. These are typical Algeria's sausages. I believe they are popular all over north Africa but I remember my ex buying them at the halal store and frying them. As I said above, they are spiced with harissa sauce and they are quite hot. Eric made the sausages (we had sent the meat grinder to the manufacturer to have it repaired and they sent it back on time) and since I couldn't find harissa sauce I made my own. I remember the sausages being quite reddish because the store bought harissa is bright red but the one I made with dry chilies was rather dark red.

Here is the menu and the scores:

Bourek (Meat Filled Pastry) 8.7
Loubia - Algerian green beans with Almonds 7.1
Mechoui with herbs (roasted lamb) 8.4
Badendjal Chtetha - Eggplant Ratatouille 9.1
Saffron and Raisin Couscous with Mint 7
Khobz Mbesses - Algerian Semolina Cake with Eggs 6.1

And so ended another lovely evening with friends, eating international foods and drinking wine while making interesting and enjoyable conversations with Algerian music in the background. It had been a long day and I was quite tired and so, I am sure where my friends; I packed some leftovers and sent them to those who couldn't make it in person (Peter and Tony) and I hope that they can find in the food some of the cheerfulness we shared around the dinner table.

Next, I am going to South Asia: Bangladesh.

Stay tuned.


Eric said...

No alcohol? Wasn't it Omar Khayyam who wrote "A book of verses underneath the bough, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread - and thou..." or words to that effect.

Can't wait for Bangladesh.

Anonymous said...

Both delicious and favorite Alphabetical dinner yet. After reading about Joanne's coffee/cake experience, I wish I had taken a slice home, too. Now that I think of it, the cake was more like cream of wheat with brown sugar in it than grits; loved it! Thanks for a great, always interesting evening.-Laurel

Patrick said...

Yeah - that was pretty darn good stuff, Rossana. Loved the meat filled pasty - especially the spicy ones. Food was fabulous, wine was great, and the company even better. Thanks once again for a fabulous culinary escape! ... Pat