Tunisian Odyssey

A cook's travels reveal another Mediterranean diet.

December 16, 2010

A few years ago, I traveled to Tunisia with a group of other food writers, in search of a different side of the Mediterranean diet. Italy and Greece most often come to mind in terms of this healthy regional cuisine, but with so many cultures and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, I reasoned that other foods could be just as healthy and sampling them would broaden my culinary repertoire.

This is my only visit thus far to Tunisia, but I would love to return, for the landscape and foodscape both resonated powerfully with me and—surprisingly—my life in New Mexico. After dozing off on a bus crossing the region of Sahel, I awoke to a vision of low adobe houses festooned with long chains of red chile peppers. For a moment, I didn't know where I was—was I back home? There, each fall, such ristras of drying peppers hang from adobe houses, especially in the agricultural areas. Later, when I had a chance to see the chiles drying on a wire screen on a street in Tunis, the capital city, I thought that they looked a lot like our northern New Mexico chiles, being roughly the same size and slightly twisted rather than straight. Whether or not they have the same flavor, instead of appearing in a chile colorado, these chiles are used to make the ubiquitous condiment harissa, which lends its fire and flavor to a great many dishes.

My traveling companion Clifford A. Wright (author of many books, including A Mediterranean Feast) writes of harissa, "Make this recipe and keep it in the refrigerator before attempting any other Tunisian recipe." Harissa is as good to eat here as it is in Tunisia, and since that trip, I've made it regularly using molido (powder) from New Mexico native chiles or dried chiles.

The Mediterranean climate makes growing many foods possible; in addition to chiles, Tunisia is a significant producer of olives, for oil and brined for eating. Lemons, pomegranates, quinces, and other fruits somewhat exotic to us are commonplace. Many varieties of dates, for example, are abundant; date-filled semolina cakes and dates stuffed with almonds are popular sweetmeats. Our group had the pleasure of eating dates and tangerines in an oasis of date palms, the fruits set out on large trays offered by Bedouins clad in traditional indigo-dyed robes.

In common with most Mediterranean diets, vegetables are plentiful and eaten at most meals in Tunisia. Fennel is a particular favorite, and I've never seen it growing as I saw it growing there— plentifully in large fields, as we might grow cabbages. Other widely used vegetables are the same types that we grow, including sweet peppers as well as hot ones, onions, tomatoes, squash (both winter and summer varieties), eggplants and potatoes, turnips, carrots, radishes, and beets. These vegetables, more so than lettuce, formed the basis of the daily salads we enjoyed, seasoned with olive oil and lemon. The same vegetables along with harissa also appeared in the many kinds of couscous dishes we tasted.

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Though it is clearly the national seasoning, harissa is not the only flavoring Tunisian cooks employ: Frequently used herbs and spices include cumin, caraway, and parsley, while garlic, black and green olives, and fresh or preserved lemons are also used to vary the salad composition.

One of the signatures of the healthful Mediterranean diet is the use of meat as a condiment or side dish rather than as the main focus of a meal. Clifford and I ate in a working-class cafe, sharing a delicious and satisfying lunch that consisted of a large russet potato and strips of green pepper in a lamb broth, topped with a small piece of roasted lamb. It physically represented the food pyramid: the lamb morsel on top, supported by a base of vegetables. Couscous dishes also reflect this restrained use of meat protein, with the grain festooned with legumes and vegetables, and the meat present, but in much smaller amounts than we're used to serving.

Chickpeas, a popular legume, are eaten daily in what might be thought of as the universal breakfast dish: leblebi. Here the chickpeas are served in a broth seasoned with harissa, garlic, cumin, and lemon, then augmented with all kinds of additions, from pickled turnips to chopped tomatoes to scallions to coddled eggs. Leblebi provides a fortifying and savory start for the day.
 

Perhaps what impressed me most in Tunisia was the visual presentation of food, especially salads, which were symmetrically arranged. Slices and quarters of vegetables, halved eggs, strips of anchovies, rounds of radishes, olives and cheese, were carefully set out in patterns that reminded me of tiled walls and their complex designs. The sense of the mosaic as a key visual element was carried right into the cooking, making all the food, with the bright vegetable colors, as beautiful as it was good to eat.

Harissa

I make this with dried New Mexico chile pods, soaked first in water. Covered with oil, which keeps out the air, harissa can be stored in the refrigerator for weeks. Use it to season vegetable stews and even vinaigrettes.

  • 8 dried red New Mexico chile pods
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil plus extra to cover


1. Wipe the chiles with a damp cloth. Break off the stems, shake out as many seeds as you can, and pull out any large membranes. Discard any gray or yellowed areas, as they may have a moldy taste. Tear or crumble the chiles into pieces, then cover with boiling water and let stand at least 30 minutes to soften (an hour if making this in a mortar). Drain.

2. In a small food processor, puree the chiles with the garlic, spices, and oil until smooth. You may need to add extra oil to loosen the mass. If using a mortar, pound the garlic with the salt, caraway, coriander, and cumin to a paste, then add the chiles and keep pounding until smooth. Taste for salt and stir in the oil.

3. Store in a clean jar with olive oil filmed over the surface. Cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 1 cup

 

Fennel Salad with Olives, Eggs, and Tuna

The salads I saw and ate in Tunisia were beautiful, often complex arrangements of vegetables and their pickled garnishes, reflecting the tiled mosaics adorning buildings. Even simple salads were dazzling and colorful. Despite the emphasis on arrangement, these salads were not rigidly fixed, but bore a feeling of ease and charm, which made them especially appealing to me.

This salad isn't authentically Tunisian, but it's inspired by the arrangements of overlapping layers of thinly sliced vegetables, including fennel. The lemon dressing is peppered with the minced fronds, and because the fennel is raw and crisp, you'll want only the most tender parts of the bulb for this salad.

You can vary this to reflect your garden and palate. Add all kinds of peppers if you have them; include tomatoes or lemon cucumbers. 'French Breakfast' radishes with their scarlet tips are beautiful, as are red onions tossed in vinegar first to make them mellow.

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped fennel greens

For the salad:

1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced in rounds
White or rice wine vinegar, as needed
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded, veined, and thinly sliced
2 small fennel bulbs (about 1/2 pound total, trimmed), thinly sliced lengthwise
8 'French Breakfast' radishes
12 olives, green and black, mixed
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered
1 small can tuna, drained
1 tablespoon capers

To make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine the lemon zest, juice, oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some freshly ground pepper. Whisk vigorously until smooth and well blended. Stir in the fennel greens.

To make the salad: Toss the onion slices in a few tablespoons vinegar and set aside to marinate (turning occasionally so they color brightly) while you assemble the salad. On a large plate, arrange the pepper rings and top with the sliced fennel. Intersperse the radishes (scarlet ends facing outwards) with the olives around the edge. Arrange the hard-cooked eggs attractively in clusters of twos or threes, and mound the tuna in the center. Scatter the capers over the tuna. Drain the onions and set them around or over the salad. Spoon the dressing over all. Add a further pinch or two of salt and pepper, and serve.

Serves 4 as a first course; 2 for a salad lunch

 

'Medjool'

Dates with Rose-Almond Paste and Tangerines

By April or May, we've already been cooking rhubarb and are looking forward to garden strawberries. However, it's also the very end of the citrus, with the sweet little 'Pixie' tangerines closing the season. Dates are still moist, too, especially the large, plump 'Medjool' from California.

  • 3 ounces almond paste
  • A few drops red food coloring
  • 1-3 teaspoons rose water, or to taste
  • A few tablespoons red, unsprayed rose petals from your garden, shredded
  • 10 dates, slit lengthwise, seeds removed
  • Late-season tangerines, such as 'Pixie'


1. Knead the almond paste with the food coloring until it is as pink as you wish. Then work in rose water to taste, followed by the rose petals.

2. Divide the paste into 10 pieces, roll each piece into an oval, and stuff it into a date.

3. Arrange the dates on a plate, interspersed with the tangerines, and serve.

 

Chickpea Stew with Eggplants, Tomatoes, and Peppers

Here's a place to use some different varieties of vegetables, such as 'Corno di Toro' peppers (instead of or in addition to bells), 'Ichiban' or 'Farmers' Long' eggplants, and all manner of tomatoes. Each size and type of vegetable will no doubt suggest a different way of chopping and slicing, but on the whole, keep the pieces large and attractive. Serve over couscous or bulgur, with a dab of harissa on each plate or stirred into the broth, to taste.

  • 1-1 1/2 pounds eggplant, one or more varieties
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
  • 1 large onion, diced in 1-inch cubes
  • 1 large yellow or red bell or other sweet, thick-fleshed pepper, cut into triangles or strips
  • 2 zucchini, cut into rounds 1-2 inches thick
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cups or more chunks of tomato, peeled and seeded first, any juices reserved
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, preferably organic
  • 8 sprigs cilantro and 8 sprigs parsley, chopped Harissa, for serving


1. Cut the eggplant into hefty chunks, choosing a shape that works with the variety you have. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and set aside for 30 minutes to release the juices. Rinse quickly and pat dry.

2. Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a wide skillet over high heat until hazy. Add the eggplant and stir quickly. Reduce heat to medium and cook, turning the pieces every few minutes, until golden, about 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and set aside.

3. Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion, pepper pieces, and zucchini and cook until the onions are lightly browned around the edges, 8 to 10 minutes. Toward the end, add the paprika, turmeric, and garlic, taking care not to burn. Stir in the tomato paste, then moisten the pot with a few tablespoons water and scrape up the juices from the bottom. Add the tomatoes, eggplant, chickpeas, 11/2 cups water (or the liquid from home-cooked or organic chickpeas), and 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring once or twice. Stir in the cilantro and parsley.

Serves 4 to 6