Sunday, 2 August 2009

Tagine aux Sardines

Were I to tell my tomato and herb vendors that I hadn’t yet developed a taste for North African pastries, it’s likely that they would leave their stands in the care of underlings, escort me to any one of a number of local shops and present me with a plate of assorted sweetmeats. Yet if I were to mention that I had developed a method for fish tagine* that might yield better results than those their mother or grandmother used, I doubt that I would be invited into their kitchens for a demonstration.

Taste memory is unassailable, so too authenticity. And while it may have suffered from the ubiquity of time-saving ingredients—instant couscous, bouillon cubes and premade spice mixes—traditional North African food is something that, for much of Paris’ population, is as familiar and evocative as Friday night challah is to me. And so just as I’m dismissive of every loaf which isn’t my mother’s, I can understand why my tagine, though avoiding the common problem of overcooked fish and undercooked onions, would not past muster at the market. In the interest of ensuring my supply chain for tomato and basil salads, I’ll therefore be keeping this more or less to myself.

Sardine Tagine

Serves 2; can easily be doubled or tripled
Total time: 45 minutes; Active time: 15-20 minutes

Unlike traditional tagines, in which all of the ingredients are cooked together for the same length of time, this vegetable and herb base is virtually ready by the time the fish is added. This allows the fish to retain structural integrity and the spice rub to be fresh and unmuddied . Sardines are delicious and inexpensive, but their high oil content means they spoil quickly. If you can’t access good ones, try this with mackerel fillets or a full-flavoured white fish, perhaps mullet or bream. Either add to the fish’s cooking time or cut the fillets into large bite-size pieces.

Olive oil
1 medium onion
1 small bulb fennel
2 small tomatoes
Large handful coriander
Large handful parsley
2 cloves garlic
A few slices lemon peel
Harissa (substitute hot paprika or red pepper flakes)
400 grams sardine fillets (from 600-700 grams whole fish)
Large pinch each cumin, coriander and fennel seed
Lemon juice

Over a low heat, warm enough olive oil to just cover the surface of a heavy, lidded pan. Slice the onion and fennel bulb thinly, add, season and fry gently until just soft, 5-8 minutes. While these cook, chop tomato and herbs coarsely. Add all the tomato and half the herbs to the pan. Pour in a few tablespoons of water and cook the mixture until the tomato begins to break down and the other vegetables are fully softened, another 10 minutes or so. Slice or chop garlic and add once the mixture is nearly cooked. Add lemon peel and harissa to taste. Take off heat and set aside.

Rinse the filets and place flesh side up on a large plate. Grind the cumin, coriander and fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. Using a teaspoon, distribute the ground spices evenly over the fish.

Warm the sauce over a low heat. Sandwich the fish fillets (spice-side in) and distribute over the sauce. If the mixture looks dry, add another splash or two of water. Cover and cook on a gentle heat until the fish is just cooked through (as little as 5 minutes depending on the size/thickness of the fillets). Add lemon juice, adjust seasoning and serve warm or at room temperature with remaining herbs, couscous or flatbread.

* This Arabic word describes both a conical, earthenware pot and any meat, fish or vegetable dish cooked in it.

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