Thursday, 10 January 2013

Roasted sea bream with chermoula on couscous

I acquired a taste for north African food when living in Paris. The city has a huge population of first, second and third-generation Moroccans and Tunisians thanks to France's colonial past and their food is as ubiquitous as curry is in the UK. Parisian Boy and I used to go out for couscous every week - a glorious mix of grilled spicy meats, vegetable broth laced with harissa and the couscous itself.

The Moroccans also invented chermoula, a fiery, sour paste used to marinate chicken and lamb, add to a tagine or to stuff into fish. The ingredients are fairly standard but you can tinker with the quantities to suit your palate.

What you need: 
1 sea bream
Olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
1 red chilli, finely chopped
2tsp each of ground cumin and ground coriander
1tsp each of chilli powder and paprika
Juice and zest of 1 lemon

1 heaped tsp of sultanas
5-6 pitted black olives, sliced
1 tsp flaked almonds
1 dessertspoon of fresh chopped coriander

What to do:
Make the chermoula. Crush the garlic cloves with a pinch of sea salt in a pestle and mortar until they form a fine paste. Add the chopped chilli and pound a little more to break it down and blend it with the garlic. Add the rest of the spices, the lemon juice and zest and about 4 dessertspoons of olive oil. Mix well.

Marinate the fish: Stuff the cavity of the sea bream with the chermoula and leave it for at least 20 minutes, longer if possible.

Heat the oven to 200C and roast the fish for around 20-25 minutes. While it's cooking make a portion of couscous (about 100g if you need to measure it) - put it in a heatproof bowl with the sultanas and cover it with boiling water to about 1cm above it. Cover the bowl with a plate and set it aside to soak up the water. Fork it through after 10 minutes to break up any lumps and if it looks too dry, add a little more water from the kettle. When it's ready, stir through the olives, flaked almonds and chopped coriander.

Make a bed of couscous on the plate and put the roasted fish on top.

Cook's tips: 
Get the fishmonger to prepare the fish how you prefer it. In Morocco, you'll get the whole fish on the plate - head, tail, bones - but I always ask mine to take the head off and fillet it while leaving it whole. If you use two separate fillets just sandwich them with the chermoula. Whichever way it's prepared make sure the skin is on as it protects the flesh during cooking. If you can't find sea bream, another small meaty fish such as red snapper or tilapia is equally good.

I like my chermoula really hot and garlicky although I usually discard the seeds when I'm chopping up the chilli - leave them in if you like more heat. For less heat, leave out the fresh chilli and just use the powdered. The finished chermoula should have the consistency of a thick paste so you may want to add the oil a spoonful at a time as you mix it, as you may need less than you think. If it's too thick, add a little more lemon juice. The quantities here make about 2-3 times what you need for the fish - it will keep in the fridge for 2-3 weeks.

Last year I bought Yotam Ottolenghi's brilliant book Jerusalem and discovered that he uses a couple of preserved lemons in his chermoula instead of fresh. I've started doing the same as I love the extra tartness. The preserved lemons need to be very finely chopped and the pips removed.