Monday, January 17, 2011

Merguez and maturity

Our usual New Year's Eve routine is a movie at Film Forum or IFC, dinner in Chinatown, maybe an espresso in Little Italy or Soho, and finally (watching) the Midnight Run and Fireworks in Central Park.  But this year it fell on Shabbat, and my friends and family indulged my belief that our acknowledgement of weekly rest by the cosmos took precedence the secular New Year, and everyone agreed to have dinner at our house. (We still promised the midnight run afterward for those who were still mobile, and many of us made it.)

Besides, we (I) had big plans for dinner.  My original plans were for a North African dinner, starting with 11 Moroccan and Tunisian salads in honor of 2011, to be followed by a fish tagine with preserved lemons, a brisket with merguez, dates and oranges, some kind of vegetable tagine for the vegetarians, and couscous, to be followed most likely by an olive-oil based chocolate mousse for dessert.  I had picked up some merguez, a North African lamb sausage which is not always available, at Kosher Marketplace for the occasion.

There were of course problems with this.  It was hard for me to think of 11 appetizers that would be sufficiently varied.  My friend Chris convinced me that rather than holding strictly to the North African theme,  I could sneak in a few Middle Eastern appetizers and no one would know the difference. This seemed cheesy, but he was persuasive.  My wife Amy said "Are you kidding, what do we need so much food for?" So, I scaled back my ambitions, and agreed to substitute a chicken with lemon and olives for the fish and the brisket, and along with a smaller number of salads, I would get to make a fusion Tunisian-Humgarian merguez with peppers that I cooked up a few years ago. (The genesis of this dish is below.)  We agreed that accepting these limits was a sign of maturity on my part.

But things got complicated.  Our dinner for 6 grew to a dinner for 15, which made the formal sit-down thing a bit unwieldy. Harry was in from Israel for a week and leaving New Years Eve day, and we had to bring him to the airport.  (The maximum amount of family togetherness won out over strict Shabbat observance in planning his travel -- we are much more of a zachor [remember] than a shamor [guard] type of family anyway.)  Trying to pull an elaborate dinner together when you get home after 4 p.m. was a little daunting.  My desire to be the center of attention in the kitchen conflicted with my desire to be a good father.    Amy suggested vegetarian chili, and a new dinner took shape. We would serve bought appetizers (something I almost never do): hummus, baba ganough, olives, feta cheese, and Galil grape leaves and fried eggplant in tomato sauce straight from the can.  For the main course, vegetarian chili with all the fixings, including complementary carbs: rice, macaroni, toasted tortilla strips, and corn bread with cheese.  When I protested that this was more of a low testosterone Super Bowl Party than a New Year's Dinner, Amy gave me a look that just said, "Grow Up!"  And, as one of our cousins who was there, Susan remarked "As if you would ever make a Super Bowl Party."  (BTW Susan, condolences on the Patriots.  Go Jets!)

This may look like any generic dish with peppers, but it is merguez with lecso
But I still had some merguez in the freezer, and it does not have an infinite shelf life, and I didn't know when I would have the opportunity to make the brisket.  So tonight for dinner we had the Tunsian-Hungarian merguez. This dish came about a few years ago when Chris and his wife Melissa came for Shabbat dinner, and asked if he could bring along a colleague, Zoltan, and his girlfriend Esther,  who were in from Budapest.  To try to impress them, I worked out an appetizer of merguez, a North African lamb sausage cooked with lecso (pronounced leksho) an all-purpose Hungarian concoction of peppers, onions and tomatoes often served with sausages or eggs.  I seasoned it with ground caraway, which is something common to both Tunisian and Hungarian cuisine.  I am not sure if I prepared the lecso properly, and I think that the cross cultural culinary references may have been lost, especially on Esther, who did not have what I generally think of as a Magyar figure,  nourished for many decades on lard, sausages and dumplings.  (Things really changed after the end of the cold war.  For an interesting take on on the transformation of the Eastern European female physique see this article by Anne Applebaum from Slate in 2008.)  In any case, the dish was very popular.  It is a cinch to prepare, very forgiving and open to variations, provided you can get fresh merguez.

Here is also a shout out to Harry, Zach and Seth, now on Kibbutz Keturah.  They eat in the communal dining hall on the kibbutz, but they will be in their own apartments when they are in Jerusalem, beginning in March.  I am sure that it is easier to get good kosher merguez in Jerusalem than in NYC, and this dish is easy to make for yourselves:

Merguez with lecso

  • 1/2 pound merguez (not pre-cooked, see below)
  • 1 teaspoon - 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, halved and sliced
  • 1 pound frying peppers, seeded deribbed, halved and sliced;  mix of green and red (if fry peppers are not available, bells are acceptable)
  • 3 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 jalapeno chili, halved and sliced (optional, seed and derib if you don't want it milder)
  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • salt and pepper
  • 6 canned plum  tomatoes, halved and sliced lengthwise (about a 14 ounce can), with juice from the can reserved
  • handful of chopped fresh coriander
  1. Cut the merguez into 2 inch lengths (frozen is fine) and put in a large nonstick skillet.  Turn the heat to medium high and cook until well browned on all sides.  They should be just about cooked through.
  2. Depending on both your fat tolerance and how much rendered out of the merguez, add up to 2 tablespoons olive oil to the pan, and turn heat to medium.  Add onions and a bit of salt and saute until golden.
  3. Turn heat to high, add peppers and saute until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes.  Add sliced garlic and jalapeno, turn heat down, and saute for about 2 minutes.  Add the caraway and paprika, salt and pepper to taste, and saute on medium low for a few minutes until you smell the fragrance of the spices.
  4. Add the tomatoes and their juices, turn heat to high, and cook for about 10 minutes until it thickens into a sauce.  Correct seasonings, return merguez to the pan and heat through.  Stir in coriander before serving.
  5. Serve with harissa and pita bread or couscous (see below).  Serves 2 for dinner, or 4-6 as an appetizer.
  6. A nice variation is to poach eggs in the sauce after you add the merguez, or to serve it with fried eggs.

Merguez:  Merguez is a lamb sausage from North Africa. It is available in many kosher meat markets, as well as in halal butchers.  The seasonings include pepper, paprika, garlic, cumin and caraway and the flavor varies depending on whether it is Tunisian or Moroccan.  If you have a choice, use the Tunisian, but anything will be good. Merguez also makes a great sandwich.  Just fry whatever you want in a nonstick skillet.  One quarter pound makes a very generous sandwich.   When it is browned and cooked through, serve it on a baguette or roll that has been lightly toasted, rubbed with a raw garlic clove, and spread with mayo and harissa.  Top with onion, lettuce and tomato if you want.

Couscous:  The best easy method for regular (not instant) couscous is to mix even quantities of couscous and boiling salted water in an oven proof dish.  Cover and leave sit for 20 minutes.   Fluff with your fingers or a fork, drizzle with a little oil or dot with butter or pareve margarine, cover, and bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes.  Allow 1/4 to 1/2 cup raw couscous per person.  Get in the habit of buying couscous in large containers or in bulk.  The small boxes of instant couscous are one of the great ripoffs in the market.

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