Sunday, May 15, 2011

ingredient: RAS EL HANOUT

A phrase I don't hear nearly enough is "What looks good?" And I'm not looking for a compliment, either.

It's a phrase that customers should pose to their vendors, their butchers, their fish mongers and their bakers. In places where eating locally and seasonally is still the norm, this phrase is much more common. You depend on the person who is selling you your vegetables or your meat to be an expert in their field. They know what's lookin good, they know what's going to taste the best. So you trust them with your dinner.

Ras el Hanout means something along the lines of "best in the shop" in Arabic. It's a spice blend that is made by the spice vendors in North Africa. They can blend over 50 different ingredients to make a delicious, aromatic mixture of sweet, fiery and savory spices. In fact it's a point of pride for spice vendors in countries like Morocco to sell the best ras el hanout. Meanwhile, I had to tell the man in the vegetable department of my supermarket what a leek was.

You can certainly mix your own blend with ingredients such as cinnamon, ground chilies, turmeric, nutmeg, clove, coriander, cardamon, and cumin. And then you could guard that recipe with your life, never sharing it with a soul but occasionally giving the mix as a gift so that people will come, begging, for your secrets. That would probably be the authentic thing to do. Or you can also just do as I did and buy it at a gourmet market when you see it sitting right between the poppy seeds and the rosemary (N.B.D) and exclaim "weee" with delight while the person next to you hurries away with their boring old nutmeg.

Couscous with Red Peppers, Apricots
and Ras el Hanout

After the aforementioned episode, I couldn't wait to get home and use my ras el hanout. At that same market I had also followed my own advice and bought a ton of what looked good, which happened to be red peppers. Now, it might not be the right season for red peppers, but usually you can find some good looking specimens in the off-season. Unless, as happened this year, deep winter freezes kill most of Mexico's crop, leaving red pepper and tomato fiending Americans paying 3 dollars a pepper for shriveled little things even though we should just give up the ghost and eat more perfectly unharmed Idaho potatos. (Somewhere Alice Waters is gloating.) Anyway, these peppers finally looked all plump and red and beautiful, so I bought 4 and ran home to eat.

In homage to North Africa, I sauteed the peppers with the ras el hanout, some dried apricots, orange zest, and pine-nuts and finished them with a good bunch of parsley. The result was a mix of sweet and savory, with a subtle heat and a bit of freshness. Put over some fluffy couscous, it was "top of the shop."

serves three as a side

ingredients: 3 tablespoons olive oil
4 red peppers, roughly chopped

zest of one orange
10 dried apricots (the good quality, juicy ones), finely chopped
2 tablespoons pine nuts

1 tablespoon ras el hanout

1 tablespoon sherry vinegar (or orange juice if that orange is all you have on hand)
1/3 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper
1 cup isreali couscous (I had this on hand, regular couscous is more than fine)


In a medium saucepan, heat 1 1/2 cups water until boiling. Add couscous and turn heat to medium low. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes.

Heat olive oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the pinenuts and the apricots and saute two minutes. Add the peppers and saute until starting to get tender, about 8 minutes. Add the ras el hanout and sautee for 5 minutes, or until peppers are crisp-tender.

Add the sherry vinegar and saute one minute. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir in chopped parsley.

Divide couscous among plates and top with peppers.

*photo of spices from wikipedia (to be subbed out when I finally take that trip to Morocco.)

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