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Chermoula - and fish

"The object of the chermoula seasoning is not to mask the natural taste of the food, but enhance it." Robert Carrier

I'm pretty sure I have done chermoula before but these posts are often kicked into being by what's for dinner tonight. And dinner tonight has a number of starting places - what's in the fridge that needs using up, something to fulfil my various aims - fish, vegetarian, legumes once a week, something to fulfil the something new or something from a guru mission or just something I fancy. Tonight it's a combination of fish and a guru - this time Claudia Roden. I actually meant to tick a different two boxes - guru and lucky dip with that fricassée that I talked about the other day but in the end I decided against it - mostly because we had had lamb recently - three ways - roast, shepherd's pie and a stir fry with the leftovers. So I flipped through the book and noticed a 'not quite a recipe' at the bottom of a section on fried fish. It was almost a throwaway line - well paragraph following a short essay about how to fry fish:

"Use a large, high-sided pan so that the fish are not crowded and the oil does not boil over as it expands. There must be enough oil to cover the fish and its temperature should remain constant. Small fish must be fried quickly at a very high temperature, a few at a time, and turned over once so that they are crisp and deep golden all over. then drain them on kitchen paper and serve on a warmed plate. Larger fish take longer and need a lower temperature so that they have time to cook inside before the skin gets burnt."

For the chermoula fish you marinate them for as long as possible and at least three hours - here are my ling fillets marinating ready to be fried this evening and I shall follow her instructions:

"Just before you are ready to fry, dip each fish in flour and fry."

My pieces of fish are of varying thickness so I'm guessing I put the thicker ones in first.

And that marinade is chermoula - or a variation thereof, because like this sort of thing, everyone has their own recipe. Even Claudia Roden. She has several different versions in her various books, and Robert Carrier has at least three in his book A Taste of Morocco. Which is why at the top of the page I showed three different versions that I found online - from left to right, from the websites The Mediterranean Dish; Silk Road Recipes and Joy Filled Eats. And as you can see it can be a spice mix - for a dry rub, as well as the more usual herby mix which comes in varying shades of green to red.

Are there constants? Well almost, and here I speak of the saucy ones rather than the dry mixes. There is always coriander - lots of it. So it's not a sauce that you would serve my son and other coriander haters, unless you hoped he wouldn't notice. But then there's always a lot of it, so I'm sure he would. Sometimes it's a half and half or almost mix with parsley and occasionally there is mint. Paprika, cumin and chilli seem to be regular ingredients as well and lemon juice. Sometimes there is ginger, wine vinegar, preserved lemon, saffron. Quantities of everything are flexible.

When I read Robert Carrier's mixes I almost changed my mind and went with him. After all he is my hero and he lived in Morocco for years, so surely he knew what was genuine. But that would mean straying from Claudia Roden my guru of the week, so I, possibly stupidly, remained true to my first impulse.

Here is my finished mix, which seems almost yellow for some reason. I do not know why - maybe the olive oil? There is no turmeric in there. Maybe it's just the poor light in my kitchen. And this is the mix:

1 large bunch fresh coriander (stalks and all), 2 crushed garlic cloves, 3 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon paprika, 1 1/2 teaspoons cumin, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste), 3 tablespoons wine vinegar; juice of 1 1/2 lemons, 5 tablespoons of oil.

I don't think it needed the water and I used olive oil of course. And Robert Carrier's favourite mix?

"1 large sweet onion, peeled and finely chopped; 4 small cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped (or 2 large cloves); 1/2 teaspoon powdered cumin; 1/4 teaspoon sweet red pepper; 1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper; heaped 1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron; 6 tablespoons each chopped fresh green coriander and flat-leafed parsley; 6 tablespoons olive oil; juice of half a lemon; salt to taste."

His recommendation is to marinade overnight excluding the olive oil and lemon juice, which is used to mix the other flavours together when you cook the fish - and they are not pulped in a pestle and mortar or a food processor - just mixed together. Then: " The fish is baked in the oven with sliced tomatoes, green peppers and sliced preserved lemon" - or shallow fried as Claudia Roden describes.

There are lots of other recipes on the net and maybe one should try a few and then go with what you really like.

Tom Hunt, who made stuffed fish with the chermoula before baking it, tells you that you can use herbs that are wilting for this - and any other herby kind of sauce:

"To revive old herbs and reduce waste, remove and compost any mulchy leaves or stalks, and put the rest, still in a bunch, ideally, in a bowl of iced water for three minutes, to refresh. Remove, shake, then pat dry in a clean tea towel. Finely chop from the stalk end up all the way to the leaves, and cutting the stalks no more than 5mm long to maintain a decent texture."

A useful tip for all kinds of situations.

Roasting the fish was a common alternative to frying - sometimes just the fish and its marinade, sometimes with other vegetables, sometimes wrapped in foil, sometimes not, and sometimes it was used to flavour soups and stews.

I saw a rather wonderful tagine from Robert Carrier - Tagline of fish with honey and raisins, but alas it is not online. You will have to see if you can find a copy of the book - which is rather wonderful and I don't use it enough.

I did find a couple of other recipes that might tempt you to experiment a bit with chermoula: Roast cod with potatoes and tomatoes - Claudia Roden's recipe on the Poco Cocoa website is the first one and here is yet another demonstration of one dish looking completely different in the hands of two different people - on the left the picture from her book Arabesque and on the right the one from the author of the Poco Cocoa website. Which just goes to show one shouldn't rely on those gorgeous photographs online and in your cookbook collection.

Taste came up with a couple of interesting recipes from reliable people - Valli Little and her Chermoula fish with pistachio couscous and Michelle Southan with her Chermoula fish tagine

I have to say that most people seemed to think that chermoula was particularly good with fish, whatever way you cooked it so I shall see what my fried version looks and tastes like. I'm going to bake some potato slices doused with chermoula to go with it, and toss some broccolini around with the fish I think. Crossing fingers. I think it's supposed to look like this later version of Claudia Roden's Pan-cooked fish with chermoula. It looks like the chermoula, in this case, is just scattered over the fish when it's cooked.

So next time you need a boost either bash a few things around in a pestle and mortar which might get rid of a bit of tension and give you some exercise too, or else, cheat like I did and bung it all in the food processor. It took me about ten minutes to do it all, and I have some left over for something else. I can certainly recommend it as one of the tastiest of this kind of herby blend.

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