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Morocco Diary: Khadija’s Savory Fish Tagine; Off the Grid at Sidi Kaouki

This version of Khadija's fish tagine layers chunks of grouper coated in a pungent spice and herb paste with vegetables, olives and lemon. During cooking aromatic vapors infuse the fish and vegetables with these rich and varied flavors, creating a sublimely savory one-pot dish.

This version of Khadija’s fish tagine layers chunks of grouper coated in a pungent spice and herb paste with vegetables, olives and lemon. During cooking aromatic vapors infuse the fish and vegetables with these rich and varied flavors, creating a sublimely savory one-pot dish.

Sidi Kaouki, November 15–Night falls suddenly in Morocco. One moment you’re traipsing along a rocky path, the next it’s so dark you’re stumbling off the edge…

There is no electricity this evening. By day Le Kaouki is a simple beachside inn, bright white stucco with intense blue trim and a shaded terrace that beckons you to lounge awhile with a cold beer, maybe after surfing or a camel ride on the sand.

At night the place becomes more mysterious, with pools of candlelight illuminating shadowy halls and stairs. Now it’s an escapist dream, a quiet refuge from the Blackberry world. In the darkness time slows nearly to a stop; other dimensions float into view. Cocteau’s surreal torcheres adorned with living faces would not be out of place.

I drift down the stairs, following faint laughter and music, into the dining room, past a row of glazed clay tagines, conical tops gleaming in the candlelight, through the door into the kitchen…where Khadija, a young, dark-haired cook, giggling with her friend Raschida, is about to show us how to make a savory fish tagine.

In the dim light of a low-watt bulb (there’s a generator for the kitchen) the ingredients for the tagine have a luminous intensity: Orange carrots, red tomatoes, green peppers and pearly potatoes glow like jewels on the tiled counter. Big chunks of fish with silvery skin and translucent pink flesh, cut right through the bone, shimmer in a plastic bowl.

The colors of the spices—brick red paprika and cayenne, golden ginger and brown cumin, flaky white seasalt and black pepper in geometrically patterned bowls—are especially vivid. A flurry of chopping and a leafy pile of parsley and cilantro is reduced to a small mound of green herbs.

Khadija layers sliced carrots in the bottom of the tagine, then rubs the fish with olive oil and the chopped herbs. One by one, she sprinkles heaping spoonfuls of the spices into the bowl and rubs them into the fish. Nothing is measured, but like all good cooks she has an innate sense of the harmony of flavors, knowing how to balance the spiciness of the ginger with the earthiness of the cumin, when to add just the right touch of peppery cayenne.

Kadija assembles the tagine, placing olives around the edges. The fish is already coated with a paste of fragrant herbs and spices.

Kadija assembles the tagine, placing olives around the edges. The fish is already coated with a paste of fragrant herbs and spices.

The rest is easy. The fish, now covered in a spice paste, goes on top of the carrots, followed by layers of thin-sliced potatoes, tomatoes, and green pepper. She places plump olives–black, purple and green–around the edges and tucks slices of lemon under the rings of green pepper. A single spicy green pepper finishes the dish.

And that’s it. The covered tagine is set on a gas burner to simmer about 45 minutes until the fish and vegetables are done.

Later when the clay pot comes to the table and the lid is removed, the aromas are irresistible. The succulent white fish and vegetables have absorbed all the rich and varied flavors that have gone into the dish—spices, olives, lemon—and in turn have exuded their own sweet and savory liquids to produce a stunning broth.

We all agree: This is a dish to make at home.

 Cocktails on the candlelit terrace at Le Kaouki, while the tagine simmers in the kitchen.

Cocktails on the candlelit terrace at Le Kaouki, while the tagine simmers in the kitchen.

Khadija’s Savory Fish Tagine with Fresh Herbs, Olives and Lemon

This recipe is adapted from Kadija who showed us how to make fish tagine the evening our group stayed at Le Kaouki. If you have any mrouzia, a pungent Moroccan spice blend for fish, chicken and eggs, by all means add a pinch or two. I did, and it was delicious.

To serve 4

Ingredients for a 12-inch tagine:

Olive oil for the bottom of the tagine
2 large carrots
2 pounds grouper, striped bass or other firm white fish, skinned and cut into 3-inch chunks
Sea salt to taste
3 tablespoons of olive oil for the fish
½ cup fresh coriander, finely chopped
½ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 rounded teaspoon sweet paprika,
1 rounded teaspoon powdered ginger
1 level teaspoon ground cumin
1 level teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1 generous pinch mrouzia (Optional–mrouzia can be quite hot, so if you use it, you may wish to use less black pepper and cayenne.)
2 medium red potatoes
2 medium tomatoes
1 medium green pepper
¾ cup mixed Kalamata and other Mediterranean olives
½ lemon, sliced very thin
1 chile serrano, whole

Method:

1. Pour a small amount of olive oil into the shallow bottom of a 12-inch tagine. Rub the oil all over the inside of the dish so that the inner surface is completely covered.
2. Peel the carrots and thinly slice them on the diagonal. Cover the bottom and sides of the oiled dish with a single layer of slightly overlapping carrot slices. Set aside.
3. Put the chunks of fish in a large bowl. Sprinkle a generous amount of sea salt over the fish and turn it over so that all surfaces are lightly seasoned. Add the olive oil and rub it into the fish. Sprinkle the chopped parsley and coriander into the bowl and again rub into the fish. One by one, add the paprika, ginger, cumin, black pepper, cayenne and the mrouzia, if you are using it. Rub each addition into the fish before adding the next one, eventually covering the fish with a spicy paste. Set aside to marinate for at least 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Peel the potatoes and slice them very thin, no more than 1/8 inch thick—any thicker and they will cook too slowly. Thinly slice the tomatoes. Remove the stem and seeds of the green pepper and cut it into ¼-inch rounds. There should be five slices.
5. To assemble the rest of the tagine, arrange the chunks of fish in one layer on top of the carrots. Add a layer of potatoes and over that, a layer of tomatoes. Top with a single layer of 4 green pepper slices and put the fifth slice on top. Place the olives around the edges of the dish and tuck lemon slices into the green pepper rounds. Top with the whole green serrano.
6. To cook, cover the tagine with its conical lid. Place a flame tamer over the gas burner on your stove and turn the heat to medium low. Put the tagine on top and simmer gently until the fish is cooked all the way through and the vegetables are tender. During the cooking process, the fish will exude its liquid; as it bubbles, steam will rise to the top of the tagine and bathe all the ingredients in a savory vapor. Depending upon the level of the heat, it could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour or more to fully cook all the ingredients. Lift the lid occasionally and check to see how things are progressing; if the liquid is not simmering, raise the heat slightly—but do not let it boil.
7. To serve, bring the tagine to the table and spoon a generous portion of fish, vegetables and broth into a shallow bowl or soup plate for each diner. In Morocco, the tagine was accompanied by freshly baked flat bread; hunks of warm bread or a crusty baguette would be a good substitute. Serve with cold beer and a lightly dressed green salad.

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