The other week, I was putting a carry-out menu together for friends, and it had to include vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Consulting Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (I’m a big fan) I found a lovely combination between his books ‘Meat’ and ‘Veg’:
Chicken with preserved lemons and olives (‘Meat‘ p313)
North African squash and chickpea stew (‘Veg‘ p 30)
‘Special’ couscous (‘Meat’ p 512)
It was all kind of north African in style, and I found myself wanting to give it a filmic title – I guess this stems from a holiday I had in Tunisia a number of years ago, where we signed up for a couple of days in the desert, away from the resort (Port el Kantouai – scene of the recent terrorist attacks). We headed up through the Atlas Mountains in a couple of Land Rovers, and the vista was stunning – I’d never seen ‘desert’ before, and hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful – mountains and valleys and salt plains sparkling like vast lakes. Apparently the Atlas Mountains (follow this link for some fabulous photos, not my own alas!) have been used for the shooting of a number of films – Star Wars, and The English Patient are the ones that come to mind now – and you can see why. I’ve never actually seen Casablanca so I may be completely out of kilter here, but ‘Play it, Sam’ seemed like a good name for my menu.
Part of our trip involved a couscous meal with lamb. It was good, tasty and filling and quite simple although with subtle aromatic spicing. The photos show my ‘mise en place’ for the chicken dish, with its palette of spices. I used a couple of ingredients I hadn’t used before – preserved lemons, and harissa paste. The lemons are, well lemony and also salty, and bring a real fragrant bitterness to the mix. The harissa paste is smoky and warm. Both the veggie and meat recipes use saffron, and I dutifully shelled out the necessary small fortune for same. But you know what? I don’t really get saffron. Maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough, but alongside all those other strong flavours, I just can’t find the wonderful difference that saffron is supposed to make. Sorry, Hugh F-W, but I think I’m going to drop it.