Week 3: Algeria

Another “A” country, another meal with lamb and eggplant. But Algerian food does have a distinguishing aspect: couscous. My obsession for the week was figuring out how to go about finding a couscousière, the specialized two-part pot: a voluptuous lower chamber for the stew, and a upper chamber with perforations on the bottom to allow steam through. Apparently, this is an extremely fuel-efficient method of cooking, since the same fire cooks both the stew and the starch. I ended up buying a couscousière, for far cheaper than what’s on offer on Amazon, at a middle eastern supply store on Atlantic Avenue, and strapping it on the bike to take it home, filled with olives and couscous.

Thanks to Amine, an Algerian friend of a friend, I came upon Chef Zadi, who provided not only recipes but also plenty of background and even philosophy about Algerian cuisine.

I cooked a big one since I kind of turned it into a birthday party too! I overestimated, and now there’s a ton of leftovers. Hopefully I’ll get the hang of the quantity soon. Now, to the food, in the order in which I cooked it. I made the first two the night before.

Badhinjan Misharmla | Griddled eggplants with caraway and green peppercorns | Recipe

The recipe explicitly called to cook this on a flat griddle rather than the barbecue, and I dutifully salted, dried, marinated, and grilled close to fifteen little eggplants. I was also glad to have an excuse to finally use my caraway seeds, which I wouldn’t have expected to see in North African food. I cooked the dish the night before as specified, and indeed the flavors were quite something after nearly a day of marinating. The raw garlic and caraway and green peppercorns combine for quite the pungent punch.

Mslalla | Marinated oil-cured black olives | Recipe

I am a big fan of Sahadi’s on Atlantic Avenue, especially their abundant and shockingly cheap olive selection. Who’d ever imagine olives for $3 a pound? And they’re good. Anyway, I marinated them with orange and lemon zest, orange juice, olive oil and some spices. Turns out I bought double the amount of olives called for and only made a single recipe of marinade, but it seems to me that it worked out quite flavorful enough. Sure have a lot of olives left!

Lemon sorbet

I couldn’t find any recipes for frozen Algerian desserts, but I figured if they made anything there, there’s a good chance it could include lemon. So I found this recipe from David Lebovitz’s bible of frozen desserts, The Perfect Scoop. It’s so simple: make a sugar-water with zest of two lemons, a half-cup of water and a cup of sugar, dissolve the sugar and then add two cups of water, cool it down, add a cup of lemon juice, and churn it. The recipe makes the audacious claim that it’s better than most italian ices you can find in New York, and it’s true.

Ghribia | Semolina cookies | Recipe

If you find sugar cookies wimpy, you might like these. The semolina imparts a deeper flavor and crumblier texture than plain flour. The dough was really heavy and sticky and kind of tough to work with, but led to a great result. (Also, this was my first time baking with Silpat sheets, which really did make for nice even browning on the bottom.)

Kaskasu bi’l-Lahm | Couscous with Lamb | Recipe

This is the dish for which I bought the big new piece of cooking equipment, along with five pounds of couscous and a whole lamb shoulder. It took about five hours to make, all in the interest of fluffy, not-clumpy little grains, starting with the tedious but really fun process of sprinkling the couscous with salted warm water and raking it to break up clumps. By the end of even the first step my hands felt smooth and exfoliated, which is kind of gross so don’t think too hard about what that implies. Anyway, after several hours of stewing and steaming, with an amusing interlude of grating onions while wearing goggles, we had a ton. It was pretty good although I guess I was hoping it would have a little more zip or spice. Really wish I’d remembered to pick up harissa at Sahadi’s! Anyway, now I have a couscousière for when we do Morocco and Tunisia in a few years.

Cooked carrot salad | Recipe

A nice, simpler dish that I will likely make again. Chilled, garlicky carrot spears with lemon juice and some spices made for a nice contrast to the rich lamb and pungent eggplant.

Merguez | Lamb sausage

I researched what it would take to make sausage myself, but it seems like it would be several hours, take specialized grinding and stuffing equipment (even the Kitchen-Aid attachment, which would have been convenient, got poor reviews), and apparently be pretty difficult. So, at least for now, I’ll buy sausage. Los Paisanos on Smith Street sells merguez, which is probably Algeria’s second best known culinary export after couscous, and it was surprisingly complex: not just spicy-hot, but also spicy-flavorful, with cinnamon and who knows what else. The darn thing made the grill go up in flames once I flipped it over, which was a bit scary but did end up making it succulently char-grilled.

Whole wheat khobz | Flatbread | Recipe

To go with the merguez, I asked Dan and Raven to whip up some unleavened flatbread. We used some half-white bread flour I picked up today at the farmers market, and it was great, definitely hearty enough for sopping up the juices of the various dishes running around the plate.

We enjoyed the main course outside, but it was too muggy and hot to linger, so we migrated inside to enjoy dessert and enjoy some Algerian music piped through Spotify.  We also enjoyed for the first time what’s sure to become a tradition, when Laura marks the evening’s country on our scrach-off map.

Taking a break for two weeks, due to travel on both weekends, but we’ll be back atcha with Andorra, followed by Angola and Antigua & Barbuda. Any suggestions for any of those three would be most welcome!


3 Responses to “Week 3: Algeria”

  1. Hi! As it happens, I just started a similar project a few weeks ago. I figured that others must have tried the same thing before and, here I found yours! My thing is that I really can’t cook and am hoping to learn throughout this long process. Plus, I’m on my own on this one, so I’m only trying a main dish and maybe a salad or side dish when I get more comfortable.

    The reason I’m commenting on this one is that I just did Algeria this week and am researching Andorra. (Also curious is that I, too, decided to do this with UN nations in order.)

    Am really looking forward to reading more of your blog so I can get a better idea as what to do myself. (The Albanian lamb dish didn’t go nearly as well for me as it did for you.)


    • Jesse Friedman says:

      Welcome to the adventure! There’s a small army of us who’ve had the same or similar idea: http://www.unitednoshes.com/links/

      Good on you for giving this a shot! I notice you’re struggling to eat all your food; we’ve found that one of the best parts of this is having friends join along. We’ve found that even if we’re not very confident in the quality of what’s going to come out, they’re usually very game to try it out.

      Lemme know if you have questions as you go along!

  2. Goodness! It took me until now to see that you had replied! Yes, things are continuing apace. And the various links (in addition to your experiences, of course) have been of immeasurable assistance! I’m all the way on Cambodia now and have gotten a great deal more confidence since Week 3!

    Still, aside from the husband, I couldn’t imagine debuting dishes for friends at this stage, though I have re-made a couple easy favorites for friends and family after doing them for just us two first.

    Thanks again for your great blog!

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