Off the African coast

Hot peppers combine with fish to create traditional dishes with a kick.

dead fish YUMMY 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dead fish YUMMY 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last month, my husband and I dined at a popular Israeli restaurant in Los Angeles called Aroma Bakery Cafe and decided to order fish sandwiches. Those that enticed us most featured flavors of North Africa. In one of them, Tunisian tuna salad spiced with hot pepper sauce was partnered with hard-boiled eggs, red onion and tomato slices. For the second, the Mediterranean tuna sandwich, the fish was mixed with matbuha - a spicy Moroccan tomato-pepper dip/sauce/salad. Cooks in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya have developed many techniques for turning out tasty fish. When I enjoy a fish dish prepared by an Israeli friend or relative, often it turns out to be of Maghrebi origin. I fondly remember a delicious Shabbat appetizer prepared by my sister-in-law Mati Kahn. She called her dish simply Moroccan fish. It owed its fine flavor to garlic and fresh coriander. Mati told me the fish tasted even better when you added dried hot peppers, but she didn't because of her children's sensitive palates. Cooks along the southern Mediterranean coast have discovered that fish has an affinity for peppers, both hot and sweet. One of my husband's Moroccan-born relatives, Ruhama Cohen, once brought me two of her favorite spices: mild and hot red pepper flakes, freshly prepared in Rehovot. The key to good cooking, she said, is in carefully combining these two types of peppers to season fish, vegetables and other foods. Of course, not all North African fish specialties are spicy. But all are aromatic, benefiting from the fresh flavors of garlic, parsley, coriander leaves and lemon, and from a blend of savory spices, notably cumin, saffron and paprika. Fish is cooked on its own or with a variety of vegetables. For a Friday night fish dish that's good hot or cold, Viviane and Nina Moryoussef, authors of La Cuisine Juive Marocaine, recommend fish with red sauce, made by rubbing fish slices with a paste of garlic, fresh coriander, parsley, salt, hot and sweet paprika, saffron and oil, then cooking them gently with a little water and diced preserved lemon. In a variation, they cook the seasoned fish with sliced carrots. They also prepare fish with olives in a similar manner, but without the hot paprika or the lemon. Pascal Perez, author of North African Cooking (in Hebrew), prepares Moroccan spicy tuna simmered in tomato sauce flavored with fried onion, plenty of garlic, chopped hot red peppers and parsley. For her Tunisian hake, she cooks the fish with diced potatoes in tomato garlic sauce flavored with caraway seeds and harissa (North African hot pepper paste). Her Tunisian-Algerian Shabbat fish with vegetables is poached along with sauteed diced potato, onions and carrots in a milder tomato sauce, seasoned with paprika, black pepper and chopped green coriander. You can cook any fish you like in such tomato sauces, adding the flavorings gradually to your taste. MOROCCAN FISH WITH RED PEPPERS, CILANTRO AND GARLIC This dish, one of the many variations of hraimeh, is one of the most popular fish dishes of Moroccan-Jewish and Libyan-Jewish (or "Tripolitani") cooking. Almost all cooks include plenty of garlic and cilantro (fresh coriander) and many add fresh sweet peppers as well. Cumin, lemon juice and tomato paste are frequent additions. Some cooks make the dish very hot, adding plenty of chilies (hot peppers) and accenting the dish with additional ground hot pepper. This version makes use of whole dried hot peppers to flavor the sauce. They are fairly hot, but since they are removed before the sauce is served, the result is flavorful - not fiery. If you want it hotter, add pepper flakes or cayenne pepper to taste, or choose smaller, hotter peppers and add more of them. Choose any fish you like - halibut or cod, for example. You can serve the fish warm or cold, as an appetizer or entree. If you're serving it as a main course, rice is a good accompaniment. Makes about 4 main-course or 6 first-course servings 4 2 to 4 Tbsp. olive oil 4 2 red bell peppers, cut in strips 4 10 large garlic cloves, chopped 4 1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro 4 1 Tbsp. tomato paste 4 11⁄2 cups water 4 2 long semi-hot dried peppers 4 900 gr. fish steaks or fillets, about 2.5 cm. thick 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 1 tsp. paprika 4 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. hot pepper flakes, or cayenne pepper to taste Heat oil in a large saute pan. Add bell peppers, half the garlic and 1⁄4 cup cilantro. Saute over medium-low heat 2 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and water, add chilies and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. Add fish to pan and sprinkle it with salt, pepper, paprika, remaining garlic and half the remaining cilantro. Return to a simmer. Cover and cook over very low heat 5 minutes. Turn fish over. Uncover and simmer about 5 more minutes or until fish just flakes but is not falling apart. With a slotted spatula, transfer fish and pepper strips to a deep platter. Leave chilies in pan. If sauce is too thin, simmer it over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until it reduces to about 3⁄4 cup. Taste liquid; if you like, add pepper flakes or cayenne pepper and simmer 2 more minutes. Pour sauce over fish. Discard dried chilies. Serve fish sprinkled with remaining cilantro. TUNISIAN TUNA AND PEPPER SALAD This simple fish dish from the Tunisian kitchen turns everyday tuna into a tasty appetizer. You can also flake the tuna finely and combine it with some of the pepper strips as a delicious filling for a sandwich. If you use roasted peppers from a bottle, the salad can be made very quickly. Makes 6 appetizer servings 4 4 red or green bell peppers, or 2 of each, broiled and peeled (see Note below), or 8 roasted red pepper halves from a jar 4 1 170-gr. can tuna, preferably in olive oil 4 1 Tbsp. lemon juice 4 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or more to taste 4 Hot pepper sauce to taste 4 Salt and freshly ground pepper 4 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley 4 2 Tbsp. chopped green onion 4 2 tsp. capers, rinsed and drained Cut each pepper in wide strips and arrange on a platter. Top the strips with chunks of tuna. Combine lemon juice, oil, hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper in small bowl. Whisk to combine. Spoon over peppers and tuna. Sprinkle with parsley, onion and capers. Serve at room temperature. Note: Broiled peeled peppers: Preheat broiler. Put peppers on broiler rack about 10 cm. from heat. Broil peppers, turning every 4 or 5 minutes with tongs, until their skins are blistered and charred, about 15 minutes total. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly, or put in a bag and close the bag. Let stand 10 minutes. Peel peppers using a paring knife. Halve peppers; be careful - there may be hot liquid inside. Discard caps, seeds and ribs. Pat dry if desired; do not rinse. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and of Healthy Cooking for theJewish Home.