Pascale’s kitchen: From the old country

Cooking up Tunisian memories with Channel 2’s Rina Matzliach

Channel 2's 2’S Rina Matzliach (photo credit: EITAN WAXMAN)
Channel 2's 2’S Rina Matzliach
(photo credit: EITAN WAXMAN)
This week I had the honor of sitting with TV Channel 2’s renowned Rina Matzliach, who enjoys cooking up memories from childhood with her Tunisian-born mother, Marcelle. Tunisian food is rich in legumes and vegetables, with fairly small amounts of meat. These dishes are rich in protein from the vegetables and legumes, while the seasoning is modest – just like the people.
Even before meatless Mondays became popular, traditional Tunisian cuisine sported vegetarian dishes on Tuesdays. Tuesday was laundry day in the olden days, so the women didn’t have time to prepare time-consuming meals. The trick was to prepare quick dishes for their large families that were still rich and satisfying, such as couscous and vegetable soup.
Matzliach says her mother didn’t involve her or her five brothers much in the kitchen when she was growing up, but when she began cooking for her own family, she immediately began preparing many of her mother’s recipes that she still loved.
As I watched her preparing couscous, she used one hand to sift through the grains and with the other she cradled the bowl. When I asked her why she did it that way, she just looked at me, paused, and then said, “Well, that’s the way my mother made couscous, so that’s how I do it, too.”
Next, we set out to prepare the vegetable soup that accompanies the couscous. Matzliach is very set in her ways. First we fry these vegetables separately. When I moved to add more vegetables to the pot, she said adamantly, “It’s not time yet.”
I must admit that it was an absolute pleasure watching Matzliach working in her kitchen. She spread out a bunch of newspapers on her countertop and pushed the vegetable peels off the cutting board so that at the end all she had to do was gather up the newspapers, throw them away, and voila! Everything was clean.
Like her mother, Matzliach doesn’t use a lot of spices, and she loves cooking in a pressure cooker to cut down on cooking time. Another practical tip: she prepares legumes ahead of time and freezes them in small packages so she can just whip them out of the freezer and prepare dinner in no time at all.
After we prepared the dishes together, we sat down to taste all the delicacies. Matzliach turned to me and said, “You know what? Maybe when I retire I’ll open up a restaurant and call it ‘Rina’s Couscous House.’”
Makes 8 to 10 servings
■ 1 kg. semolina
■ 1.5 to 2 cups water (depending on how much is absorbed by semolina)
■ 5 Tbsp. oil
■ 1 tsp. salt
■ 3 cups water
Directions: Fill a tall pot halfway full with water and bring to a boil.
In a large, wide bowl, pour in the semolina and pour in 1.5 to 2 cups of water slowly while mixing with your hand. (Note: Little lumps will form. Only use all the water if some of the semolina has been left dry.) Place the wet semolina in a metal sieve and push the grains through the holes with your hand.Transfer to a pot with holes in the bottom that fits on top of another large soup pot and cover. Cook over boiling soup or stew for 30 minutes. Remove couscous from pot and pour into a wide bowl. Pour 3 cups of water on top of it, oil and salt. Mix with a spoon and when the couscous has cooled a little, mix with your hands until it’s separated into single grains.
Pour the couscous back into the pot with the holes and let it steam over the boiling soup for another 30 minutes. Pour the couscous into a bowl and let it cool.
The couscous is now ready. But if you’re a real perfectionist, you can steam it a third time after it’s completely cooled.
Pumpkin soup (can be served with couscous)
Makes 6 to 8 servings
■ 2 cups (300 gr.) large broad beans
■ 4 Tbsp. oil
■ 1 large onion, chopped
■ 2 medium tomatoes, cut into small cubes
■ 1 large can (260 gr.) + 1 small can (100 gr.) tomato paste
■ 1 hot pepper, chopped
■ 1 tsp. harissa
■ 5 stalks of celery, cut into 10 cm. pieces, plus leaves
■ 2 large carrots, cut into strips
■ 300 gr. pumpkin, cut into large cubes
■ ½ head of cabbage, cut into four pieces
■ 2 potatoes, peeled and cut in half or quarters
■ ½ tsp. salt
■ ½ tsp. black pepper
Directions: Soak the broad beans in water the day before you make the soup (you can add a little baking soda). Rinse and remove peels.
Heat oil in a large pot. Add the chopped onion and fry until lightly browned. Add the tomatoes and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for another 4 to 5 minutes. Make sure to mix constantly so that the sauce comes out smooth.
Add the hot pepper and harisa and stir. Pour in water while stirring (about 8 cups or until the pot is ¾ full). Mix well, cover and bring to boil.
Add all the vegetables, mix and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper. Add the broad beans and bring to a boil. Lower flame and cook for 30-40 minutes until vegetables are soft. If you’re in a hurry, you can prepare this soup in a pressure cooker.
Egg brik
Makes 4 servings
■ 4 brik dough sheets
■ 4 eggs
■ Salt and pepper to taste
■ 1 Tbsp. scallion and parsley, chopped (optional)
Directions: On a flat surface, roll out a ball of brik dough (if you’re very skilled, you can do this on your hand). Crack an egg and pour it in the center of the sheet of dough. Season with salt and pepper (and scallion and parsley if desired). Flip over half the sheet and press edges together to close.
Heat oil in a medium frying pan (add the amount of oil you’d use to fry schnitzel). Carefully place the stuffed dough (so that the egg doesn’t escape) in the center of the frying pan. Fry on one side until golden brown and turn over and fry on other side. Serve hot with Marmoma Salad.
Marmoma salad
Makes 6 to 8 servings
■ 3-4 Tbsp. oil
■ 3-4 very spicy green peppers, cut into little cubes
■ 1-2 light green peppers, cut into little cubes (optional)
■ 2 medium tomatoes, cut into cubes
■ 5 cloves of garlic, crushed or chopped
■ Salt and pepper to taste
■ ¼ – ½ tsp. ground caraway (optional)
Directions: Place oil and vegetables in a pot and cook over a medium-low flame for 15 minutes. Add 1/4 cup water and season with salt and pepper. Lower flame and cook for 35 minutes. Stir every so often. You’ll know it’s ready when all the liquid has evaporated and the salad is thick.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.