The cuisines of North Africa are unfamiliar to me and quite out of my eating and cooking comfort zone. Day 4 of the CIA’s Mediterranean Boot Camp was centered around learning about the traditions, culture, and foods of Tunisia and Morocco. Berbers, the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of North Africa, are known for couscous, conceiving the idea to cook flour as a way to keep it from spoiling too quickly as they moved from place to place. Couscous is simply semolina wheat flour and water that is slowly rubbed together into small granules and then steamed to cook. It is a staple side dish served with tagines of lamb, poultry, seafood, or vegetables. Chef Ainsworth made the process look easy enough to attempt to make it from scratch at home.
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Once the pieces have formed, he put them through a sieve
and then onto a sheet pan ready to be steamed.
In class, we discussed the flavors and dishes of North Africa, starting with warm and spicy Moroccan flavors like cinnamon, coriander, and cumin. Chili peppers blended with garlic and oil to create harissa and lemons preserved in salt are two common condiments. Tunisian flavors are the spiciest of the Mediterranean including chili and cayenne. Lamb, rabbit, and goat are used in cooking along with fennel, ginger, olives, tomatoes and peppers.
The cuisine of this area is very social and people will gather for a simple cup of mint tea. Shared communal meals are traditional with dishes like tagines being center stage. A tagine is both a dish and a type of cooking vessel that has flat circular bottom with low sides (sort like a sauté pan) with a cone-shaped cover that sits atop the base during cooking.
Traditional tagines are made from heavy clay, but more modern varieties like Le Creuset are cast iron. The cover is designed to promote the recirculation of moisture aiding in the low and slow braising of meats like chicken, pigeon, turkey or lamb. When the dish is finished, the cover is removed and the base can be taken straight to the table for serving.
With my team in the kitchen, I took the lead to make this tagine layered with seasoned ground lamb, egg, gruyere and ricotta cheese. The finished dish, cut into wedges, was sort of like a meat filled quiche.
Sharon and Gretchen collaborated on a lamb stew which was served alongside the fresh couscous with almonds, pistachios, pine nuts and dried fruits.
Ron and Julia cooked up a chicken filled pastry called a bisteeya, which was a little tedious to prepare encompassing more than eight different spices and the process of layering the delicate phyllo dough.
And these Tunisian briks, fried savory triangles filled with a tuna mixture, have an egg yolk right in the middle that flowed out when you cut into it.
Our North African family meal was so different and overflowed with unique and interesting flavors. I can’t believe today is our last day, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to immersed myself in the cuisine of Spain. Check back tomorrow to see what we’ve cooked up.