Tagine Bil Hut: Moroccan Fish Stew with Olives, Potatoes and Preserved Lemon
I have come to a realization that I was trying very hard not to pay attention to: Moroccan food freaks people out. There’s all those strange names and weirdo ingredients like lemons which aren’t anything like the lemons we know, and olives which only 50% (at best) of people like to begin with. That’s a shame. Truly, it makes me sad. There’s no reason to be fearful of Moroccan food (names that resist pronunciation put aside) because what it comes down to is that these dishes are things that we know, things that we LOVE, but with a little twist.
Take, for example, my favorite potato salad: Batata Bil Zaytoun. It’s potato salad in a vinaigrette (which is common enough) with some green olives (which is not particularly common, but known to occur nonetheless) and some herbs and spices including parsley and paprika (which are about as common to potato salad as the day is long), but it still seems strange and foreign…..and delicious, if you give it a try. Oh, or there’s Djaj bil kastal wal barkok, otherwise known as chicken with chestnuts and prunes. Tell me, is that strange? Is it really? We have turkey AND pork loin with a chestnut and prune stuffing. We have sweet and savory stewed chicken. But you give it a Moroccan name and a bit of extra flavor and it’s like it’s game over. Honestly, I just don’t understand.
There are things that we’re getting more comfortable with, however, like couscous. We see recipes for couscous with feta cheese and roasted vegetables, and these are things that we’re familiar with. You know, things that seem at home in our kitchen. But how different, really, are these foods? Tagine bil Hut (stew with fish) is made from a base of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic fish and olives. If we add thyme, well, that’s a Provençcal fish stew just waiting to happen. But if we add smoky cumin and paprika (which we’re used to) and swap out the thyme for cilantro (which we’re used to) we have a Moroccan fish stew/tagine which is delectable and different and yet still…….familiar. So really, why would we possibly turn our noses up at that?
That’s what I love about food, and about regional cuisines and cultural variations. From east to west we enjoy so many of the same things, just with slightly different iterations. You swap out ‘A’ for ‘B’, and substitute one starch for another, and all of a sudden we’re in the realm of the exotic but from the comfort of home. In a nutshell, that’s also why I love feasting and tasting, and why food preparation is never work for me, it’s an opportunity to approach different cultures in the best way that I know how: through the stomach.
Now then, enough of my meanderings. Let’s talk about Tagine bil Hut. When I think of ‘tagine’, which is just a stew, I think of beef and lamb stewed slowly in a chimney-shaped pot for hours. Beef and lamb tagines are the most popular in the Western world, but if you think about Morocco itself, where half the land mass borders on the Atlantic Ocean, is it any surprise that fish plays such a prominent role? Fish and seafood of all sorts are baked, fried, grilled and cured in Moroccan cuisine, despite the fact that they largely go unnoticed when we think of Moroccan or North African food as a whole.
The most popular marinade, condiment and flavoring for Moroccan fish dishes is chermoula. Basically, chermoula is similar to a gremolata in the way that it’s a hit of pungent, savory, garlicky herbal flavor which is used to either flavor food before it’s cooked or added as a garnish afterwards. There are as many variations of chermoula as there are cooks to make it, but a basic chermoula has lemon (zest and/or juice), paprika, garlic, and cilantro with olive oil to bind. Other commonly added items are coriander, cumin, spicy chili or flavorful Aleppo peppers, and occasionally parsley. Basically, it’s to the taste of the cook, so you can feel free to play around and find a blend that just tastes right to you. Just in case, however, my recipe for chermoula is below.
Tagine Bil Hut: Moroccan Fish Stew with Olives, Potatoes and Preserved Lemon
- 2 lb (~ 1 kg) thick white fish steaks or filets *
- 3/4 cup chermoula
- 1 lb yellow or white flesh potatoes (about 3-4)
- 1 large yellow onion
- 1 cup mixed large green and purple olives **
- 2 preserved lemons
- 2 roasted red peppers
- 2 lb ripe tomatoes (about 4-5)
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- generous pinch saffron ***
- small bunch cilantro (1/2 cup finely chopped)
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1.5 tsp ground coriander
- 2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp smoked paprika ****
- 4 cloves garlic
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- juice of 1 lemon (or 1/2 preserved lemon, juice and flesh)
* Use a mix of your favorite firm white fish. I used about 1 lb of red snapper filets and 1 lb of sea bass steaks because…that’s what was on special. Most meaty white fish have a nice sweet flavor, and any thick white fish like cod, halibut, monk fish, hake, roughy or basa will do the trick and hold together for the long braising time. I prefer to use skin on fish filets (the skin will mostly dissolve during the braise) because they’re just easier to eat than chunks of fish steaks where you’re constantly combing through for bones. However, if sea bass steaks are on sale than so be it….a bit of care and attention to bones just means we’ll savor the food rather than hoovering it down, right?
** You can likely get a delightful assortment of brine cured purple olives (like kalamata, gaeta, or Niçoise) and green olives (like manzanilla, Naphlion or Sevillian) at your grocery store or an antipasto/deli bar.
*** Saffron is too rich for your blood? No worries, the saffron is mostly used to add a touch of color. Feel free to use a generous pinch of turmeric instead, if you prefer, and save the saffron for paella.
**** If you don’t have smoked paprika then sweet Hungarian paprika can substitute, but you’ll miss out on that delicious smoky flavor. If you’re going to make this substitution, as heathenish as this suggestion may be, I would add 1.5 tbsp sweet Paprika to 1/2 tbsp chipotle chili powder and consider dropping the hot red pepper flakes down to 1.5 tsp…..or keep them at 2, since really a half teaspoon of chili powder won’t add an exceptional amount of heat to the overall dish.
The flavor base for this dish is from the chermoula, so let’s start there. Chop up the cilantro as finely as possible. You can use both the stems and the leaves if you like, and I do, but be sure to give it a really good go-through with the knife to make sure there aren’t any big chunks of stem because they won’t break down in the stew. There should be a generous half cup of finely chopped cilantro when all is said and done.
Finely mince the garlic until it is almost paste like, or use a rasp to make short work of the cloves. Put the garlic and cilantro into a small bowl along with all of the spices, oil and salt. Squeeze in the lemon juice (or add the finely chopped rind and pulp of 1/2 preserved lemon). Stir it until it has formed a thick, saucy paste.
Pat the fish dry with paper towels and generously slather the chermoula all over it. Lay the fish into a dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours so the flavor can soak in.
When the fish has had a good two hours of marinade time, preheat your oven to 350ºF.
There is no need to peel the potatoes as long as they’re well scrubbed. Slice them fairly thinly into 1/4 inch rounds, and do the same with the tomatoes. Be a bit more sensitive with your onions, slicing them into thinner rounds that are no more than 1/8″ thick.
Scoop any flesh out of the preserved lemons, quarter them, and slice only the peels into a julienne. Cut the whole garlic cloves into paper thin slices that are semi-translucent.
The peppers on the other hand, can be opened flat and sliced into long strips about 1/2 ” thick.
Spread the tablespoon of oil on the bottom and up the sides of a large heavy bottomed Dutch oven or a baking dish with high walls and a heavy lid.
Arrange half of the potatoes on the bottom in as close to a single layer as you can get. Spread half of the tomatoes over top, overlapping just slightly, and half of the onions (you can separate the rings a bit to make this easier). Intersperse half of the thinly sliced garlic, julienned preserved lemon peel and dot with half of the olives.
Remove the fish from the chermoula but do not scrape off the marinade, or discard the marinade which remains in the dish. Cut each filet or steak into several large chunks that are at least 2″ wide. Nestle the fish in a snug single layer on top of the potato/tomato mixture.
Repeat with the remaining ingredients, excluding the roasted red pepper. Lay the roasted red pepper slices on the very top in whatever kind of pattern you wish, which will be largely dictated by the size and shape of dish that you’re using. I rather wish my Dutch oven was round, because I’m a fan of a nice starburst pattern, but such is life. And really, does it matter? For the five seconds of presentation time before you scoop the tagine into bowls, I don’t think your guests will judge you for not masterfully crafting intricate snowflake patterns with the peppers.
Add the warm water to the saffron and let it steep for a minute or two before spooning in the tomato paste and stirring until it is evenly dissolved. Finally, scoop in all of the remaining chermoula from the dish where your fish had been marinating, because that little mix will provide most of the flavor in your tagine. Pour the mixture evenly on top of everything else.
And now, to the oven!! Cover the Dutch oven with a tightly fitting lid and it’s off to the races.
Check on the tagine after an hour. The tomatoes will have started to break down and form a saucy base for the stew, which will be bubbling away and smelling mouthwateringly delicious. Test for doneness on one of the potatoes – can it be pierced easily with a fork or does it still feel a bit firm? Don’t be a clock-watcher when it comes to this dish, because the cooking time will depend on the size and shape of dish that you used. My large Dutch oven is a long oval which means that the surface area is a little bit on the lean side and things often need a bit more cooking time until the center is fully done. Also, as much as you want the tomatoes to break down and form a sauce, a bit of extra cooking time will actually dry it out a titch and thicken the sauce in exactly the way that you want. This is a stew, after all, not a soup.
If the potatoes have any resistance or if your stew looks a bit thin, tuck the dish back in the oven for another 15 – 30 minutes. A total of 75 minutes cooking time is about average, but again – it depends on your oven and your dish.
Between the salty olives and the preserved lemons you may not want to add any additional seasoning, but it doesn’t hurt to spoon up a bit of the sauce and check for salt and pepper before this hits the table.
Spoon the tagine over fresh couscous (raisin studded, if you so choose) and serve with some fresh, warm flatbread to sop up those delicious brothy juices.
I grew up eating Middle Eastern food, but there’s just something about Moroccan cuisine which still always seems just so scintillating and exotic. The plump, salty olives, bright lemon and layers of warm fragrant spices – I truly can’t get enough of it. I’m always drawn by thoughts of a run-o-mill Provençcal fish stew which wandered away to travel the world and came back 10 years later wearing a silk scarf and waxing poetic over the beauty of billowing tents and sand storms.
I know. An overactive imagination is, sadly, one of those things that I’ve just learned to live with.
But for what is essentially no more than a common fish stew, this tagine rewards you with so much more. There’s depth and breadth. There’s salty and sweet, homey and unusual, watery flaky and starchy thick. It’s that complex balance of flavors and textures which is why I truly love Moroccan cuisine, and why I’ve finally convinced Mike that sometimes the route to the most authentic food that you can make with local ingredients, is fraught with pits and fish bones, but truly worth the effort of eating at the end of the day.
PS – and he certainly did eat.