Monday, March 03, 2008

Chermoula, Without the Soapy Residue

I'd never expect a fancy North African spice blend to make its way into a quick work-night meal in my kitchen. But happily, it did. Chermoula is a North African condiment that blends spices, olive oil, and fresh herbs (typically cilantro, but more on that below). It's got a texture not unlike pesto, and really bright and fresh flavor.

What's amazing about a condiment like this one is how easy it is to achieve complex flavor. You just keep adding spices to the blender, and with each one, you get a new layer of flavor, without chopping a single vegetable (especially the saffron -- just the tiniest pinch, and without overpowering, its contribution was pretty spectacular). It seems indulgent, really. How can such grandma-slaving-away-in-an-exotic-foreign-kitchen deliciousness be so simple? Truly within reach of the modern homemaker like myself.

And then you just smear it all over some fresh fish, stick the whole thing in the toaster oven, and voila: near-instant healthy, enticing, delicious dinner (well, with the addition of a couple tomatoes stuffed with pangrattato breadcrumbs and steamed baby broccoli sprinkled with sea salt and good olive oil (both super easy)).

It's true, my chermoula didn't have cilantro. The thing is, although I'm becoming more tolerant, I am one of those people who firmly believes that cilantro tastes like soap. Besides, all I had in the house was parsley, and not even flat-leaf, but curly, which lately has been shunned like so much leafy sacrilege. My ever-so-erudite dinner guest was quick to suggest that I don't call it chermoula (although one Algerian chef vindicates my parsley). Really, I don't care what I call it. The point is we ate, and we ate well. And long after the kitchen table had been abandoned -- after dessert, tea, and French homework -- my kitchen still smelled like some serious cooking had gone down.

Tilapia with Chermoula
My chermoula recipe came together after consulting the one referenced above and Clotilde's version. There seems to be quite a bit of variation allowed, so feel free to take a little license.

2 tilapia filets
olive oil

1 clove garlic
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp whole coriander seeds
4-5 threads, or 1/8 tsp saffron
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
crushed red pepper to taste
peel from half a preserved lemon (or juice and zest of 1/2 fresh lemon)
2 Tbs olive oil
about 1 cup of parsley leaves
salt to taste (less if you're using preserved lemons)

Sprinkle one side of fish with salt; set aside. Preheat oven or toaster oven to 400F.

Make chermoula: Place all ingredients in blender or awesome mini-chopper. Blend into a thin paste. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary.

Spread the bottom of an oven-proof dish with a thin layer of olive oil. Place fish filets in dish, salt side down. Spread filets generously with chermoula. Bake until fish is just cooked through, about 8 minutes.


  1. You should try coriander leaves, they're delicious! Too bad the pic is blurry; it must have been because it was moving so fast from the plate to your mouth (that is to say it looked and sounded great).

  2. 'Cilantro' is the American name for the leaves of the coriander plant! (no?)

    This looks yummy. I'm a fellow cilantro-hater (I try to be a tolerant person...but with cilantro it's been hard...) so a version with parsley sounds good to me. What about mint? That could be good too, although would change the taste quite a bit.

  3. Yes, yes, cilantro = coriander, people. (as I was told once when I WROTE A LETTER to the La Victoria people, asking why, while they featured 'cilantro' as one of the main flavors in their salsa, it was not listed as an ingredient. I had a lot of free time as a child.)

    And hopie, the parsley was actually really good. Mint sounds delicious, although then I'd *really* have to question its chermoula-ness. I'll also note that in pretty much any Claudia Roden cookbook, you'll find a recipe for some variety of 'salsa verde' for fish, with yummy things like pickles, capers, fresh herbs, and more. Definitely worth checking out, and, as far as I can remember, gloriously cilantro-free!

  4. Just when you think you know a person, you find out that she's even a bigger geek than you ever thought.

    It's a wonder that someone who can stomach whale sashimi has such issues with innocent little yummy green leaves.

  5. you didn't think it was possible, did you tsp?

  6. Of course you wouldn't have to call it chermoula if you tried it with mint... you could just call it "hello there yumminess" ;-)

    Claudia Roden looks great! I'll have to check out one of her books in a bookstore (not just on the internet).

  7. did you know that I loathe cilantro? I never knew we were kindred spirits in this way. the meal looks delish by the way.

  8. Hi Tannaz,

    This sounds really yummy - I wish I cooked more! By the way, it was great meeting you at CSCA.