Guest chef Halima!
Question: So what does someone who was born in Algeria, raised in Brazil and Cuba, and schooled in France make for a casual dinner at home?
Answer: Amazing food that's fast, simple, and an absolute riot of flavours.
Halima, an old college neighbour of Philippe's in Marseille, came to stay with us for 10 days last week as her first venture into Asia. Not that you could tell it was her first trip to the region - by the second day she was ordering kopi like a local, ravenously wolfing down curry puffs (6 in one sitting!) and launching into philosophical discussions with our neighbourhood food reflexologist.
Like a good cultural ambassador though, Halima decided to share some of her own home cooking, and subsequently took over our currently much neglected kitchen to whip up a casual Sunday dinner at home. The dishes came from all over the world, but were united in that they all represented some form of comfort food to her.
This was our menu for the evening, together with the primary regional influence:
- Mechoui ya - Grilled pepper and tomato salad. A traditional Algerian dish that can be found in any household
- Guacamole - South American
- Cucumber and yoghurt salad - Mediterranean
- Beef keftas - North African
- Grilled eggplant and tomato salad - Mediterranean
Like most traditional home cooking, many of the recipes can be modified in various ways - a bit of garlic there, some onions here - and none of them need any precise measuring of ingredients or even a specific cooking method - it's all to taste. But here's our version, enjoy!
Mechoui ya (Grilled pepper and tomato salad)
As a prime example of how dishes can be modified, mechoui ya simply means 'grilled salad' - anything goes.
Start by grilling red and green peppers. I usually throw my peppers directly on the gas flame until they're charred, then chuck them in a plastic bag to steam up for a while before slicing.
Halima's approach was similar but with more drama - fill a frying pan with a fairly deep layer of oil, add the peppers, then cover with a tight fitting lid. Smaller peppers work best for this. The hot oil will pop and splatter over the inside of the lid, thereby searing the rest of the pepper not sitting directly on the frying pan. If necessary for a more even charring, turn the peppers over after a few minutes and repeat. Just be sure the oil has stopped exploding before you do that!
Gorgeously charred peppers
We'll end up peeling the skin off anyway, so get your peppers nice and burnt on the outside so they'll be tender on the inside.
Toss the hot peppers into a plastic bag, and seal to let steam. Once it's cooled down, you can easily peel the burnt skin off, and your peppers will be nice and soggy... like this!
Soggy peppers ready for eating
Last step, slice the peppers, throw in some chopped tomatoes and red onions, dress liberally with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Let sit for an hour or so for the juices to mix, and then you're set!
Aside from being very pretty and incredibly tasty, the salad can also keep for a while, perfect for preparing in advance or for making something on the weekend to set aside for fuss-free weekday dinners.
Mush up an avocado or two with a fork, add chopped garlic, some salt, lemon juice and olive oil, and you're done! Cream optional.
Sliced cucumbers, Greek yoghurt, pinch of pounded garlic and olive oil. Because of the yoghurt, the salad can have a strong sour aftertaste if you eat it straight away, but this disappears once you've let the salad rest a while (in our case, in as much time as it took to run to the cinema to watch The Devil Wears Prada before returning for dinner, but in reality probably much less - I'm guessing an hour would suffice).
In our case, approximately 2 stalks of parsley, freshly chopped, and one red onion to 600g of minced beef. I know parsley is rarely considered the coolest herb, but it's really surprisingly how a generous dollop of fresh parsley can transform a dish. Philippe's a big fan and I'm a convert now as well - in salads, with fish, and now with red meat.
You can add an egg as well, which would give the impression of more tender beef.
Shape into mini-burger sized patties...
...then fry or grill till nice and browned.
Our final additional dish was an eggplant and tomato salad, very simply, eggplant charred on a gas flame with the skin subsequently peeled off, then tossed with chopped tomatoes and a generous amount of finely chopped garlic. As it was a last minute addition, we ate this warm as opposed to the chilled pepper salad, and the contrast nicely brought out the different flavours.
A slice of dark rye bread to soak up all the juices, and your tummy is set on a trip around half the world. Total cooking time for everything: an hour, tops. You spend more time at the table with your fork suspended in mid-air, trying to pull yourself away from one dish to try another - it's all fantastically yummy, guaranteed. Best of all, it's so simple, even the worst kitchen dummy couldn't muck up, yet plated nicely or upsized for a larger dinner party, could be incredibly elegant and/or exotic as well.
Merci Chef Halima :)