Friday, September 11, 2009


I've only met three Algerians in my life and they all lived in Hanoi while I was there teaching English. One of them is a good friend of mine. Another is her brother. And the other one beat me up in a dark alley after an evening of frenzied drinking and foolish decisions. Aside from that one incident, I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Algerians are as wonderful as their food.

Algerian cuisine is the perfect combination of two of my favorite cooking styles: North African and French. This is the result of over a century of brutal colonial rule by the French that finally came to an end in the 1960's. Like many countries, Algeria's independence was immediately followed by years of corruption, civil war, and violence that finally simmered away less than a decade ago. Fortunately, an amazing cuisine has survived the rocking of the Casbah that can be enjoyed by any foodie.

Unfortunately, we don't see much Algerian cuisine here in the States, and most of the literature on Algeria's food has been published in French. However, cookbook author Paula Wolfert includes a few recipes in Mediterranean Cooking that we were able to use as a starting point for our cooking. And nearly all the ingredients are readily available at either a supermarket or better yet a Middle Eastern or Indian grocery. After much perusing of recipes we settled on a menu consisting of eggplant and yogurt salad, chicken and chickpea tagine, and potato gruyere croquettes.

Eggplant and Yogurt Salad:
This was a very simple recipe. The only change I would make to my preparation is to use baby eggplant instead of the giant eggplant that we had on hand. We used homemade yogurt and were pleased with the results. Here's a recipe for those who want to start growing their own yogurt cultures, for everybody else store bought plain yogurt works fine.

1.5 lbs eggplant cut into 1 inch cubes
1 cup yogurt
2 cloves minced garlic
2 tbsps chopped mint
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil for frying

1. Heat oil in skillet over medium and add eggplant and cook on medium low heat for about 15 minutes until tender.
2. Drain eggplant on paper towels, combine with remaining ingredients in a large bowl, cover and chill before serving.

Chicken and Chickpea Tagine:
With the eggplant in the fridge we started working on the chicken tagine. We used an actual clay tagine that was given to me by my good friend Justin. If you don't have a fancy tagine, it's fine to just use a cast iron pot:

1 chicken cut into serving portions
2 tablespoons butter
2 onions grated and drained
1 clove garlic minced
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/3 tsp cayenne
2 cups cooked chickpeas
1 cup water
salt and pepper

1. Melt the butter in the pot and brown the chicken on all sides over medum heat. I had to do this in two stages because the chicken I used was rather large.
2. Add the onions, garlic, spices and cook covered for about five minutes.
3. Add 1 cup of water and increase to a boil, reduce and simmer covered for 1 hour

4. Remove the chicken to a plate and finish boiling the sauce until reduced by one half.
5. Place chicken back into the sauce, remove from heat and serve!

Potato Gruyere Croquettes:

While the bird was braising in the tagine we made these croquettes to accompany the meal.

2 lbs potatoes peeled and quartered
1 clove garlic
1 cup gruyere cheese
2 tbsps chopped parsley
1 grated onion drained
1 large pinch of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
flour for dredging
oil for frying

1. Boil potatoes until tender and then mash them or pass through a ricer if you have one.
2. Allow potatoes to cool slightly and add remaining ingredients except of course the flour and oil.
3. Roll potatoes into 2 inch balls, dust with flour, and shallow fry in a centimeter of oil until they are brown on all sides. You'll have to do this in batches unless you have a giant pan and a lot of oil and mix thoroughly.
4. Drain the croquettes on paper towels and bring them to the table with everything else. The cooking has finished!

The meal in retrospect:
Sadly the meal was rushed due to the our desire to watch the opening game of the NFL season and some horrible mistakes were made along the way. Our good semi-vegetarian friend, Drew came over and I attempted to make him a simple bulgur, lentil, and rice soup in place of the tagine. Sadly the burners on our tiny stove are way too close to one another and the soup burned to carbon next to the mighty heat of the frying croquettes. So Drew ended up eating more croquettes than he'd bargained for. I'm sorry, Drew. That's him in the yellow:

On the plus side we are getting better at photographing the food. The food pictures above look much nicer mainly because we've stopped using the flash in our kitchen. Below is a picture of what the food looks like when photographed with a flash. Compare it with the others to decide which looks better. Still our kitchen looks mighty orange at night. This is because we have yet to install overhead lighting and are currently using a desk lamp to light the whole room. Renovations should be completed in the near future. Andorra's next! Until then, fisehatak!

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