The Mediterranean countries include France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal along the north; Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel on the east; the African countries of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco on the south and the Mediterranean Island Countries of Cyprus and Malta. The Mediterranean countries utilize many of the same healthy ingredients but each country has a unique way of creating recipes with those same ingredients. So far in this series, I have written about Mediterranean cuisine in general and about the cuisine in the countries of Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
This series continues with the country of Algeria.
Algeria is located in North Africa on the Mediterranean Sea and this fertile northern region is home to the olive and cork trees. Fig, agave, and various palm trees grow in the warmer areas. Central Algeria consists of the High Plateaus that contain salt marshes and shallow salt lakes. The land becomes more arid the farther south one travels, eventually becoming the Sahara Desert. Roughly 80 percent of the country is desert and camels are widely used for transportation. The coastal region has a typical Mediterranean climate—pleasant nearly year round, with winter temperatures rarely falling below freezing (32°F). Rainfall is also abundant along the coast. Farther inland, higher altitudes receive considerable frost and occasional snow. Little or no rainfall occurs throughout the summer months in this region. In the Sahara Desert, rainfall is unpredictable and unevenly distributed.
Algerian food is a mix of various influences, from Berber to Arabic to French to Jewish. Most cooking is centered around spicy couscous which is served with long-simmered meats and stews. Algerian meals are often finished with dates and fresh fruit. Algerian ingredients are essentially Mediterranean, including lamb, chicken, tomatoes, olives, peppers, eggplant, lentils, oranges and lemons. Spicy Algerian merguez sausage is famous around the world.
Algerian cuisine traces its roots to various countries and ancient cultures that once ruled, visited, or traded with the country. Berber tribesmen were one of the country’s earliest inhabitants. Their arrival, which extends as far back as 30,000 B.C., marked the beginning of wheat cultivation, smen (aged, cooked butter), and fruit consumption, such as dates. The introduction of semolina wheat by the Carthaginians (who occupied much of northern Africa) led the Algeria Berbers to first create couscous, Algeria’s national dish. The Romans, who eventually took over Algeria, also grew various grains. Muslim Arabs invaded Algeria in the 600s, bringing exotic spices such as saffron, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon from the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia. They also introduced the Islamic religion to the Berbers. Islam continues to influence almost every aspect of an Algerian life, including the diet.
Olives (and olive oil) and fruits such as oranges, plums, and peaches were brought across the Mediterranean from Spain during an invasion in the 1500s. Sweet pastries from the Turkish Ottomans and tea from European traders also made their way into Algerian cuisine.
In the early 1800s, Algerians were forced to surrender their farmland to the French. The French introduced their diet and culture to the Algerians, including bread and sidewalk cafés. This French legacy remains evident in Algerian with the French language being the country’s second language.
Tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, and chilies were brought over from the New World.
Sources: WHATS4EATS INTERNATIONAL RECIPES AND COOKING AROUND THE WORLD and Food in Every Country
Chakchouka is a traditional Algerian dish that’s mainly eaten for breakfast. Traditionally, the main ingredients in Chakchouka include sautéed onions, tomatoes and various spices topped with a few eggs. This meal is served with a side of bread, pita or rice.
NORTH AFRICAN EGGS POACHED IN A PEPPER RAGOUT
4 to 6 servings
Olive oil — 3 tablespoons
Paprika — 1 to 2 tablespoons
Onion, thinly sliced — 1
Garlic, minced — 2 to 3 cloves
Tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced — 3
Green and red bell peppers, diced — 2 to 3
Water — 1 cup
Salt and pepper — to taste
Eggs (optional) — 4
Heat the oil in a deep skillet over medium flame. Stir in the paprika and cook slightly to color the oil, about 10 to 15 seconds. Add the onions and garlic and sauté until the onions are translucent and wilted but not browned, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and cook for 3 to 4 minutes to reduce down a little bit. Add the peppers, water and salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes. Add more water as needed to keep it from drying out.
Using a spoon, form four small indentations in the simmering peppers to hold the eggs. One by one, crack the eggs into a small bowl and slip each from the bowl into an indentation. Cover and simmer for another 10 minutes or so until eggs are cooked through.
Serve with crusty bread, pita or rice.
Add 1 teaspoon of cumin seed to the hot oil for about 15 seconds before you add the paprika. Add 2 to 3 teaspoons of ground coriander along with the onions.
For a little spice, sauté 1 tablespoon of harissa paste or a minced chile pepper with the onions.
Sometimes fresh shrimp or a spicy lamb sausage called merguez is added to the simmering peppers along with the eggs.
Add 1 small, diced eggplant along with the peppers.
Add 1 potato, cut in a small dice, along with the peppers.
Sprinkle the top of the cooked dish with chopped parsley or cilantro.
Add a few olives and capers and eliminate the eggs. Chill and serve garnished with hard-boiled eggs or tuna.
Couscous is considered the national dish of Algeria, This dish is composed of small pellets of steamed semolina pasta topped with meat, vegetables, and various spices. In Algeria, the most popular meat and vegetable accompaniments for this meal include chicken, carrots, and chickpeas. Although a rather simple dish, Couscous offers considerable freedom in its selection of ingredients.
NORTH AFRICAN STEAMED PASTA GRAINS
4 to 6 servings
Couscous — 2 cups
Salt — 1/2 teaspoon
Boiling water or stock — 2 cups
Mix the couscous and salt together in a large bowl. Pour the boiling water or stock over into the bowl all at once and stir in well.
Cover the bowl with a tight-fitting lid or with plastic wrap and set aside for about 10 to 15 minutes to steam.
Remove the cover and fluff the couscous with a fork. Stir in 1 tablespoon of butter or olive oil if you like.
Harira is a traditional North African soup and recipes for this dish vary from region to region but in Algeria, Harira is often composed of lamb simmered with vegetables, spices, and herbs.
NORTH AFRICAN LAMB AND CHICKPEA STEW
6 to 8 servings
Olive oil or butter — 1/4 cup
Lamb, cubed for stews — 1 pound
Onion, chopped — 1 large
Celery, chopped — 2 stalks
Turmeric — 1 teaspoon
Cinnamon — 1 teaspoon
Ground ginger — 1/2 teaspoon
Nutmeg — 1/4 teaspoon
Saffron — big pinch
Tomatoes, chopped — 2 cups
Water or stock — 2 quarts
Chickpeas, cooked and drained — 2 cups
Lentils — 1/2 cup
Salt and pepper — to taste
Cilantro, chopped — 1/2 cup
Parsley, chopped — 1/2 cup
Lemons, cut into wedges — 2
Heat the oil or butter in a large pot over medium-high flame. Add the lamb and brown on all sides. Remove the meat to a plate and set aside.
Reduce heat to medium and add the onions and celery. Sauté until the onions are translucent, 4-5 minutes. Add the spices and sauté for another 1-2 minutes.
Stir in the tomatoes and cook for 3-4 minutes. Pour in the stock and return the meat to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 45 minutes.
Add the chickpeas, lentils, salt, and pepper and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until the lentils cooked through and tender.
Adjust seasoning, stir in the cilantro and parsley and serve with lemon wedges for each diner to squeeze into their stew as desired.
Meats: Substitute cubed chicken or beef for the lamb. Or eliminate the meat altogether for a vegetarian version.
Sometimes 2 or 3 beaten eggs are stirred into the stew at the end to make ribbons of egg in the broth.
Add 1 cup soup pasta toward the end. Or add 1 cup of rice along with the lentils. You may need to add a little more water.
Mechoui comes from an Arabic word meaning “roast on a fire,” and like its namesake, the meal is prepared in much the same way. This dish is composed of meat spiced and roasted over a fire that is usually served at large gatherings. In the Algerian variation, the meat is roasted on a spit giving the meat a crispy, grilled flavor.
NORTH AFRICAN SPIT-ROASTED LAMB
6 to 8 servings
Leg of lamb — 1 whole
Olive oil — 1/3 cup
Garlic, minced — 8 cloves
Paprika — 2 tablespoons
Coriander — 2 tablespoons
Cumin — 1 tablespoon
Salt and pepper — to season
Unsalted butter, melted — 6 tablespoons
Trim any excess fat from the lamb, but leave enough to protect and moisten the meat. Mix the olive oil with the garlic, cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper and rub this mixture all over the meat. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours.
Set up the rotisserie (in front of the fire, not over it) and rotate the spit slowly for 4 to 5 hours, or until all the meat is cooked through, moist and tender. Salt the meat from time to time and baste it periodically with melted butter to encourage a crispy skin. Remove the spit from the fire and let the meat rest. Then use clean hands to remove the meat from the bones and onto serving platters.
Preheat the oven to 300°F. Place the leg of lamb on a rack in a roasting pan big enough to fit it. Add 1/2 cup of water to the pan and cover the pan with aluminum foil. Set the pan in the oven and roast for 4 to 5 hours, or until the meat is cooked through and starting to fall off the bone.
Increase oven temperature to 450°F. Remove foil and return pan to oven. Roast for another 15 to 30 minutes, basting every 5 minutes or so with the melted butter until the surface of the lamb is browned and crisp. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil and set aside to rest for around 30 minutes.
Remove the lamb to a serving platter. Strain any pan juices into a bowl or gravy boat and serve on the side. Serve with bread or couscous and a simple salad. Diners can help themselves to the meat by pinching off portions from the platter.
North African Spice Blend: For a more complex flavor, add a spoonful of ras el hanout spice blend to the paprika, coriander, and cumin listed above.
Makroud is a traditional Algerian dessert. This pastry is composed of a date or almond stuffing and dipped in a sugar syrup or honey. Makroud are also eaten with coffee for breakfast. They will keep for over a month stored in a well-sealed container.
ALGERIAN ALMOND COOKIES
Makes 20 to 24 cookies
Almonds, whole, blanched — 1 1/4 pound
Sugar — 1 cup
Eggs, beaten lightly — 2
Water — 2 cups
Sugar — 1/2 cup
Orange flower water — 1 tablespoon
Powdered (confectioners) sugar — 3 cups
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place the almonds and sugar in a food processor and process until the almonds are finely pulverized. Remove to a bowl.
Make a well in the center of the almonds and stir in the eggs with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. Then knead the dough with clean hands until smooth.
Cut the dough into 4 equal portions and remove to a floured work surface. Roll one portion out into a rope about 3/4 inch in diameter. Press down with your palm to flatten the rope to about 1/2-inch thickness. Cut the rope on a diagonal into 1-inch pieces and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Bake cookies for about 12 to 15 minutes, or until they are lightly browned on top. Remove to racks and cool completely.
While the cookies bake, bring the water and 1/2 cup sugar to a rapid boil in a saucepan over high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar and let boil for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature. Stir in the orange flower water.
Put powdered sugar in a large bowl. To finish, dip each cookie first in the sugar syrup to moisten. Then toss each cookie in the confectioner’s sugar to coat well. Shake off the extra sugar, place on a rack to dry and repeat with the rest of the cookies.
Add 1 tablespoon lemon zest to the almond dough.
If you are unable to find orange flower water to flavor the syrup, try using 1 teaspoon of lemon extract.