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Moroccan herb sauce charmoula gives eggplant a kick

Eggplant and charmoula: A Moroccan-inspired dish from Paula Wolfert that can be served with pita or as a side to a meat entree.
Eggplant and charmoula: A Moroccan-inspired dish from Paula Wolfert that can be served with pita or as a side to a meat entree. Ecco

I tasted charmoula (also spelled chermoula) for the first time when noted Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert came to teach at my cooking school many years ago. If you haven’t encountered this North African pungent herb sauce, you are in for a treat when you do.

Traditionally this mix of fresh cilantro, garlic and aromatic spices such as cumin, paprika and black or hot red pepper, bound together with lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil, is served as both a marinade and a sauce for cooked fish.

“There is no one recipe for charmoula,” Wolfert, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, writes in The Food of Morocco. “In Marrakech, a cook might add some ginger to the spice mix. In Agadir, creamed onions are often added. In Tetouan, a little hot red pepper oil, and in Tangier, our housekeeper always added a little thyme.”

We can use it Moroccan-style as a marinade for fish, and for poultry or lamb. It can be a finishing sauce that is spooned over grilled fish or shellfish or stirred into a fish soup. As a dressing, it’s excellent on grilled vegetables as well as on bean, potato or grain salads.

As Wolfert says, the variations on this theme are endless: Some use only cilantro while others include fresh parsley or mint; others use slivers of preserved lemon or grated onion. Some have sweet spices such as cinnamon and ginger, and some include saffron.

Once you get the basic sauce down, experiment with different flavors and think about how the sauce will work with different foods and cooking techniques. I think it’s great with all sorts of other dishes, such as roasted cauliflower, roasted winter squash or chicken.

Charmoula is one of these great sauces that require you to do nothing more than put all the ingredients in a food processor and whiz them until the mixture is still a little rough and not fully pureed, similar to pesto. It will taste even better if you make it an hour or so in advance to let the flavors develop.

Wolfert, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, is the focus of Unforgettable: Bold Flavors From a Renegade Life, slated to be published in spring 2017. The book is being funded through Kickstarter, with additional proceeds benefiting Alzheimer’s research. Visit kickstarter.com for more information.

Carole Kotkin is manager of the Ocean Reef Club cooking school.

Eggplant Smothered with Charmoula

This recipe calls for two-step cooking. First you bake the eggplant slices, then fry them in oil. Serve as a first course with triangles of hot pita bread or pair it with a hearty meat dish. A fruity and spicy 2012 Rodney Strong Knotty Vines Estate Zinfandel ($25) has the weight to be in sync with the charmoula spices and meaty eggplant. Serves 4.

2 medium eggplant (about 1 1/2 pounds)

Coarse salt

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

Pinch of cayenne

3/4 teaspoon ground cumin

2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt

Slice the eggplant into 3/4-inch-thick rounds and sprinkle lightly on both sides with salt. Place in a nonaluminum colander, cover with a paper towel or a cloth, and weight down with a heavy pot or cans. Let stand for 30 minutes, or until the eggplant exude their bitter juices.

Heat oven to 350. To make the charmoula: Whisk together the garlic, paprika, cayenne, cumin, half of the cilantro and parsley, the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and salt to taste in a small bowl; set aside to mellow.

Pat the eggplant slices dry with paper towels and lightly brush each slice with olive oil. Spread them in a single layer on an oiled baking sheet and bake until tender and golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a medium skillet over high heat. Add the eggplant slices one by one to the hot oil and fry until crisp and browned on both sides, about 30 seconds per side. Drain on paper towels and transfer to a shallow serving dish.

Whisk the charmoula once more and drizzle over the eggplant. Sprinkle the remaining cilantro and parsley on top. Let stand for 1 hour, then serve.

Per serving: 185 calories (72 percent from fat), 12 g fat, (2.2 g saturated fat, 11.1 g monounsaturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g protein, 11.7 g carbohydrates, 5.6 g fiber, 120 mg sodium.

Source: Adapted from “The Food of Morocco” by Paula Wolfert (Ecco, $45).

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