My pepper adventure continues......
Moroccan zaalouk is punchy, zesty, savoury, life-enhancing, a thick purée of aubergines and tomatoes served traditionally as part of a mezze selection. It is not much of a looker, but it makes up for this with bags of flavour, and some herbs and cherry tomatoes considerably enhance its appearance. There are as many recipes as there are cooks, and the spicing is very much a matter of taste. Cumin, paprika and chilli are fairly standard and having gingerly nibbled a Tasmanian Mountain Pepper berry recently, I set about combining its very specific talents with some very Mediterranean ingredients. I say gingerly because Steenbergs of Yorkshire rank it as a number 7, ie “fierce”, on their intensity scale. It takes a few seconds to kick in but once it has, eater beware! This intensity however is only present in the raw berry, and cooking tames its brutality and mellows it considerably.
Mountain Pepper is grown in the uplands of New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria, and Steenbergs describe its aroma as "sweet grass and pine woods, oily, turpentine, warming and hints of clementine" - for me, the citrus element is the most dazzling, followed by a wild and free herbiness, reminiscent of a hillside baked by the Mediterranean sun. The flavour, once cooked, is pungent but pleasantly so, sweet and fruity, with a hint of woodiness.
So back to the zaalouk. Mountain Pepper lifts it to greater heights, perhaps unnecessarily so since it really does not need elevating in any way – but the end result is undoubtedly delicious and very North African. It is quite a lengthy cooking process but it does not require much attention.
I like to use dried orange blossom flowers in the garnish – their flavour is delicate and partners well with the orange in the zaalouk itself. But some toasted pine nuts or flaked almonds work just as well.
It is possible to grind the inky black peppercorns in a conventional pepper grinder, but they are hard so an electric spice grinder makes things easier.
ZAALOUK WITH MOUNTAIN PEPPER
Serves 4 as part of a mezze selection
30 ml/2 tbsp coconut oil (not traditional but a good, stable oil for long slow cooking)
600 g/1 lb 6 oz aubergines/eggplants – about 2 medium-sized
2 fat garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
5 ml/1 tsp ground cinnamon
5 ml/1 tsp ground cumin
5 ml/1 heaped tsp Mountain Pepper, finely ground
275 g/10 oz ripe tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and coarsely chopped
15 ml/1 tbsp tomato purée
250 ml/1 cup water
1 orange, juice and grated rind
30 ml/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Fresh lemon juice - just a squeeze if the flavours need brightening
10 g/1/3 oz fresh basil or coriander, coarsely chopped
5 ml/1 tsp dried orange blossom flowers - (optional)
50 g/2 oz cherry tomatoes, quartered, to garnish (optional) – a mixture of red and yellow looks pretty
Fine sea salt
Heat the coconut oil in a wide, roomy frying pan. Top and tail the aubergines and remove and discard about half the skin in long strips with a vegetable peeler to give a striped effect – I find this improves the appearance of the zaalouk, as too much dark skin makes it look rather sinister – and then dice them coarsely. Add to the frying pan and cook over lowish heat, stirring often, for about 45 minutes to one hour, until the aubergines are soft and golden. Resist adding any more oil to the pan as the aubergines will absorb as much as you give them and the end result will be greasy. If the mixture starts sticking to the frying pan, stir in a tablespoon or two of water to loosen it.
Stir in the garlic and cook for a further five minutes before sprinkling in the spices and Mountain Pepper and cooking for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes and leave the mixture to continue cooking gently for ten minutes longer. Mix in the tomato purée, water, orange juice and rind and some salt, bring to a simmer and let it cook away until most of the moisture has evaporated and you have a thick mass. Remove from the heat, stir in the olive oil and mash briefly with a potato masher or large fork until you have a medium-chunky purée – it should not be totally smooth. Leave to cool.
Check and adjust the seasoning, adding a squeeze of lemon juice if the flavour is at all flat - it all depends on the acidity of the tomatoes. Scrape the zaalouk into a shallow bowl. Sprinkle with herbs, dried orange blossom flowers and cherry tomatoes before serving.
See also Chickpea, Roasted Pepper and Egg Salad with Cubeb Pepper; Tunisian Carrot Purée with Red Long Pepper; Tenderstem Broccoli with Ginger, Chilli and Timur Pepper; Indonesian Stir-Fried Prawns with Mango and Andaliman Pepper;