Crispy Chermoula Salmon and Couscous Salad

Making your own spice mixes and pastes seems overwhelming for midweek cooking, especially when you can save yourself the hassle and just buy something in a jar off the shelf. However, if you’re like me (and if you’re reading a food blog, you probably are) you like to make your own when you can because you know what is going into your food and you know you can’t beat the flavour of something you have made fresh yourself. Truth be told, making your own mixes and pastes is an effortless affair when you have a decent food processor to do the busy work for you. This chermoula paste could not be simpler; you could skip the extra minute it takes to toast the whole spices before adding them to the food processor if you were feeling particularly impatient, but to do so would see you miss out on the smoky warmth that this simple step gives your marinade.

Chermoula is a paste used as a marinade or relish prominent in Algerian, Libyan, Moroccan and Tunisian cuisine. While it is traditionally used to flavour seafood, it can be used on meats and vegetables, too. The first time I had chermoula it was as a relish pasted onto grilled lamb cutlets after they had been cooked – a herb sauce as opposed to a marinade. While chermoula pastes can vary from region to region, you will find garlic, cumin, coriander and lemon in almost every mixture.

Here, the chermoula is used as a thick textured marinade. You will notice the spices are toasted but not ground and I think it is important to retain the texture of the whole spices in this recipe; the coriander seeds, especially, cling to the salmon flesh and give a burst of spice when you crush them while eating that you don’t get with ground spices. The salmon is grilled in this recipe – not baked, but grilled under the griller element of the oven – which cooks the salmon flesh tenderly in around 7 minutes while producing a satisfyingly crispy bronze skin. Be sure to press as much of the chermoula paste into the salmon flesh sides and base before grilling, but remove excess paste from the skin to prevent burning.

The couscous salad is purposely not complicated with excess flavours from spices or stock as the chermoula marinade of the salmon really carries across the whole dish. Instead, the freshness of the cucumber, fresh herbs and tangy yoghurt cut through the complex spices, not to mention the sweet and sharp bursts of those ruby pomegranate jewels.

After experimenting with grilling salmon for this recipe, I think this is the only way I will cook crispy skinned salmon from this point on. I think you’ll be impressed with how perfectly it cooks through, too.

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CRISPY CHERMOULA SALMON AND COUSCOUS SALAD
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 salmon fillets, equal sized, skin on

For the Chermoula Paste:

  • 1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 3 long green chillis
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 piece fresh ginger (3cm length), peeled
  • 1/2 large bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves and stalks
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh mint, leaves and stalks
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh coriander, leaves and stalks
  • 1 lemon, zest and juice
  • 1 big pinch of kosher sea salt flakes (eg Maldon)
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

For the Couscous Salad

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 Lebanese cucumber, diced
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh mint leaves
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh parsley leaves
  • 1/2 large bunch fresh coriander leaves
  • 400g tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 80g pine nuts, toasted
  • seeds from one pomegranate

For the yoghurt dressing

  • 1/2 cup natural yoghurt (I like the creamy consistency of Tamar Valley Greek Style)
  • 1 garlic clove, finely minced
  • juice from 1/2 lemon
  • pinch of salt

METHOD

Prepare the Chermoula Paste and Salmon:

Toast the whole cumin and coriander seeds and the paprika together in a dry pan over high heat until slightly toasted and aromatic.

Place the toasted herbs into a food processor with all the remaining ingredients for the paste mix except for the oil.

Blitz on high speed while slowly adding the oil to the processor to form a thick paste.

Empty the paste into a large freezer or zip lock bag.

Place the salmon in the bag with the chermoula paste. Close the bag securely and use your hands to smoosh the paste all over the salmon. Set aside to marinade for 30 minutes or longer in the fridge. If marinading in the fridge for longer, be sure to bring the salmon to room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.

To cook the salmon:

Light the grill on your oven.

Line a baking tray with aluminium foil. Place a wire rack over the foil in the tray. Oil the rack with olive oil or cooking spray.

Place the salmon, skin side up, on the wire rack. Use a knife or spoon to remove the excess paste from the skin but try to press as much paste into the sides and base of the fish as you can – you want these flavours and texture!

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Place under the grill for about 6 – 8 minutes or until the skin of the salmon has browned and turned crispy, being careful not to burn it. (Mine was perfect at 7 minutes).

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Remove from the oven and use an egg slide to carefully lift the salmon from the rack. The salmon will be succulent and tender so be careful and gentle when lifting.

Serve atop the couscous salad with a dollop of yoghurt.

To make the salad:

Place the couscous in a large bowl with a tablespoon of butter. Pour over the boiling water. Cover and set aside for about 5 minutes or until the liquid has been absorbed.

Fluff up the cooked couscous with a fork.

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Add the cucumber, chickpeas and chopped leaves.

Sprinkle over the pomegranate seeds and pine nuts.

To make the yoghurt sauce:

Combine the salt, lemon juice and garlic in a small bowl. Check for flavour and add more salt, juice or garlic if you wish.

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Maltese Open Sandwich

When I think about visiting my grandparents for lunch, hobz biz-zejt (a Maltese open sandwich) features highly in my memories. Simple and rustic as it may be, the joy is in the making: gathering around a table laden with crusty bread, oil, tuna, olives, pickled onions, capers, all hands on deck as you become an elite sandwich artist. There would be noise and laughter to garnish the lunch, hands passing dishes across the table every which way, and then a brief hush as mouths and stomachs become fuller. It is so simple to throw together that it is not even worthy of being called cooking, let alone a recipe. My husband, who would be the first to say that the kitchen isn’t his most comfortable domain, can make this with confidence, and it’s one of those lunches that he requests quite regularly.

Hobz biz-zejt literally translates to ‘bread with oil’ and that is pretty much the basis of this sandwich. It is to Malta what bruschetta is to Italy. In my opinion, if you don’t end up with oily sticky hands and drop bits of tuna and stray capers all over the place while you are eating, then you’re not doing it properly. This is a hands-on sandwich so relish the making as much as you savour the eating. This is also a good way to use day-old continental bread as it is pressed into extra virgin olive oil and spread with tomato paste, what the Maltese call kunserva, before being topped with tinned fish which has been stored in its own oil or brine. You don’t want bread that can’t handle the oil without becoming soggy and falling apart. My grandmother would often use the oil from the tinned tuna or from the jar of preserved olives in place of extra virgin as it would already be packed with flavour. She would also preference rubbing her oiled bread with fresh tomato in place of the kunserva whereas I prefer to be slightly heavy handed with the tomato paste.

The first time I visited Malta in 1997, hobz biz-zejt rolls were being sold at the counter at what I believe was the first and only McDonalds at the time in Valletta. You would see men at the social clubs playing cards and eating this sandwich with a bottle of Kinnie. When I went back a second time in the winter of 2006, my great auntie would buy a big Maltese ring loaf of bread, called a ftira, slice it in half through the middle, turn it into a big hobz biz-zejt donut and then grill it in a convection oven. This was the first and only time I have eaten it toasted and while I have often thought about grilling my sandwich, usually I am too impatient to waste precious eating time.

If you are lucky enough to be able to find a small Maltese cheese known as gbejniet, these are a perfect accompaniment to the open sandwich. They are hard to find in Australia with many Maltese people starting to make their own and either eating them fresh, which has the consistency of a cross between ricotta and silken tofu, or drying and peppering them to preserve in vinegar and oil. When they are dried and preserved, they take on a more rubbery crumbly consistency and the vinegary flavour is more pronounced. My mother and my auntie are both going through a gbejniet making phase at the moment, so I am enjoying my hobz biz-zejt more when I am lucky to have a few of these small cheeses thrown in my direction.

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HOBZ BIZ-ZEJT
Maltese Open Sandwich
Serves 1

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 generous slices of crusty continental bread
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • Tinned tuna, in oil
  • 2 – 3 Tablespoons tomato paste, or one ripe tomato cut in half
  • 1 Tablespoon capers
  • 2 – 3 Tablespoons fresh basil, roughly shredded
  • Cracked fresh black pepper, to taste
  • 1 small Lebanese cucumber, quartered
  • Pickled onions, olives and/or giardiniera
  • 1 gbejniet – if you can find one!

METHOD

Drizzle the extra virgin olive oil onto a large dinner plate and swirl the plate to move the oil evenly around the plate.

Press each slice of bread onto the plate to absorb all of the oil, then press the oiled sides of bread together to ensure the oil is evenly distributed.

Spread the tomato paste over the oiled sides of the bread, or if you want to be like my Nanna, rub and squeeze fresh tomato over the bread to spread the seeds and juices.

Drain the tuna and spread evenly on top of the tomato-dressed bread.

Sprinkle over with capers, cracked pepper, torn fresh basil leaves, and drizzle with a little extra olive oil.

Finish your plate with a generous serve of olives, pickled onions and/or giardiniera, and the fresh crisp cucumber quarters on the side.

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