March is easily the hardest month, to my mind: Winter storms might yet bring harsh weather, just as our spirits begin to yearn for longer, warmer days. Cold and weary, we look eagerly now for the early noses of daffodils and crocus to poke through the last of the snow. Spring must surely come soon, we think.
My solution to a snow-stunned palate is to dapple my March menus with meals bright with herbs and still-seasonal citrus, dishes sturdy enough to nourish a winter-worn body but colorful enough to fill my eye with the hues of the season I hunger for.
This hearty fish and vegetable stew fills the need quite handily. Its complex, layered flavors draw on Morocco’s fascinating court cuisine, but only a couple of ingredients might not be in your pantry already. In Morocco, a tagine of fish would be served over a bed of couscous, and you certainly can serve this stew that way. In my kitchen, though, it tends to come out more as a stew, eaten from a big bowl, and yes, please, I’ll help myself to seconds.
Chermoula is what the Moroccans call the fragrant sauce that often accompanies fish. In a thicker variant, it might be used to stuff a whole roasted fish; loosened with a generous pour of olive oil, as here, it becomes a condiment much like Argentine chimichurri or Yemeni zhug.
Use it with any firm white fish that’s reasonably priced; I don’t care for basa (swai) or tilapia, two farm-raised fish that come from Indochina, most frequently, but if you like them, they’d work here as well.
FISH STEW WITH MOROCCAN FLAVORS
Prep: 25 minutes
Marinate: 1 1/2 hours
Cook: 50 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
A classic Moroccan chermoula doesn’t include mint, but I’ve added it here for its bright, springy flavor. You might not need all the sauce for the recipe; if you have some left over, it’s also a terrific marinade for chicken, and is a good accompaniment to beef or pork. While the vegetable stew will be delicious without the preserved lemon, it’s definitely worth the effort to find or make preserved lemons for their silky, salty contribution. (Use store-bought, or try the method below.)
For the sauce
½ bunch parley
½ bunch cilantro
½ cup fresh mint leaves, packed
3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon each: ground coriander, minced fresh ginger
½ teaspoon each: salt, cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, optional
Juice of 1 lemon
½ cup olive oil
For the stew
4 portions (4 to 6 ounces each) mild, firm white fish fillets or steaks, such as flounder, sole, halibut, catfish or sea bass
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced vertically
1 bell pepper, sliced
1 teaspoon each: salt, ground cumin
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 russet potato, peeled, thinly sliced
2 carrots, sliced diagonally
1 can (14 ½ ounces) diced tomatoes
Peel of 1 preserved lemon, cut into slivers, optional
½ cup pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano or Picholine, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons cinnamon
½ bunch parsley, finely chopped
1. For the sauce, combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender; whiz until well blended into a thick paste. Makes about 1¼ cups.
2. Use about half the paste to marinate the fish pieces. If your fish fillets are thin, as with flounder and sole, spread the uppermost side with the sauce, then fold into thirds. Refrigerate fish to marinate for 1 to 2 hours. Set remaining sauce aside.
3. Begin the vegetable stew: Heat olive oil over medium in a large, heavy skillet with a close-fitting lid. Add onion and peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until onions and peppers soften, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine salt, cumin and cayenne pepper; toss sliced potatoes in spice mixture until they are well-coated.
4. Add carrots, potatoes and diced tomatoes with their juices to the skillet. Stir to blend. Stir in preserved lemon, green olives, honey and cinnamon; bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a slow simmer. If the liquid seems to evaporate, add water to bring the mixture back to a stewy consistency.
5. When the vegetables are almost tender, 20-25 minutes, stir in chopped parsley. Nestle the fish portions into the vegetable stew, brushing with a little of their marinade if you wish. Re-cover the skillet, and cook until the fish is opaque but still moist, about 15 minutes.
6. To serve, divide the vegetable stew among four bowls. Top each portion of stew with fish. Pass additional sauce at table, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving: 404 calories, 27 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 12 g sugar, 16 g protein, 1,521 mg sodium, 6 g fiber
EASY PRESERVED LEMONS
Prep: 10 minutes
Marinate: 9 days
This method from Tribune archives is written by “Dinner at Home” columnist JeanMarie Brownson, Meyer lemons are good here – they are sweet and tender. Look for them at large specialty markets.
1. Scrub 2 whole lemons clean. Cut each lemon into wedges, leaving them attached at the stem end. Coat with a generous amount of coarse (kosher) salt. Pack tightly into a small glass jar; sprinkle with more salt. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice to come about halfway up the lemons. Put the lid on the jar.
2. Let stand at room temperature a couple of days, shaking the jar every day. Refrigerate about 1 week. Lemons will keep 3 months or more in the refrigerator, and the skins will get softer. Rinse off salt before using.