Los Angeles has some of the best Chinese, Korean, Thai, Persian and Armenian food outside their respective countries, but so far, northern African and eastern Mediterranean food has been relatively absent, until October 16-17. That’s when Ecole de Cuisine Pasadena (ECP) and Chef Farid Zadi hold the first annual Couscous Festival. They’ll feature seminars from Paula Wolfert, Clifford Wright, Charles Perry, and Faye Levy, plus tastes of regional classics like tagines, Algerian “pizza,” Spanish escabeches and Turkish coffee, and of course pile upon pile of pillowy couscous
On September 23, Zadi and wife Susan Park, who run Ecole de Cuisine together, hosted a small group of journalists at a contemporary barn-like building in east Pasadena. Park, an expert on northern African and Mediterranean cuisine in her own right, began with an overview of the different types of tagines, the conical cooking vessels that originated in north African nations like Morocco and Algeria, are crafted from clay and require a water soak and/or curing before use. Ecole de Cuisine also incorporates Le Creuset cast-iron tagines, Japanese Nabe tagines and fragile Portuguese terra cotta tagines. The word tagine means “pan.”
Park said that in modern-day Morocco, a lot of home cooks prefer pressure cookers, since it’s lower maintenance. In a pressure cooker, the meat and onions are sautéed first and more water is necessary. A tagine made of clay requires less or no water because steam condenses on the sides and runs back down into the pan, serving as a “self- basting mechanism.”
We moved into the kitchen, where Chef Zadi presented steamed couscous, which should be “nice and fluffy,” with no lumps. Couscous is a base for the tagine. Begin by adding either salt or raisins and sugar, depending on whether you want the couscous savory or sweet. Then drizzle on olive oil. Zadi prefers north African olive oil.
Zadi was born near Lyon, France, and raised on a diet of fresh baked bread, river fish, frog legs and Charolais beef. He moved to Paris and went to culinary school, traveled the world and ended up in Pasadena, where he was an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu prior to starting the new school with his wife, which will begin its Professional Skills Course on October 19, 2010.
Zadi happily provided ingredient lists for each of his tagines, but no recipes. Those must be reserved for students. Anyway, he prepared rabbit and beef cheek tagines prior to our arrival, which are available in his homeland “if you’re rich.” For our eyes, he demonstrated how to prepare seafood tagine. “It is easy and complex to make a tagine,” says Zadi. “There is a lot of preparation involved, you build the flavor.”
He started by drizzling a little olive oil in the pan, added minced white onion and a pinch of garlic, saying, “It’s okay if you get a bit of color.” He added squid, clams and mussels (in their shells). Then came water, instead of stock, so “you get the flavor of the seafood itself.” In dropped a few precious strands of saffron and diced tomato.
Next up was the harissa, a spicy chile sauce. Zadi said you want a “shorter dried pepper that will give you the heat.” He went with guajillo. “You want to soak chilies in water, add garlic and saffron,” plus roasted tomatoes and roasted bell peppers. Puree, strain and add lemon juice.
Season the seafood tagine with fresh ground black pepper and close the lid for 3-4 minutes. Add fish fillets, either Dover sole or monkfish, for the flavor and since “it takes no time to cook.”
At the end of the cooking demo, I asked why they think north African cuisine is so rare in Los Angeles. Zadi said it’s a matter of demographics, since immigrants chose to live in places like Detroit, D.C., Northern California and Montreal instead. Park added that “People have exoticized the cuisine so much that they think it’s too hard.”
We moved to the communal table near the entrance of the building, where we enjoyed lunch, passing around couscous, harissa and a trio of different tagines, including seafood, beef cheek (pictured below) and rabbit with Marcona almonds and prunes (pictured above).
Zadi is making a whole lamb mechoui, a roast that requires five hours in the smoker with burning orange wood and apple wood. He’s sourcing the lamb from Riverside County since “it has a milder flavor or more tender texture than the average lamb found in stores here.” He’ll rub the inside of the lamb with North African spices, herbs, aromatics and extra virgin olive oil. The skin receives a spice and extra virgin olive oil rub. Bonus: “The offal will be served to handful of attendees on a first come, first serve basis.”
He’ll also serve merguez sandwiches, made using a recipe that Zadi learned at his uncle’s butcher shop in France. “I am using natural casings and my blend of merguez spices,” says Zadi. “The secret to a perfect merguez is the spices and the right ratio of meat and fat. There also has to be hard fat added, this absolutely critical for texture and flavor. The merguez will be cooked on a big, natural wood grill.”
The Couscous Festival will also feature rarely seen spices, condiments and preserved foods, which will all be available for purchase. Tickets cost $20 per person and include $15 in food coupons.