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Arabic fish stew with lemon and saffron and hot pepper rouille (Yakhnit samak)

A rouille is a Provencial sauce made from red chillies and garlic. It usually forms the base for the classic French stew, Bouillabaisse, but here is it used very creatively as the flavouring sauce. Traditionally, the sauce is thickened with breadcrumbs, but in this recipe, the chef uses potatoes that make the sauce silky smooth. The sauce is characterized by its saffron flavour that is accentuated with garlic and chilli. It is a mild and beautiful sauce that is either mixed into a dish when cooking or more probably used as a topping on soups and stews.

This recipe is a very traditional one that has been given a French touch by Chef Malouf. The stew is light, the tender fish is scented with saffron and other mild spices and loaded with perfectly cooked pearled pasta. The flavour comes from the rouille, silky and a touch of mild heat make this dish addictive. I was surprised that the pasta was added to the dish, rather than being served on the side, but it works beautifully. This is fine dining and the dish's subtlety will surprise your guests.

Greg and Lucy Malouf have travelled across the Middle East extensively, publishing several specialized cookbooks along their journey. This cookbook specializes in Syrian cuisine with a modern flair, a thick volume filled with amazing recipes, like this one, and photographs. I have cooked a few, definitely not enough, recipes from this book and each are spectacular. I need to complete the collection of their cookbooks, oh I wish I had a larger cookbook budget. This book is for those who are looking for spectacular Syrian cuisine.

For more delicious recipes from this cookbook click here.


For the rouille:

1/2 lb potatoes

1 1/2 cups water

5 cloves garlic, sliced

3-4 red chillies, or to taste, cut longitudinally and deseeded

A pinch of saffron

2 red bell peppers, roasted, stemmed and deseeded

Juice of 1/2 lime

Salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons oil

For the stew:

1/2 cup moghrabieh, or Israeli couscous

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, finely chopped

1 large leek, finely sliced

1 bay leaf

4 cloves garlic, minced

A small pinch of saffron threads

1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

2 tomatoes, finely chopped

1 red chilli, finely diced, with seeds for additional spice

Salt, to taste

3 cups water

1 1/2 lb whole fish or fillets, sea bream, red snapper or other fish of choice

Cilantro, minced, to garnish

Lime juice, to taste

To make the rouille, peel and chunk the potatoes. Add to a pot with the water, garlic, chillies, saffron, and salt. Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes till the potatoes are very soft. The water should be almost gone at this point. Set aside to cool.

Chop the roasted pepper roughly. Add the contents of the boiled potato pot, excluding any remaining water, the roasted pepper, lime juice, and black pepper and blitz till very smooth. taste and adjust salt and lime juice. You want a slightly spicy sauce and tart, and delicious. Set aside. This sauce can be made up to 1 day in advance.

To make the stew, heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions, leeks, bay leaf and garlic. Sautè on low heat till the onions are very soft, about 7-10 minutes without colouring the onions.

Add the saffron, cumin and thyme and give the pot a quick stir. Allow the spices to cook for 10 seconds. Add the tomatoes and chillies and cook till the tomatoes have broken down and you have a sauce.

Add the salt and water and bring them to a boil. You can prep to this point and leave the stew till you are ready to serve it.

Meanwhile, cook the moghrabieh in 2 cups water till ready, about 10 minutes or as per directions on the packet. You want the pearls just cooked, a little raw is also fine. Drain and toss with 1 teaspoon of olive oil to prevent them from sticking to each other. Set aside.

When you want to serve the stew, bring the stew back to a boil and add the fish fillets and cook for 5-7 minutes for the whole fish or 3 minutes for the fish fillets. The fish needs to be just cooked through.

Serve immediately with half the moghrabieh mixed in, garnished with cilantro and the hot rouille on the side.

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