From grilled pepper salad to chicken pie:
A herby Tunisian salad, an open-topped Moroccan pastilla, and an Egyptian take on bread-and-butter pudding
The food of north Africa is as diverse as that of any other region as vast as it is. I got a taste of it in Tunisia and Morocco, two relatively small countries with world-class cuisines that include Berber, Arabic, Moorish and French influences.
Across the region lies Egypt, with its simple dishes based heavily on the vegetables of the Nile delta, many of which spread throughout the Middle East.
Given the wealth of options available, my choice of recipes for this north African special is pretty arbitrary, but they do offer a glimpse into some spectacularly rich culinary traditions.
Grilled pepper salad with fresh cucumber and herbs
This grilled vegetable salad is a take on Tunisian mechouia, to which I’ve added cucumber and herbs. It works as a starter, with bread, as a side dish or as part of a meze spread.
Prep 20 min
Cook 40 min
4 green peppers, stems removed, deseeded and flesh cut into roughly 3cm pieces
2 red peppers, stems removed, deseeded and flesh cut into roughly 3cm pieces
4 medium vine tomatoes (400g), each cut into 4 wedges
2 small red onions, peeled and cut into roughly 3cm pieces
1 green chilli, roughly sliced, seeds and all
6 large garlic cloves, peeled
90ml olive oil
Salt and black pepper
1½ tbsp lemon juice
10g parsley leaves, roughly chopped
10g coriander leaves, roughly chopped
1 cucumber, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1cm cubes
¾ tsp urfa chilli
Heat the oven to 250C (230C fan)/480F/gas 9. In a large bowl, toss together all the peppers, tomatoes, onions, chilli, garlic, four tablespoons of oil, three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Spread out on two large oven trays lined with greaseproof paper and roast for about 35 minutes, stirring once or twice, or until softened and charred in places. Remove the trays from the oven and, once they’re cool enough to handle, coarsely chop the vegetables into a chunky mash and transfer to a bowl with the lemon juice, herbs, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper.
In a second bowl, toss the cucumber with the remaining two tablespoons of oil, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and a grind of pepper.
To serve, spread the roast pepper mixture over a plate, pile the cucumber in the middle and sprinkle with the urfa chilli.
Sweet and savoury chicken pie topped with egg (main picture)
Pastilla, the rich meat pie that encapsulates Moroccan cuisine’s ability to combine sweet and savoury so cleverly, is the inspiration for this dish. There’s some effort involved, but the flavours are so glorious, they more than make up for it. You could save time by using shop-bought shortcrust pastry instead, but that won’t give you the same wonderfully flaky crust.
Prep 20 min
Chill 1 hr 20 min
Cook 1 hr 45 min
For the pie crust
80g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
40g wholemeal flour
1½ tsp sugar
½ tsp flaked sea salt
115g fridge-cold unsalted butter, cut into 1½cm cubes
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
60ml ice-cold water
For the topping
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly
1½cm piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
400g chicken thighs, boned and skinned
1 tsp ground cinnamon
⅛ tsp saffron threads, soaked in 30ml hot water for 20 minutes
Salt and black pepper
1½ tbsp fresh coriander leaves, roughly chopped, plus extra to garnish
1 tbsp caster sugar
25g blanched almonds, toasted
¾ tbsp lemon juice
For the crust, whisk the flours, sugar and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter and incorporate it into the mix by squashing each cube flat with your fingers – don’t overwork it, because you want chunks of butter throughout the dough, so just a light press will do. Add the garlic and water, then use your hands to gather the dough together into a shaggy ball. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Liberally flour a clean work surface and roll out the dough into a 28cm x 18cm rectangle. Fold the shorter ends in towards each other, so they meet in the middle, then fold the dough in half. Roll out the dough once again, then fold in half again from the shorter ends. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate again, this time for at least an hour, or overnight if you’re getting ahead.
For the topping, on a medium-high flame, heat a tablespoon and a half of oil in a large saute pan for which you have a lid. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for about five minutes, until softened and lightly golden. Add the ginger, chicken and three-quarters of a teaspoon of cinnamon, and cook for four minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink on the outside. Add the saffron and its soaking water, 200ml extra water, three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
Transfer the chicken to a bowl and, once it’s cool enough to handle, roughly shred into large chunks. Return the pan to a medium-high heat and leave the sauce to bubble and reduce for about eight minutes, until you have roughly six tablespoons of liquid left. Turn off the heat and stir in the chicken and chopped coriander.
Put the sugar, a teaspoon of water and the remaining quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon and half-teaspoon of oil into a small saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and stir continuously until the mixture is bubbling – about two minutes. Add the almonds, cook for two minutes, or until they have crystallised, then tip out on to a tray lined with greaseproof paper. Leave to cool completely, then roughly chop.
Heat the oven to 210C (190C fan)/410F/gas 6½. Cut out a piece of greaseproof paper big enough to line the base of a large oven tray and lay it out on a work surface. Lightly flour the paper, roll out the dough on top of it into a 28cm x 28cm square, then fold over the ends by about 5mm, to make a thin rim all around the edge. Transfer the paper and dough to a large oven tray, then spread the chicken mixture all over the pastry, leaving the edge clear.
Bake for 22 minutes, then remove from the oven and use the back of a spoon to create two wells in the centre of the topping (take care not to pierce the pastry). Crack the eggs into the wells, sprinkle with a little salt and pepper, then return to the oven for seven minutes, or until the eggs have cooked through but still have runny yolks. Slide the pie on to a wooden board, sprinkle with lemon juice, drizzle with the remaining teaspoon of oil, sprinkle over the coriander and almonds, and serve.
This Egyptian pudding is popular across the Arab world. It is designed to use up stale flatbread, which is mixed with an assortment of nuts and dried fruit before being baked with milk or cream, a bit like a bread-and-butter pudding. Instead of bread, pieces of baked pastry can also be used, as I do here.
Prep 10 min
Infuse 1 hr+
Cook 1 hr 25 min
700ml whole milk
300ml double cream
15 cardamom pods, roughly bashed open in a mortar
2 cinnamon sticks
125g caster sugar
6 feuilles de filo pastry (120g)
60g unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp runny honey
40g pine nuts
30g flaked almonds
1½ tsp white sesame seeds
1½ tsp black sesame seeds
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp rose water
1 pinch flaked sea salt
30g desiccated coconut, lightly toasted
½ tsp ground cinnamon
20g pistachio kernels, finely chopped
1½ tbsp barberries, soaked in hot water for 20 minutes, then drained
Heat the oven to 170C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4. Put the milk, cream, cardamom and cinnamon in a medium saucepan, turn on the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until steaming and just beginning to bubble. Turn off the heat and leave to infuse for at least an hour (or refrigerate overnight). Strain through a sieve set over a bowl (discard the solids), then pour back into the pan and add 70g sugar. Bring to a simmer on a medium heat, stirring from time to time, then set aside and keep warm.
Lay out one filo sheet on a clean work surface and brush liberally with melted butter and a teaspoon and a half of caster sugar. Top with another sheet of filo and repeat until you’ve used up all the filo and melted butter and 45g of the sugar. Transfer to a large oven tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 20 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven, set aside to cool, then break into jagged, roughly 10cm pieces; it’s fine if they flake apart a little.
Put the honey, pine nuts, almonds, sesame seeds, oil, rose water and a pinch of flaked sea salt in a small bowl and mix well. Transfer to a small oven tray lined with greaseproof paper, bake for eight minutes, then stir and bake for four minutes more, or until golden. Remove from the oven, leave to cool for 10 minutes, then break into small clusters.
Turn up the oven to 190C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6. To assemble the dish, arrange half the baked filo pieces in a 24cm-long x 14cm-wide x 7cm-deep baking dish, and sprinkle over half the coconut and a quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon. Top with the remaining filo, then pour over the warm milk. Sprinkle with the remaining quarter-teaspoon of cinnamon, the remaining coconut and the last 10g of sugar. Bake for 25 minutes, or until golden and bubbling, then remove from the oven and leave to cool for about 15 minutes. Top with the pistachios, barberries and pine nut clusters, and serve warm.