I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that many dishes have a rough equivalent across cultures cultures. Dumplings for example – almost every culture has its own version of a hearty filling wrapped in dough. I love that there are some food combinations that are so basically delicious that people independently figured out how to put them together.
My recent obsession in this category has been herb/spice pastes – every culture has one. Pesto for the Italians, chimichurri in Argentina, cilantro chutney in India; the list can go on for a while. But one that often does not get a lot of love is chermoula. While this sauce is similar to the ones mentioned above, chermoula has its own North African twist which makes it a perfect winter pick me up. There comes a point in the year when I want something spicy and tart rather than the endless parade of roasted food and this sauce fits the bill. It has both lemon juice and preserved lemon, packs a lot of smoky cumin and paprika, and has just a little bit of cinnamon to give it a decidedly Moroccan feel. Like most other herb and spice pastes, it can be used as a marinade or sauce but because of the high lemon content it also makes a great salad dressing.
Let’s just take a second to talk about salad, shall we? I like a good salad but I have two firm rules for what makes a good salad which leads others to sometimes make fun of my exacting nature. One, the salad must be well dressed – I hate nothing more than ordering a salad and having it come out with globs of dressing in some spots and no flavor in others. And second, all of the lettuce pieces have to be bite-sized. I am not a fan of trying to eat a relatively healthy dinner and ending up with grease smeared all over my face because the lettuce was left in full leaves rather than torn or cut into normal sizes. I mean, at least part of the point of salad is to feel like you’re eating healthily. It’s hard to do that when you constantly have salad dressing on your face. End rant.
In order to accomplish these two things, I generally dress my salad before serving it and I salt the greens before I dress them – it adds extra flavor to the final dish and when I forget this step, I can definitely taste it. And I cut the leaves into 1-2 inch pieces before washing them. This not only ensures the leaves are the right size but it makes them easier to wash as well. That way they provide a better canvas for the other flavors of the salad and you don’t have to wipe your face after every bite.
This chermoula dressing is a far cry from the typical vinaigrette-or-creamy dichotomy that exists in most dressings and the change is definitely welcome. If you’re not a fan of preserved lemons you can add more lemon juice instead but the salty tart flavor they add makes a big difference to the finished dish. I used it for a simple salad of greens and chickpeas and it brought new life to what could easily have been a boring lunch. Winter doldrums problem solved.
Adapted from The Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson
1 bunch cilantro, leaves picked from stems*
½ – 1 tbs chile flake or Aleppo pepper (depending on your heat preference)
1 tbs cumin, freshly ground if possible
½ tbs smoked paprika
1 small shallot, finely diced**
Juice of half a lemon, about 2 tbs
Half a preserved lemon, finely chopped
1+ tbs olive oil
Up to 1 tsp salt, to taste
In the bowl of a food processor or with a mortar and pestle, grind together the cilantro, chile, cumin, paprika, shallot, lemon juice, preserved lemon, and olive oil. Process or grind until the mixture is fairly uniform. Taste and add salt if necessary – preserved lemons are very salty so it’s possible you won’t need to add any if you use them. Add more olive oil if needed to achieve your desired consistency.
*Normally I don’t pick cilantro from its stem and instead just roughly chop the leaves off which results in some stem being in the finished dish. However, since this is so labor un-intensive, I take the time to separate the stems. They can make the final texture a little stringy, especially if you’re using a mortar and pestle.
** Most chermoula uses raw garlic but I generally find myself making sauces like this right before I eat them and in that case ,the raw garlic flavor is too overpowering. It does mellow over the course of several hours so if you prefer the garlic bite, feel free to substitute a few cloves for the shallot and just let the finished sauce sit overnight before using it in a fresh preparation.