This dish started on the fateful trip when we were castaways aboard a tiny ship in the Regents Canal in East London. There was a ceramic tagine and a copy of Sam and Sam Clark's Moro cookbook belowdecks and an excellent fish shop on the Broadway Market nearby, as well as spices and fresh veg to be had at the Turkish markets in Dalston.
The result was a fusion of East London and Middle East that I've since brought back with me to New York, making it and reworking it a handful of times, adding a cous cous inspired by another London restaurant by way of the levant, Honey and Co.
In this latest iteration, I'm content to use a standard Le Creuset-type pot instead of a dedicated tagine and I cook everything on the stovetop (at low temperature but not particularly slowly). You can make this dish from start to finish in under an hour. Relying on several pre-made pantry ingredients also guarantees a speedy result, but you could also work backwards to make some or all of them yourself. You could do the roasted peppers now or in advance. Same with the spice mix (the cookbooks already mentioned have various recipes for dry spice mixes and spice pastes that you can play with, as does Zahav--see the bit on hawaij and schug). You might make your own marinated feta in advance. You could potentially even preserve the lemons and cure the olives, if that makes sense for you and your geographical location. The sides are simple, with possible accents. You could skip the cucumber salad, maybe replacing it with plain yogurt, or skip both sides and serve bread on the side. You might add a little more water and turn this into a soup. A note on salt: I never use enough, so please take every opportunity to make the marinade, the base, etc. a little more salty than seems right so that you end up with the perfect balance for the whole stewy thing.
Like many things in my domestic situation, this serves two generously and up to four more modestly.
1 pound (500g) small potatoes, peeled (or not), and, if they are bigger than golf balls to start out, halved or quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3/4 pound (350g) cherry tomatoes
2 roasted peppers, any color, torn into strips (maybe half a dozen strips per pepper)
A small handful of pungent black olives (if you can get the really dark, wrinkly ones, great), pitted
1 1/2 pounds (700g) firm white fish fillets, skinned and boned; halibut is great if it's available, affordable, and sustainable where you are; cod is a fine catch-all but falls apart a bit more; monkfish is an alternative but I find it too meaty
Water or fish stock (a good fish stock adds extra richness but it's not necessary)
Salt and pepper
For the marinade:
One small bunch of cilantro, chopped, stems and all; I like to end up with a cup of roughly chopped cilantro (you might reserve a small amount for serving)
3 tablespoons of any sumac-y and/or paprika-y Middle Eastern spice mix
Salt, as needed
2/3 cup (160ml) olive oil
Ingredients and options for the sides below
Boil the potatoes until they are just tender (they should be edible but just so at this point--they'll cook a little more later). Drain.
Meanwhile prepare the marinade: Mix the cilantro, spice mix, and oil in a large bowl together with salt and pepper as needed (taste it).
Cut up the fish fillets into two-inch chunks, going lengthwise; if the fillets are very wide, cut them in half before cutting up the pieces.
Drop the fish into the marinade. Use your hands to make sure the fish is completely covered with marinade in every nook and cranny. Cover with plastic. Leave the bowl out if you are doing everything right away and you work quickly; but if you're going to take a break between steps and/or work slowly, refrigerate the fish and try to time it so that you take it out of the fridge 20 minutes before you're ready to use it.
To make the base of the tagine, add the two tablespoons of oil to your hefty pot, then saute the garlic over medium-low heat. When the garlic is just about nicely cooked through, add the tomatoes and cook, stirring constantly, until they burst (you can help them along by pressing them gently against the sides of the pot with your wooden spoon). Add the roasted pepper strips and cook, stirring, for one minute more, until the juices are nicely melded. Season with a little salt and pepper.
Remove about half the garlic-tomato-pepper mix to use later, and beginning layering the "tagine." With the heat on low, nestle the potatoes into the tomato mixture left in the bottom of the pot. Then nestle the fish into the potatoes. Then scatter the olives, nestling them in, too.
Poor water or stock about 2/3 of the way to the top of the fish (the steam will do the rest of the work), and raise the heat to medium until the water boils. Reduce to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes until the fish is just cooked (you want that nice, flaky, poached-fish texture). Don't stir too much because you don't want to break up the fish (you may not need to stir at all).
Serve either on top of cous cous, or with cous cous on the side, with feta and cucumber salad if you'd like.
You have a few options here. You want to start with a cup and half (260 grams) of uncooked cous cous (you could also use the larger Israeli cous cous). If you want keep it simple, just cover it with two cups of boiling (480ml) in a metal bowl, cover the bowl for five minutes, and then, as everybody tells you, fluff it with a fork and season with salt. Alternatively, cook 1/3 cup of chopped onions or leek (maybe half a small onion or leek) in a tablespoon of oil in a small pan over low heat, then add one and a half teaspoons of ras el hanout spice mix, or just a half a teaspoon of either cumin or cinnamon (or half a teaspoon of each), and keep going until everything is cooked down; you could also add some chopped tomato (half a large tomato or one small one) when you add the spices. Season the veg and spices generously with salt and pepper, mix it together with the uncooked cous cous in a metal bowl, and then, as described above, cover with two cups water, mix, cover, let sit five minutes, then fluff with a fork. If you want to add more substance to the meal, mix up to 3/4 cup (125g) of cooked chickpeas into the couscous.
Cucumber and feta salad
You need a quarter to a half a pound (115 to 225 grams) of good marinated feta here. It's worth splurging on this. And then you need one small or half a large cucumber. Use a peeler to remove most of the peel, leaving some dark green strips on the cucumber. Cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and then slice half-moon shapes that are about a quarter of an inch (half a centimeter) thick. All you need to do is mix the cucumber together with the feta and its marinade, breaking up the feta a bit, and you have a nice little side salad. You probably don't need to add additional salt and pepper, but of course you can. You can also mix in extra olive oil, some lemon juice, and/or some finely chopped dill, parsley, mint, or cilantro--or preserved lemon--depending upon the texture, taste, and mix of flavors you want. Or you could substitute thick/strained/Greek/Turkish yogurt for the marinated feta and follow the recipe above without the extra olive oil or lemon, or just serve yogurt on its own instead.