Food & Drink

Moroccan flavors add a lot of zing to a hearty fish stew

This hearty fish and vegetable stew has complex, layered flavors from Moroccan cuisine.
This hearty fish and vegetable stew has complex, layered flavors from Moroccan cuisine. Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS

March is easily the hardest month: Winter storms bring harsh weather just as our spirits begin to yearn for longer, warmer days.

My solution to a winter-weary palate is to dapple my March menus with meals bright with herbs and still-seasonal citrus, dishes sturdy enough to be filling but colorful enough to fill my eye with the hues of spring.

This hearty fish and vegetable stew fills the need. Its complex, layered flavors draw on Morocco’s fascinating court cuisine, but only a couple of ingredients may not be in your pantry already. In Morocco, a tagine of fish would be served over a bed of couscous, and you certainly can serve this stew that way. In my kitchen, though, it tends to come out more as a stew, eaten from a big bowl, and yes, please, I'll help myself to seconds.

Chermoula is what the Moroccans call the fragrant sauce that often accompanies fish. In a thicker variant, it might be used to stuff a whole roasted fish; loosened with a generous pour of olive oil, as here, it becomes a condiment like Argentine chimichurri or Yemeni zhug.

Use it with any firm white fish that’s reasonably priced. I don’t care for tilapia, but if you like it, it would work here. The preserved lemons are simple to make, particularly if you can find Meyer lemons, but you need to start them in advance. You can also find them already made in jars at some supermarkets, or you can skip them.

Fish Stew With Moroccan Flavors

A classic Moroccan chermoula doesn’t include mint, but I’ve added it for its bright, springy flavor. You may not need all the sauce; if you have some left over, it’s a terrific marinade for chicken. While the vegetable stew will be delicious without the preserved lemon, it’s worth the effort to find or make preserved lemons for their silky, salty contribution.

Sauce:

1/2 bunch parley

1/2 bunch cilantro

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, packed

3 cloves garlic, peeled

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon each: ground coriander, minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon each salt, cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads (optional)

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup olive oil

Stew:

4 portions (4 to 6 ounces each) mild, firm white fish fillets or steaks, such as flounder, sole, halibut, catfish or sea bass

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced vertically

1 bell pepper, sliced

1 teaspoon each salt, ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 russet potato, peeled, thinly sliced

2 carrots, sliced diagonally

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes

Peel of 1 preserved lemon, cut into slivers, optional

1/2 cup pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano or Picholine, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon honey

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped

Combine all the sauce ingredients in a food processor or blender; whiz until well blended into a thick paste. Makes about 1 1/4 cups.

Use about half the paste to marinate the fish pieces. If your fish fillets are thin, as with flounder and sole, spread the upper side with the sauce, then fold into thirds. Refrigerate fish for 1 to 2 hours. Set remaining sauce aside.

Heat olive oil over medium in a large, heavy skillet with a close-fitting lid. Add onion and peppers and cook, stirring frequently, until onions and peppers soften, 10 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine salt, cumin and cayenne pepper; toss sliced potatoes in spice mixture until they are well-coated.

Add carrots, potatoes and diced tomatoes with their juices to the skillet. Stir to blend. Stir in preserved lemon, green olives, honey and cinnamon; bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a slow simmer. If too much liquid cooks away, add enough water to bring back to a stewy consistency.

When the vegetables are almost tender, 20-25 minutes, stir in chopped parsley. Nestle the fish into the stew. Cover the skillet, and cook until the fish is opaque but still moist, about 15 minutes.

Divide the stew among 4 bowls. Top each portion with fish. Pass more sauce at table, if desired.

Per serving: 404 calories, 27 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 44 mg cholesterol, 29 g carbohydrates, 12 g sugar, 16 g protein, 1,521 mg sodium, 6 g fiber

Yield: 4 servings.

Easy Preserved Lemons

This needs to marinate for 9 days. If you can’t find Meyer lemons, use large any large lemons.

3 to 4 large lemons, preferably Meyer

About 1/4 cup to 1/3 cup coarse kosher salt

Scrub 2 whole lemons clean. Cut each into wedges, leaving them attached at the stem end. Coat with a generous amount of kosher salt. Pack tightly into a small glass jar; sprinkle with more salt.

Juice remaining lemons to get 1/4 to 1/2 cup fresh juice. Add enough to jar to come about halfway up the lemons. Put the lid on the jar.

Let stand at room temperature a couple of days, shaking the jar every day. Refrigerate about 1 week. Lemons will keep 3 months or more in the refrigerator, and the skins will get softer. Rinse off salt before using.

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