When most people think of Moroccan food, it’s couscous that immediately comes to mind. My thoughts, however, make a beeline for chermoula. This herb-spice combo, which North Africans often use to marinate and sauce fish—whether fried, grilled, baked or stewed—might loosely be thought of as a Moroccan-spiced salsa verde.
After too much time away from Morocco, I’m craving this exotic elixir. The aroma alone of the fragrant cilantro-garlic paste invokes the relentless sun, colorful souks, bustling medinas and miles and miles of sparsely populated, blue and gold coastline that for me is quintessential Morocco.
Chermoula is a magical potion that brightens up almost anything savory. It takes less than five minutes to throw together in a food processor and the ingredients cost next to nothing, it’s wildly versatile and it keeps for a week or two in the refrigerator. It can be used as a marinade, dressing, sauce or dip.
Garlic, paprika, cumin and lots of cilantro are always included in the earthy mix. But the recipe varies from region to region and from household to household, different versions adding ginger, tomatoes, harissa, onion, lemon juice, preserved lemon, saffron and parsley. When used in game preparations, cinnamon, honey and raisins add further intricacy and an energetic push and pull between flavors. Locals frequently use this “Moroccan pesto” to enhance chicken, meat kebabs and roasted and grilled veggies as well as fish. Toss it with couscous, pasta or rice, and your guests will go wild. Sometimes I stir a few spoonfuls into mashed potatoes and am always asked about my “amazing potato purée.” I swirl chermoula through yogurt to create a raita-like accompaniment for grilled lamb.
On my first trip to Morocco, in the early ’70s, after renting a car in Tangiers, we drove southward—hundreds of miles through Fez, over the Atlas Mountains and eventually deep into the Sahara. The roads were empty except for a black Mercedes that would whiz by once or twice a day and an equally infrequent Bedouin on a camel. As road food was also scant, we were always hungry. I’m sure hunger was at least part of the reason I was blown away when, several days into the journey, I tasted chermoula for the first time. We were staying on a beach near Essaouira, and the green sauce was slathered liberally over large chunks of fish both pre- and post-grilling. The dish clearly had Mediterranean origins, but the addition of fiery spices sent it in an entirely new direction. I was converted after just a few bites.
“The aroma alone invokes Morocco’s relentless sun, colorful souks and blue and gold coastline.”
Shortly after my return to New York, I made chermoula and my friends licked their plates. Further trips to Morocco led to more chermoula encounters and then more chermoula testings in my kitchen. Each time I tweaked the recipe, the result was a little bit different, and a little bit better.
And then, after all those years of eating and cooking chermoula, I tasted the ultimate version, a recipe that was, and still is, the most flavorful, complex and well-balanced version of the sauce. My friend Gordon has a house in Tangiers with overgrown gardens and spectacular views of the harbor. Best of all, in residence is his splendid cook Hafida. She’s a permanent fixture in the kitchen, always ready with a cup of mint tea and the latest gossip about the crazy woman next door. And she’s a wizard behind a stove. She makes succulent roast lamb in springtime, crispy pastilla to celebrate the end of Ramadan, ethereally light fish dishes and salads in July and hearty tagines in fall and winter. Everything she touches is extraordinary, but her chermoula creations stand out above all else.
Dinners on the terrace feature marvelous chermoula-coated grilled lamb chops and salmon fillets. For beach picnics, Hafida fills hampers with cold lobster and chermoula mayonnaise, along with lots of ice-cold white wine. Poolside lunches showcase chicken sandwiches on chermoula-coated flatbread. Sometimes for breakfast Hafida adds a spoonful of the divine mixture to the filling of an omelet.
Hafida’s all-time masterpiece, however, is a hearty, chermoula-laden fish, vegetable and potato dish—constituting almost an entire souk on a plate. It’s ideal fare when you crave comfort and exotic spices intertwined. The chermoula-marinated fish sits on a bed of crispy potatoes and is topped first with a richly seasoned sauté of red and green peppers, onions, garlic, olives and lemon confit, then with more chermoula.
The whole shebang is popped in the oven and baked for about 30 minutes. Hafida uses a 4- to 6-pound whole fish, which is spectacular for presentation. However, if you can’t find a whole fish, a 4-pound section of cod or halibut fillet works just as well and tastes just as good.
Precede this pièce de resistance with a salad of red onion, avocado, orange and cilantro as Hafida does and it will be easy to imagine you’ve died and gone to Moroccan heaven.
Moroccan Baked Fish and Potatoes With Chermoula
Total Time: 1½-2 hours, plus 4-24 hour marinade Serves: 8
- 3 cups chopped packed cilantro, plus 1 cup chopped cilantro for garnish
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled, plus 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
- 2 inches fresh ginger, peeled
- ¼ cup smoked paprika (regular sweet paprika may be substituted)
- 3 tablespoons whole cumin seed, toasted
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ½ cup white-wine vinegar
- ½ cup lemon juice
- 1¼ cups olive oil
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- 1 (4- to 6-pound) whole, firm-fleshed fish such as striped bass or snapper—cleaned and bones removed but left whole (or a 4-pound section of cod or halibut fillet)
- 4 pounds baking potatoes
- 3 green bell peppers, seeded, cored and sliced ½-inch thick
- 3 red bell peppers, seeded, cored and sliced ½-inch thick
- 2 large Spanish onions, peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 teaspoons red-pepper flakes
- 1 (28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
- 1 cup pitted black and/or green olives
- ½ cup salted capers, rinsed
- 2 preserved lemons, rinsed and julienned
What To Do
1. To make chermoula, process 3 cups cilantro, 10 cloves garlic, ginger, paprika, cumin, cayenne, vinegar, lemon juice, ½ cup oil and ½ cup water in a food processor until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Set chermoula aside.
2. Generously slather whole fish, inside and out, with chermoula (or cover all sides of fish fillet). Score fish in a few places with a sharp knife. Set aside to marinate in a cool place for at least 4 hours and up to overnight. If the marinating time is longer than 4 hours, refrigerate and return to room temperature before continuing. Reserve extra chermoula in refrigerator, covered.
3. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Peel potatoes and slice 3/8-inch thick. Toss with ¼ cup oil. Lay potato slices in a baking dish large enough for the fish. Bake 25 minutes, turn potato slices and return to oven. Bake until brown and almost done, 10-20 minutes.
4. While the potatoes are cooking, sauté red and green peppers, onions, 4 cloves sliced garlic and red-pepper flakes in a large sauté pan in the remaining ½ cup oil until soft and beginning to color, about 15 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, olives, capers and preserved lemons. Cook, stirring, 3 more minutes. Take pan off heat and set aside.
5. When potatoes are ready, place fish with all the marinade that adheres to it, on top of the potatoes. Scatter vegetables over and around the fish. Scrape remaining marinade off the plate onto fish and vegetables. Use more from reserved portion if necessary.
6. Bake until fish flakes easily, indicating it is done, 30-60 minutes.
7. Sprinkle with 1 cup cilantro and serve from pan or arrange on a platter. Best served warm rather than piping hot
By Gail Monaghan