Easy cooking may not be as easy as it seems. This simple truth became painfully evident on a trip to the port of Essaouira in Morocco a few years back.
I visited the town to shoot a segment in a TV show about Moroccan food, and my first task was to grill a whole sea bass over fire in an open-air restaurant. Gathered around were a bunch of local kids, a production team of eight, a few chefs from neighboring restaurants and anyone, really, that cared to come and watch.
Things didn’t go well. A strong wind with a mind of its own, blowing in from the Atlantic, first over-stirred the coals, then blew them out and, finally, rustled black bits of char all over my fish, rendering it inedible. By the third take, a makeshift covering was erected, but I was already covered in sweat and yearning to escape into the cool water my poor sea bass had been lifted from only a few hours earlier. Eventually, I did manage to pull together the fish and the scene, but I was utterly drained.
The next day, I joined a couple of fishermen on their tiny wooden boat as they looked for sardines. Within minutes, we had just enough for my hosts to make me the kind of breakfast feast they prepare for themselves every morning after hours at sea. They gutted and filleted the sardines with their hands, minced them and added preserved lemon and some spices. They then shaped the mix into balls and cooked them on a tiny portable gas stove in a sauce made with some grated tomato and garlic. The fish balls and sauce, stuffed into fluffy bread rolls, were a chunk of heaven.
This dish, created by Moroccan Jews who are long gone from Essaouira, inspired my fish koftas in tomato and lime sauce. It also taught me a lesson about the importance of ease in cooking. There was nothing particularly simple about the dish I was so generously served; it involved some serious cooking with basic equipment. The flavors were complex and well rounded. But there was a serenity and confidence there that comes from cooking something for the hundredth time. There was a great deal of intimacy, too, of the kind that, I can only imagine, just happens when you spend half your life with other men on a small boat.
Paradoxically, my anxious cooking in front of a crowd involved a dish that, in theory, was much simpler to make: a whole fish in marinade, grilled and served with a plain salsa. What could go wrong? The mackerel fillets with pistachio and cardamom salsa, which is a simpler take on the flavor profile of my koftas, should be equally untaxing.
My Moroccan experience, however, showed me that stressless cooking is not always about “easy,” but about “ease”; it’s not about a dish but about a state of mind. For me, that means being able to create for myself an intimate moment in the kitchen (or on a boat, if that’s where I happen to be); it means finding a quiet space to cook and properly engage; it means preferring the real show (sitting down for a delicious meal) over the showmanship.
Fish Koftas in Tomato and Cardamom Sauce
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: About 1 1/2 hours
For the sauce:
1/3 cup/75 milliliters olive oil
8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 green chili peppers, such as serrano, finely sliced (and seeded if you don’t like heat)
2 large celery stalks, trimmed and finely chopped
1 banana shallot (or a large regular shallot), finely chopped
1 pound/500 grams ripe vine tomatoes (4 to 5 medium), blitzed in a food processor for 1 minute (or use 2 cups canned tomato purée)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons granulated or caster sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon lime zest, plus 1 tablespoon lime juice (from 1 lime)
8 cardamom pods, crushed in a mortar and pestle, skins discarded (or use a scant 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons/200 milliliters dry white wine
2 tablespoons/5 grams finely chopped cilantro or coriander leaves, for serving
2 tablespoons/5 grams finely chopped dill, for serving
For the fish koftas:
4 mackerel fillets (from 2 roughly 1-pound/500-gram fish), skin and pin bones removed, flesh roughly chopped into 3/4-inch/2-centimeter pieces (for about 12 ounces/320 grams of chopped fish)
About 5 ounces/150 grams drained tinned sardines in olive oil, roughly chopped
1 heaping tablespoon/10 grams pistachios, roughly chopped
1/2 cup/10 grams loosely packed roughly chopped fresh dill
1 loosely packed cup/15 grams roughly chopped fresh cilantro leaves (coriander leaves)
1 tablespoon finely grated zest (from 2 limes); cut the zested limes into wedges or juice them, for serving
1 green chili pepper (such as serrano), finely chopped
1 egg, beaten
5 tablespoons/70 grams potato flour, divided
3 tablespoons/50 milliliters vegetable oil
1. Start with the sauce: In a large sauté pan (choose one that has a lid), heat olive oil, garlic, half the sliced chili pepper and a good pinch of salt over medium-low heat. Gently fry for 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until garlic is soft and golden. Remove 2 tablespoons of the oil (with some of the chili and garlic) and set aside.
2. Add celery, shallot and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt to the same pan and continue to cook for 8 minutes, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Increase the heat to medium, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, sugar, cumin, lime zest and juice and the cardamom and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine, 1 1/2 cups/350 milliliters water and 1/4 teaspoon salt and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook for 20 minutes, turning the heat down if the sauce bubbles too much, and stirring once in a while.
3. While the sauce is simmering, make the fish koftas: Add fish, pistachios, herbs, lime zest, chili and egg to a bowl with 3 tablespoons potato flour and 1/8 teaspoon salt and mix together well. Grease your hands with a little oil and roll the mix into approximately 12 golf-sized balls (about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 ounces/45 to 50 grams each), applying pressure to compact them as you go. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons/25 grams flour to a plate and roll each ball in the flour so they are coated.
4. Heat vegetable oil in a large, nonstick saucepan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the fish balls and cook for about 5 minutes, turning throughout until all sides are golden-brown and crisp. (Remove the sauce from the heat and set aside if it finishes before you finish the koftas.)
5. After the sauce has been cooking for 20 minutes, transfer the balls into the sauce, drizzling over some of the frying oil (or return the sauce to medium heat). Cover the pan with the lid and cook for 4 minutes, until hot.
6. Remove the lid and scatter the herbs and the remaining fresh chili over the top, then drizzle with the reserved garlic and chili oil. Serve hot, with lime juice added to taste, or with lime wedges alongside.
—Mackerel With Pistachio and Cardamom Salsa
Yield: 4 servings as a starter, or 2 as a main course
Total time: 35 minutes
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
4 mackerel fillets (from 2 roughly 1-pound/500-gram fish), skin on and pin bones removed
1 fat piece of ginger, 1-inch or 3-centimeters long, peeled
2 tablespoons/30 grams heavy cream (double cream)
2 tablespoons/30 grams sour cream (soured cream)
3/4 cup/30 grams loosely packed finely chopped cilantro leaves (coriander leaves)
1/2 cup/20 grams loosely packed finely chopped basil leaves
Heaping 1/3 cup/50 grams pistachios, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 to 2 limes (for 1 teaspoon zest and 2 tablespoons juice), plus 1 additional lime cut into wedges, for serving
1 green chili pepper (such as serrano), seeded and finely chopped
4 1/2 tablespoons/65 milliliters sunflower oil
1. Mix about 1/8 teaspoon cardamom with a pinch of salt. Rub on both sides of the fish and set aside until ready to fry.
2. Finely grate the ginger and then press the pulp through a sieve or a small strainer (with a bowl underneath): You should get 1 teaspoon of juice. Discard the pulp and set the liquid aside.
3. Use a small whisk to whip the heavy cream (double cream) until stiff. Switch to using a spatula and then fold in the sour cream (soured cream), ginger juice and a small pinch of salt so you have a soft cream. Keep in the fridge until ready to use.
4. Combine the herbs with pistachios, remaining cardamom, the lime zest and juice, the chili pepper, 2 1/2 tablespoons oil and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Set aside.
5. When ready to serve, add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil to a large frying pan (nonstick works nicely) and place over high heat. Once very hot, add the mackerel fillets, skin-side down (the skin should sizzle) and fry for 2 minutes. Press the fillets down with a spatula as they cook to prevent the skin from curling up. Once the skin is crisp and golden brown, turn the fillets over and fry for another minute, until golden brown. (You can do this in two batches, if necessary.)
6. Transfer the mackerel to 4 individual plates. Spoon a quarter each of the ginger cream and the cardamom salsa next to each fillet and serve hot, with a wedge of lime.