Our friends Habib Loriot-Bettaieb and Nicola Longford are both wonderful cooks – he's French-Tunisian; she's a Brit. We'd been bugging Habib for ages to cook something Tunisian for us, and last weekend we prevailed: He and Nicola invited us to their townhouse near the Dallas Farmers Market for a night in Tunisia. Cooks Without Borders' second guest cook event!
The centerpiece of the dinner is bouri de Bizerte – "a typical Tunisian dish," says Habib, as he seeds and slices peppers, "perhaps from the northern part, with the French loup de mer." That's the Mediterranean sea bass you may know as branzino. "Bouri is the Tunisian word for it," Habib explains. "It's from the town of Bizerte, where there's a very old harbor. My nanny Zina used to fix stuff like this."
(Habib is somewhat camera-shy, which is why the visual focus is on the food.)
The dish – simply roasted loup de mer with potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, onions and saffron – is ideal for entertaining, as you can ready everything in advance, then pop the baking dish in the oven and forget about it for 25 minutes. Have a salad or other appetizer ready, and when you're ready for the main course, just transfer the fish and vegetables and the lovely sauce they create to a serving dish.
For the peppers – felfel in Tunisian – Habib uses Anaheims; they're very similar, he says.
The dish is easy to assemble. In a baking dish or roasting pan, arrange the fish (whole fishes, heads and tails removed, cut in four) with parboiled Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered onions and Roma tomatoes and the sliced peppers. Add some water infused with a luxurious dose of saffron and some melted butter, a good dollop of olive oil, ground cumin, salt and pepper, toss it all gently to coat the fish and vegetables with the spices and such, then lay lemon slices on top. Then pop it into a 400 degree oven. Want to get started? Here's the recipe:
For a first course, Nicola improvises a salad she learned from Habib's stepmother: sliced oranges with radishes, red onion, cured black olives and mint.
Habib and Thierry are opposed to it. "Anything sweet is dessert," Thierry insists; Habib agrees. Nicola and I feel otherwise: The salty cured olives and perfumey mint are so nice with the oranges, and the salad is refreshing and beautiful.
Are you siding with Nicola and me? Use a small, sharp knife to slice a flat spot on the top and bottom of each orange, then cut down and around the sides to remove the pith before slicing it.
Here's the recipe:
Happily, Habib has his own Tunisian salad to offer. (The more the merrier!) It's a simple dice of tomatoes, onions and cucumbers. Dried mint adds the Tunisian touch, and naturally a dose of good olive oil is involved. Habib uses English hot-house cukes, which he peels, but when I make the salad a few days later to create the recipe, I use small Persian cucumbers, and leave the peel on for a bit more color and texture; I also add Aleppo pepper. You can use either kind of cuke, and any kind of red pepper. Habib and I both used Roma tomatoes, but when we come into tomato season (soon!) I'll make it again with some great heirlooms.
Oh, another thing: The salad is just right served solo as a starter, but when I recreate it for recipe development purposes, I find myself facing a big bowl of it just as lunchtime rolled around, so I serve it (to myself!) on romaine leaves. That's really nice too, as you can pick up a romaine leaf and eat it with the salad.
Ding! That must be the bouri de Bizerte – ready to serve. Don't forget plenty of crusty bread – you'll want it to sop up those delicious juices! With its gentle spices, it's wonderful with crisp white wine – French Picpoul de Pinet is Habib's favorite with it – or a light red, like a Côte de Rhône.
I love this dish because you get the wonderful flavor of the fish roasted on the bone, without having to fillet a whole fish at the table, and the saffron and cumin infuses the potatoes and other vegetables with exotic perfume. You do need to remove the bones from each piece and be careful when you eat it – maybe not the dish to serve when you have your boss over for dinner!
"Everybody makes this dish, all over the Mediterranean," says Habib. A slight exaggeration? Perhaps. It's definitely a winner.