Like the rain I have fallen for you and I know just why you liked the rain.
Always calling for you I'm falling for you now, just like the rain.
- Clint Black
The week has been spent searching for boots. Not just any boots; no, that would be too easy. We have been looking high and low for two pairs of rubber boots, our own rubber boots that have mysteriously disappeared from our home.
The winter in Nantes has been a particularly rainy one. The weather mild, bearable, but capricious and none too pleasant. One day slides into the next, a long, tranquil river, as the French say. Rain to sun to fog to fine mist. And back to sun. Shut up in the house for days on end, as soon as the sun makes its appearance all we want to do is pack a snack, leash up the dog and head outside the city for a romp in the vineyards or the forest. But because of all of the rain, the rubber boots are a must. Slogging through muddy fields in city shoes takes the joy out of the outing. We both could have sworn that we have used the boots since our move into the new apartment last October, but in that case you would think that finding two pairs of rubber boots in bright lemon yellow, flashy red, forest green or marine blue in a mere 100 square meters would be easy.
Stuck in the house as we are, the search for those damn boots has become somewhat of an obsession, leading us upstairs to our cold, damp attic to comb through dusty sacks and bags and old laundry baskets filled with the dregs of an apartment renovation. And down in the packed basement with boxes piled up to the ceiling. Three, four, ten times we have been up and down searching, opening up every suitcase, peering in all the bags, sticking our hands inside the big boxes stuffed with baby clothes, books and old videocassettes. To no avail. This has been a head scratcher.
Meanwhile, the rain is back and this crazy godforsaken weather has us cooking more often, stews and tagines rather than simply throwing together salads or baguette, cheese and fruit. Wet, misty, chilly weather oblige, we have certainly needed richer, warming, more comforting dishes to curl up with of an evening. As husband has been doing more and more of the cooking, we have been eating North African tagines frequently. I sit perched on a stool and watch him throw things into the big pot leaving a trail of carrot and potato peelings, garlic skins and bits of chopped herbs strewn across the back counter under the window; he, unlike his wife, has never been a “clean as you go guy” but I don’t ever complain or I know he’ll refuse to cook. His two years in Morocco before we met has greatly influenced his cooking, and what better than a tagine to ward away the winter blues, brighten up a dreary, foggy day?
Wandering through our local covered market early in the day, he had decided that he was going to replace the usual chicken or lamb for fish. Two thick filets of codfish joined dazzling preserved lemons, fat, slick, dark salty olives, fresh coriander and tiny sweet sultanas in our basket. He decided to add a bit of winter brightness and a mild tang by adding the sections of half a pink grapefruit. Any great basic tagine recipe can usually be made with either lamb, chicken or fish interchangeably, and preserved lemons and olives often find their way into husband’s Moroccan dishes no matter the main ingredients. The grapefruit and the saffron were new additions, but equally at home in the culture and the cuisine; the darkness in the apartment required some sunshine in the kitchen.
As the tagine was simmering, our older son dropped by with a curious request. “I’m going to another costume party,” he began, avoiding direct eye contact hoping that I wouldn’t ask questions. “Do you have any feathers left over from your hatmaking days that I can have?” So I slipped on sneakers and a sweater and followed him down to the basement where all of my millinery supplies are stored. We dragged the bikes out of the way and he climbed up on the ladder and started shifting the top boxes around to get to the cartons labeled “chapeaux”. All of a sudden he said “hey, mom… could this be the rubber boots you guys have been looking for?” as he pointed to a box on which the words RUBBER BOOTS were written in big, black magic marker letters.
With four pairs of rubber boots lined up in front of the floor-to-ceiling kitchen cabinets behind the bar stools and the rain slithering down the window, a watery sunlight filtering through the white net curtains, husband ladles fish tagine onto golden mounds of couscous grains, setting half a preserved lemon and a jumble of olives close to the cod. Sitting cozily side by side at the bar in our warm kitchen, still chuckling about the damn boots as we wait for another break in the temperamental weather, we savor the blend of flavors, the tender but firm white fish, the delicate yet flavorful sauce bright with saffron and a hint of lemon, the salty bite of the olives, the tangy nip of coriander and I realize how such a complex, exotic yet thoroughly comforting dish is as good as stomping through the mud and puddles in the sunshine after the rain.
FISH TAGINE WITH PRESERVED LEMON, OLIVES, GRAPEFRUIT & SAFFRON
Serves 2 people
As with most tagines and most of my husband’s cooking, amounts of each ingredient vary depending upon your individual taste, so quantities are estimations.
2 thick codfish filets or other dense white fish
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped
½ a round zucchini, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 or 2 potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
½ green pepper, trimmed, seeds and white ribs removed, pepper chopped
½ or more pink grapefruit supremes (only the segments, none of the membranes; see here)
1 preserved lemon (citron confit), halved or quartered
2 Tbs tiny dried sultanas
1 cup olives, preferably purple olives
Ras al Hanout for coating the fish filets
Curcuma or saffron, a pinch or so
Red Adobo Chili powder, to taste
Salt and Pepper
Rub the fish filets with ras al hanout and a bit of the adobo chili powder on both sides.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil or equal parts olive oil and margarine in a large pot over medium heat. Once hot, add the chopped onions and garlic, stir to coat, then place the fish skin side down to sear quickly; flip and sear quickly on the other side; you want the outside of the fish to color and shrink slightly but not cook through.
Carefully remove the fish from the pot, lift out and place on a plate. Add the potato and zucchini cubes, the green pepper, the preserved lemon, the sultanas and the grapefruit supremes to the pot; cover with water, salt and pepper then add a pinch of saffron, a bit more of the ras al hanout and adobo chili powder and allow to simmer until the potatoes are tender; add water as needed, you do not want the water to boil away. Once all of the vegetables are very soft, return the fish to the pot with the olives and a couple of tablespoons of chopped fresh coriander, allow to simmer just until the fish are cooked through, adding more water if needed. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings.
Serve over hot couscous grains, garnished with a bit more coriander.