By Emily Paster
I have been cooking so much Middle Eastern food lately because of my obsession with the cookbook Jerusalem — a obsession that half of American seems to share, by the way, according to this piece in the New York Times. But long before I knew my way around baharat and tabbouleh, I was a big fan of North African cuisine – a region that is just down the road from the Middle East and shares many of its culinary influences.
The year I studied abroad in Paris, I lived with a French couple, both of whom had been born in Algeria back when it was still a French colony. The French colonials, many of whom had been in North Africa for generations, were expelled from Algeria after it won its independence. They returned to France, where they were known as Pieds-Noir, and, in many cases found themselves not quite at home in their "mother country." The Pieds-Noir had their own dialect and culinary traditions from their years in North Africa. This was particularly pronounced in the case of Jewish colonials, like my host family.
My French mother was an accomplished cook. Many of her dishes seemed typically French, but she always managed to add a North African twist. For example, when she made hamburger — or steak haché, as the French call it — she seasoned it with cumin. In fact, there was almost nothing she didn't season with cumin! I was particularly fond of her highly seasoned vegetable salads. When I flew home at the end of my year, she actually sent some of her roasted red pepper salad with me. My father gaped in disbelief when I unpacked my bags and pulled out a leaky container of vegetables.
Another North African favorite from my student days in Paris is merguez, a kind of spicy lamb sausage. Merguez are street food in Paris — the sausages are placed in a roll and topped with matchstick-thin frites. When you are stumbling home after a late night out, a merguez with frites really hits the spot — or so I am told. I wouldn't know anything about that.
Because merguez is a lamb sausage, it does not contain any pork. After all, it comes from North Africa, where the majority of people are Muslims, who — like observant Jews — do not eat pork. We do not have pork in our house (because we are semi-observant Jews) and I miss having an ingredient that imparts a smoky spiciness the way pork sausage can. Merguez is a happy substitute. So, I was thrilled to discover that Gepperth's Meat Market sells merguez and my friends at Artizone.com deliver it. I have been stocking my freezer with several pounds at a time. My husband is not sure that he likes merguez as much as I do — but then again, he's never had one on a Parisian street corner at 2 am.
Merguez are a bit greasy and gamey, the way lamb can be. So I like to serve them with a tangy yogurt sauce to cut the richness. I season the yogurt sauce with just a hint of harissa to continue the North African theme. The yogurt harissa sauce makes a great accompaniment to not only the merguez but any side dishes as well. Here I served it with a rice and lentil dish that was probably more Indian than North African, but I can't always be consistent. Adding a dollop of yogurt sauce to just about everything is definitely a tip I have picked up from Jerusalem and my meals have been much the better for it.
Merguez with Yogurt Harissa Sauce
- 1 lb. merguez
- 2 cups plain Greek yogurt
- 1 tsp. harissa*
- Zest and juice of 1 lemon
- Pinch dried mint
- To make the yogurt sauce, combine all of the ingredients, except the merguez, in a large bowl.
- Refrigerate for several hours before serving to allow the flavors to blend.
- To cook the merguez, grill until cooked through or saute in a pan with a very thin layer of water until the sausage is brown on all sides and the water has evaporated.
- Serve the merguez warm with the yogurt sauce on the side.
*Harissa is a spicy North African sauce made with chili peppers and garlic and usually seasoned with cumin. You can find prepared harissa in most good grocery stores.