Though my husband dutifully loves and eats everything I cook, I’m fairly certain he would prefer it all with a little more cumin and a lot more garlic. Enter charmoula, a North African condiment composed of garlic, spices and fresh herbs. It’s fabulous, and can turn even the prissiest dish into certified man-food. Rarely do you see charmoula used in home kitchens (unlike the ubiquitous pesto) and I’m not sure why; the ingredients are few, the method is simple, and the flavor is downright explosive.
Charmoula can be used as a marinade for meat and fish or as a dressing for any number of grain and vegetable dishes (try it on potatoes!). In the recipe below, caramelized winter squash is tossed with nutty Sardinian couscous – a combination delicious in its own right, but brilliant once enlivened by pungent cumin and garlic, spicy paprika, and vibrant cilantro.
(As a side note, this being flu season and all, it's important to work raw garlic into your diet. Raw garlic contains selenium, an essential micronutrient for combatting the flu virus (Brazil nuts and whole grains are also wonderful sources). Charmoula, pesto, and hummus offer three tasty ways for getting your daily allowance!)
6-8 SERVINGS This grain dish would be the perfect accompaniment to braised lamb or roast chicken, but honestly, I love it on its own as light, vegetarian dinner. If you’re serving it as a main course, I recommend adding ~2 cups cooked chickpeas for additional protein; simply toss them in at the end and season to taste.
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, and cut into a 1 ½” dice 1 pound (Sardinian couscous) 2 tablespoons cumin seeds 2 medium cloves of garlic, roughly chopped 3 cups chopped cilantro 1 cup chopped parsley 1 teaspoon hot paprika 2 teaspoons smoked paprika ½ teaspoon cayenne 2 lemons 1 cup toasted pine nuts or toasted chopped almonds Extra virgin olive oil Sea salt to taste
The charmoula can be made up to four days ahead – simply store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until ready to use.
Preheat the oven to 475 F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
On a large sheet pan, toss butternut squash with about 2 tablespoons olive oil and a generous pinch of sea salt (make sure not to overcrowd the pan; use two pans if necessary). Roast squash for approximately 20-25 minutes or until tender and caramelized. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
Cook fregola sarda in boiling water for 10-11 minutes, or until al dente. Drain and return to the pot; set aside and keep warm.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium heat, toast cumin seeds for a minute or two – or until they release a fantastic smell and start to make a popping sound (keep an eye on them, so they don’t burn). Tranfer toasted cumin seeds to a mortar; add the garlic and a big pinch of sea salt. Pound cumin and garlic into a paste. Add chopped herbs in batches, and continue to pound until a chunky paste forms. Add paprika, cayenne, the zest of 1 lemon, and 4 tablespoons olive oil; stir to combine and set aside. (Alternatively, you could process all ingredients in a food processor.)
To the pot with the fregola, add the butternut squash, the juice of 2 lemons, the charmoula, and the toasted nuts. With a wooden spoon, toss gently to combine (avoid mashing the squash). Serve warm or at room temperature.