For those of us who can't afford those tempting 'winter sun' breaks at this time of year (a notion I generally hate and associate with terrifying mental images of lobster-red English bodies splayed out on the Costa del Vomit), there is a much easier way to capture a little of that summer cheer on cold, rainy days: cook your way to it. In the market the other day, I was transfixed by the sheer brightness and colour of the fruit and vegetable displays: vibrant glossy red and yellow peppers; jewel-like cranberries; luminous citrus globes; vivid, feathery fennel; bulbous gleaming aubergines; hot pink shards of rhubarb; marigold, bulgingly ripe persimmons; dusky pink lychees...it's probably the most colourful and inviting I've seen the market all year, and it seemed very fitting that all this wonderful fruit and veg (admittedly, most of it imported), bursting with colour and flavour, appears at the time of year when we most desperately need it.
Inspired by a lovely box of goodies I received recently from Belazu, producers of Mediterranean and North African ingredients (I especially love their preserved lemons), I've come up with a recipe that will bring a little Moroccan sunshine into your life. It uses mangoes, which is obviously not very Moroccan, but these sweet cubes of golden fruit are exactly what both your eyes and your tastebuds need during the winter. They're paired with sardine fillets, used a lot in Moroccan cooking, although these ones have been smoked, rather like haddock. They sound unusual, but I found them in my local Tesco, and would definitely recommend them if you can find them. While normal sardines will work perfectly well for this recipe too, the smokiness definitely adds a lovely savoury edge.
I've used barley couscous from Belazu, which is exactly like ordinary couscous except with a lovely nutty flavour and slightly firmer texture. I've also used their rose harissa paste, which is a blend of over 40 herbs and spices with a beautiful deep red colour and intense spicy flavour. I went through a phase in my second year of university of putting harissa on practically everything, and I have a feeling I might be tempted that way again. It adds a great earthy kick to whatever you put it on - it's great rubbed over fish or meat before grilling, but it's also good stirred into couscous, as I've done here.
To the harissa couscous I've added chopped spinach and cubes of juicy ripe mango. The sweetness of the mango counteracts the spiciness of the harissa paste, and also works very well with the rich oily flesh of the sardines. I've rubbed the sardine fillets with ras-el-hanout, a Moroccan spice mix whose Arabic name means 'head of the shop', indicating the tradition whereby the mixture featured the best spices the seller had to offer. There's no set recipe for this, and different brands all have different mixtures, but generally they include cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, chilli, coriander, cumin, pepper, turmeric, and rose petals. You can buy ras-el-hanout in most delis and supermarkets now.
The spices really enhance the deep flavour of the smoky sardine flesh, which is perfect with the sweet, juicy mango cubes and the spicy kick from the harissa couscous. All the dish needs is a scattering of toasted flaked almonds, for crunch and a deep toasty flavour, and a dollop of yoghurt, to cool everything down. It's nutritious, filling and satisfying, and the perfect recipe to transport you to sunnier climes.
Smoked sardines with harissa mango couscous (serves 2):
180g barley couscous
Salt and pepper
2 tsp rose harissa (or more if you like it hot!)
2 large handfuls baby spinach
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh coriander
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
1 medium mango, peeled, stoned and cut into 1cm cubes
3 tsp ras-el-hanout spice mix
6 smoked/unsmoked sardine fillets (this would also work with mackerel)
2 tbsp flaked almonds or pine nuts, toasted in a hot pan or under the grill
Greek yoghurt, to serve
Put the couscous in a bowl and pour over enough boiling water to cover it by around 1cm. Put a plate over the top of the bowl and set aside.
Meanwhile, wilt the spinach either in a large frying pan or by microwaving it in a bowl for a minute on high heat. Chop it finely. When the couscous has absorbed all the water, after around 5-10 minutes, stir in the rose harissa and some seasoning. Add the spinach, herbs and mango, and set aside.
Rub the ras-el-hanout over both sides of the sardine fillets. Heat a little olive oil in a non-stick frying pan and get it quite hot. Add the sardines, skin side down first, and cook for a couple of minutes on each side. Divide the mango couscous between two plates, then put the cooked sardines on top. Scatter over the flaked almonds and serve with a dollop of yoghurt on each plate.