I was looking at a friend’s photos of the lovely Thanksgiving event they attended, when I noticed a sign for something called “zaalouk al qarnabit”. Hmmm, I thought. Food I don’t know about? Zaalouk whaaa…? I am so intrigued! What on Earth could that be?
Turns out, as exotic as this sounds, it’s a cauliflower dip. If you must know, it translates as “mashed cauliflower”, which sounds like something far less shrouded in dusky mystery, but it is delicious all the same. Zaalouk al qarnabit is almost, kind of but not really, like a Moroccan-style cauliflower salsa that could be modified for any variety of things. It’s delicious as a dip, scooped up on a nice, crisp crostini, but I could also imagine it on top of some cous cous, or on top of a piece of grilled chicken (or fish, I suppose, but I’m not really a seafood fan). I need to make it again because I keep on imagining it with cinnamon added to the spice mix, but that’s for a future blog. The recipe, as written below, is the one I used.
A word to potential zaalouk al qarnabit eaters: if you do not like garlic, this dish is not for you.
- 1 large head cauliflower
- 2 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 1 heaping teaspoon tomato paste, if necessary
- 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1/4 cup (I generally think of fresh parsley in terms of handsful, so if you would prefer to think of it this way, take one large handful) chopped parsley, divided in half
- 4 teaspoons paprika — or a combination of 2 tsp sweet/2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon or more urfa biber
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 of a preserved lemon, cut into small dice
- Olive oil
Urfa biber is ground Turkish pepper, that is incredibly complex. It’s a little spicy, a little smoky, almost raisin-y/licorice-y/vanilla-y. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, even here in central PA it’s not terribly hard to get your hands on, but if you don’t have any, toss in a little additional black pepper and maybe some healthy pinches of red pepper flakes/smoked paprika/ground fennel, if you’re feeling creative. It still won’t be quite the same, but you know. Close enough.
As for preserved lemons, what can I say? Buy some. They’ll last forever in your fridge. If you’ve got a few weeks you can make them; they’re apparently not hard to make, but they need time to sit. (FUTURE PROJECT! Stay tuned; I’ll let you know how it goes.) Apparently, if you absolutely don’t have access to preserved lemons you can peel them and saute the rind (pith and all) in some oil with salt and a touch of sugar, which will mellow the lemony bite, but the salty briny bite of preserved lemon is pretty distinct and difficult to approximate. Seriously. Buy some.
Put a nice big pot of water on the stove to boil, big enough to boil an entire head of cauliflower in. You’ll add salt to the water for the cauliflower, but let it come to a boil first. Take your tomatoes in hand. Put little X’s in the bottoms of the tomatoes and, when the unsalted water comes to a boil, dunk the tomatoes in the boiling water for 30 seconds or so to loosen their skins and make them easier to peel.
Set them aside to cool, so they’re ready to peel, seed, and chop later. Using the same pot of water, add salt, and keep it hot for cauliflower.
One of the nice things about this dish–besides its being delicious and relatively easy to make–is that it uses nearly every part of the cauliflower. Leaves, stem, florets, everything can go in except for any gnarly bits you may trim off, so there’s virtually no waste. I found the cauliflower trimming to be the most taxing part of this zaalouk process, so take care of that first. Cut stems and florets into chunks that are roughly the same size. You want them to be a comparable consistency when you mash them, but don’t make yourself crazy. Keep leaves, stems, and florets in distinct piles.
Put the sturdy stems of the cauliflower into the boiling water first and let them soften for two or three minutes before adding the florets; they’re tougher and need a little more time in the water. Next, add the florets and let them boil until everything is nice and soft to the tooth, another 7 or 8 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes, and chop as much garlic as you think you can stand.
When the cauliflower is soft, reserve about a half a cup of the salted water, then drain off the water. Let the cauliflower sit in the sink to drain as much as possible. Get some olive oil going in a roomy pan and add the tomatoes and garlic. Since these tomatoes are off-season and not terribly…tomato-y…I added a healthy teaspoon of tomato paste to the pan, so this food had a really solid flavor base to build on. Once the tomatoes start to break down and convert into a sauce, add the pepper and/or urfa biber, paprika(s), and cumin. Don’t add any salt yet; see if you want or need it at the end. The cauliflower is salted, and preserved lemons are really salty, so you might not need any more. Wait and see.
Cook the tomatoes and spices all together, until they’re heady and fragrant and brown and the pan looks almost dry.
While this is cooking, chop half the parsley, the preserved lemon (I picked out the seeds and used all the rest of it) and the cauliflower leaves. Chop the preserved lemons very small! They’re quite powerful. You don’t want to blast someone with a large chunk of lemon. Toss in some of that reserved cauliflower water in the bottom of the pan, just enough to make it easy to pull up the browned and luscious bits from the bottom, and give the parsley, etc., something to hang out in.
Give them a few minutes to cook together, then add the drained cauliflower and mash. And mash. And mash. Keep the heat on low, as you’re trying to cook out any remaining water. Who wants a watery dip that oozes all over everyone? Not this girl. You could probably throw everything into a food processor, but 1) the cauliflower is super-soft, so if this takes you any longer than five minutes to mash, something isn’t right, 2) you’d lose the benefit of cooking out the excess water and 3) it’s supposed to be a little textured, rather than smooth and pasty. When the cauliflower is fully integrated with the tomato/spice mixture, and it’s the consistency you want, and it’s not watery, you’re ready. Now give it a taste, and add salt if you think it’s necessary.
You can make this a day ahead of time, if necessary. Overnight in the fridge won’t hurt it at all. In fact, the flavors get to mingle that way. I liked it even more once it sat for a night.
Chop the remainder of the fresh parsley, and garnish. Sprinkle some additional paprika on top if you’re so inspired. You can also garnish with slivers of olives, or some more preserved lemon peel. Serve with crostini, or pita, or crackers. And feast.
Delicious. Vegan. Healthy. Gorgeous. Interesting. And you can pretty much rest assured that if you bring zaalouk al qarnabit to a party, you won’t have anyone else’s version of this dish to compete with. Dazzle your friends! And–more importantly–dazzle yourself. Enjoy!