Tunisian Odyssey

A cook's travels reveal another Mediterranean diet.

By Deborah Madison

Photography by Mitch Mandel


Perhaps what impressed me most in Tunisia was the visual presentation of food, especially salads, which were symmetrically arranged. Slices and quarters of vegetables, halved eggs, strips of anchovies, rounds of radishes, olives and cheese, were carefully set out in patterns that reminded me of tiled walls and their complex designs. The sense of the mosaic as a key visual element was carried right into the cooking, making all the food, with the bright vegetable colors, as beautiful as it was good to eat.

I make this with dried New Mexico chile pods, soaked first in water. Covered with oil, which keeps out the air, harissa can be stored in the refrigerator for weeks. Use it to season vegetable stews and even vinaigrettes.

  • 8 dried red New Mexico chile pods
  • 2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground caraway seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil plus extra to cover

1. Wipe the chiles with a damp cloth. Break off the stems, shake out as many seeds as you can, and pull out any large membranes. Discard any gray or yellowed areas, as they may have a moldy taste. Tear or crumble the chiles into pieces, then cover with boiling water and let stand at least 30 minutes to soften (an hour if making this in a mortar). Drain.

2. In a small food processor, puree the chiles with the garlic, spices, and oil until smooth. You may need to add extra oil to loosen the mass. If using a mortar, pound the garlic with the salt, caraway, coriander, and cumin to a paste, then add the chiles and keep pounding until smooth. Taste for salt and stir in the oil.

3. Store in a clean jar with olive oil filmed over the surface. Cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 1 cup


Fennel Salad with Olives, Eggs, and Tuna
fennel saladThe salads I saw and ate in Tunisia were beautiful, often complex arrangements of vegetables and their pickled garnishes, reflecting the tiled mosaics adorning buildings. Even simple salads were dazzling and colorful. Despite the emphasis on arrangement, these salads were not rigidly fixed, but bore a feeling of ease and charm, which made them especially appealing to me.

This salad isn't authentically Tunisian, but it's inspired by the arrangements of overlapping layers of thinly sliced vegetables, including fennel. The lemon dressing is peppered with the minced fronds, and because the fennel is raw and crisp, you'll want only the most tender parts of the bulb for this salad.

You can vary this to reflect your garden and palate. Add all kinds of peppers if you have them; include tomatoes or lemon cucumbers. 'French Breakfast' radishes with their scarlet tips are beautiful, as are red onions tossed in vinegar first to make them mellow.

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chopped fennel greens

For the salad:

1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced in rounds
White or rice wine vinegar, as needed
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded, veined, and thinly sliced
2 small fennel bulbs (about 1/2 pound total, trimmed), thinly sliced lengthwise
8 'French Breakfast' radishes
12 olives, green and black, mixed
2 hard-cooked eggs, quartered
1 small can tuna, drained
1 tablespoon capers

To make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine the lemon zest, juice, oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt and some freshly ground pepper. Whisk vigorously until smooth and well blended. Stir in the fennel greens.

To make the salad: Toss the onion slices in a few tablespoons vinegar and set aside to marinate (turning occasionally so they color brightly) while you assemble the salad. On a large plate, arrange the pepper rings and top with the sliced fennel. Intersperse the radishes (scarlet ends facing outwards) with the olives around the edge. Arrange the hard-cooked eggs attractively in clusters of twos or threes, and mound the tuna in the center. Scatter the capers over the tuna. Drain the onions and set them around or over the salad. Spoon the dressing over all. Add a further pinch or two of salt and pepper, and serve.

Serves 4 as a first course; 2 for a salad lunch