When he was looking for a sauce to brighten up a fish dish, chef Matt McClure of Bentonville, Arkansas's The Hive stumbled upon chermoula, a North African herb-chile-ginger sauce that's ripe for adaptation. "It's light and herbaceous, and yet it holds up to bold tastes," McClure says. It's not a flavor bomb in and of itself, which is part of the appeal: "I just like to grab someone's attention so that they question what they're eating a little bit," he says.
McClure's since made many variations, testing what the addition of preserved, juiced or zested lemon might do to brighten up a bean dish or stand up to the spice in a Merguez sausage. His now-perfected version (see the recipe) includes only enough jalapeño to give the sauce a subtle kick, saffron for depth and a balance of herbs that lift up heavier flavors. "It has enough personality that I wouldn't use it everywhere—it's not a crutch," McClure says. "But it lends itself to certain situations that need a bit of lightening or an additional dimension."
Here's how to take McClure's chermoula into your kitchen.
Fish: The combination of ginger and jalapeño works especially well to meatier fish such as grouper, snapper or swordfish. Marinate four filets in a third of a cup of chermoula for an hour, then sear, grill or bake as desired and finish with a tablespoon of sauce on the plate for an extra boost of brightness. Pair the fish with intense autumn vegetables like roasted carrots or Brussels sprouts, and the caramelized sugar from the vegetables will play particularly well with the heat and herbal notes of the chermoula.
Meatballs: "Ginger is kind of an unusual thing to add to a meatball," McClure says, "but it gives poultry or pork a warmth that's clean and not spicy or heavy." He adds a quarter cup of chermoula to his ground meat toward the end of the meatball-making process, gently folding it in to add some floral notes to a classic.
Beans: McClure has a particular affinity for cooking beans and likes to use chermoula as a finishing sauce to revitalize what could otherwise taste flat. He suggests making a warm white bean and asparagus salad, and swapping a basic vinaigrette for the same quantity of chermoula. The lemon and olive oil provide a pleasantly acidic base, while the saffron and warm spices cut through the heavier flavors. Add sliced grilled steak or a spicy Merguez sausage to make it a main.
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