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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Baked Halibut with Chermoula and Pistachio Couscous

Photograph by Zachary Popovsky

Baked Halibut with Moroccan Chermoula Sauce

by Victoria Challancin

Touching their hearts to show their sincerity, my favorite Marrakshi (people from Marrakech) vendors greet me, "Salaam Aleikum, Mrs. Bahrain."  I am hoping it is a compliment, but I could be optimistic.  You see, the broad vowels of the Arabian Gulf, where I lived for many years, overshadow the soft, delicate ones of derija, the Arabic spoken in Morocco.  And although after having led so many groups to Morocco over the years (see below for information), I do understand that Morocco is a Berber country rather than an Arab one, yet I still haltingly trip over my rusty Arabic, clinging as I do to the broad, deep vowel sounds I studied so hard to replicate many years ago while living in Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.  It is rather like my Southern accent, it is a permanent part of my linguistic being.

And thus we come to the word "chermoula."  Chermoula...that delectable, gently spiced herby marinade/sauce beloved in Morocco with good reason.  Full of fresh herbs and sparkling spices, it fairly sings in the mouth, encouraging you to reinvent it, to find more uses for it, to make it a staple in your repertoire of condiments.  I first learned to call it "charmoula," emulating those beloved sounds of the Gulf countries.  Gradually, I realized that "chermoula" was closer to the softer Arabic spoken in Morocco.  Subsequent research showed me that countless recipes are available online under either name or even occasionally called "chrmla".

Cook's Notes:  Shulman suggests using a food processor for ease, as I did, but notes that in Morocco the ingredients would be chopped finely by hand or even with a mortar and pestle.  Thin it with olive oil and/or lemon juice, if you prefer.  Use it on fish fillets or whole fish; bake it in the oven, grill it over charcoal, or bake it in the oven.
Recipe:  Baked Halibut with Chermoula
(Recipe by Martha Rose Shulman for the Recipes for Health Column in the New York Times)

1 1/2 to 2 pounds firm white fish fillets, such as halibut, mahi mahi, or striped bass
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe for chermoula (recipe follows)
Additional lemon juice and wedges or olive oil to taste

Season the fish with salt and pepper.  In a large baking dish combine the fish with half the chermoula and toss together until the fish is coated.  If the chermoula is thick, it may be easier to spread it onto the fish with a spatula.   Refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes while you preheat the broiler or oven, or prepare the grill.

If using a broiler, line a sheet pan with foil and brush the foil with olive oil, or oil a shallow baking dish for use in the oven.  Place the fish in the pan in a single layer.  If desired, drizzle on a little more olive oil or lemon juice.  Place under the broiler, close to the heat (about 2 1/2 inches) and broil 5 minutes.  Check the fish; the timing depends on how thick the fillets are; figure on 4 to 5 minutes per 1/2 inch of thickness.  It is done when it is opaque and you can pull it apart with a fork.  Using a spatula, transfer the fish from the sheet pan or baking dish to a platter or to individual plates.  Tip the juices in the pan over the fish fillets.   Pass the remaining chermoula and lemon wedges at the table.

Note:  You can also bake the fish in a preheated oven (375 degrees F).

Advance preparation:  The chermoula will keep for a few days in the refrigerator, but it will lose its vibrant green color.

Martha Rose Shulman's Chermoula
2 cups cilantro leaves
1 1/2 cups parsley leaves
3 to 4 garlic cloves (to taste), halved, green shoots removed
1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt (to taste)
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (more to taste)
1/3 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, to taste
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Coarsely chop the cilantro and parsley. Scissors are good for this.  Place them in a food processor and chop very fine, or chop on a cutting board.  You should have 1 cup finely chopped herbs.

Place the garlic and salt in a mortar and puree.  Add a small handful of the chopped herbs, and gently but firmly grind until the herbs begin to dissolve.  Add another handful.  When all of the herbs have been mashed, work in the spices, 1/3 cup olive oil and lemon juice.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Add more olive oil or salt if desired.  Served with grilled fish and/or vegetables, or with chicken.

Yield:  Makes approximately 1 cup

My version of chermoula from my friend Latifa prepared for another occasion

Recipes from Flavors of the Sun using Chermoula:
More ways to use Chermoula:
  • On chicken or pork
  • With kebabs
  • On any roasted or steamed vegetable (vegetables can be roasted with the chermoula as marinade)
  • In couscous or rice--or with any grain as a side or in a salad
  • As a dipping sauce for flatbread or raw vegetables
  • In yogurt
  • Poured over feta or goat cheesee--or other cheese of choice
  • With grilled haloumi or panela cheese
  • With lentils, garbanzos, or cooked dried beans
  • With sturdy salads
  • With seafood--cooked or raw (as in ceviche or even sushi)
  • Variations:  add saffron, preserved lemon, onion, fresh chiles, tomatoes (though my MOroccan friends tell me tomatoes aren't included
  • Serve over a caprese-style salad without the basil
  • Use as a marinade for seafood, especially shrimp, or a sauce/dressing
  • Make a squid salad dressed with chermoula
  • Toss it into a pasta salad
  • Add a dash to an egg or tuna salad
  • Add a splash to soup (bean, potato, minestrone, etc)
  • Use as a dipping sauce for Moroccan-style eggrolls
  • Use your imagination!  This recipe won't disappoint!

Cook's Note:  Because the chermoula is so rich and flavorful, I chose a simple side dish of couscous that I found on the terrific, always inspiring Australian food site

Pistachio Couscous with Chickpeas and Fresh Herbs

Recipe:  Pistachio Couscous
(Recipe from

1 cup (200g) couscous
1 cup (250ml) hot chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
2 tablespoons chopped coriander (cilantro) leaves
1 garlic clove, crushed
2 tablespoons pistachios, chopped
400g can chickpeas, rinsed, drained
2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus wedges to serve

Place the couscous in a heatproof bowl and pour over the hot stock.  Cover and let stand for 5 minutes, then fluff the grains with a fork.  Stir in the herbs, garlic, nuts, chickpeas and lemon juice. Season to taste and set aside.
A plate of Moroccan Salads I made for a dinner party with Chermoula in the center and on the cauliflower and potato cakes

For more information about my 2014 Morocco Tour, April 23-May 8, contact me at

 Parting Shot:  Moroccan Carpet Fun

Parting Shot II:  The Sausages of France

For more information about my 2014 Paris Tour, April 13-20, contact me at

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Please ask permission before using text or photos.  Thanks!


Eha said...

Hello Mrs Bahrain ;) ! What an absolutely fabulous recipe! Since there are so many small but wonderful spice merchants in the Sydney area I have to admit I have usually bought the ready-made mix and loved it ~ it is 'gentle' but oh so tasty!! But indeed it is so easy to make oneself from ingredients surely at hand!! The taste surely would be superior!! And thank you for all the ways it can be used - some I had thought of already :) ! You have taught me something else: I use ALL the time and had never realized it was a Oz site!!!! Wow: after being somewhat 'boring' Anglo-Saxon for so long [sorry!] we are not doing so badly perchance :D !!

Hotly Spiced said...

Well I admire anyone who can speak and understand Arabic, even if they do so with a heavy accent. That language looks very difficult to me. I love your recipe - so much flavour. And as for those French sausages - you don't see that in Oz xx

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a wonderful looking recipe and perfect for this warm weather that we've gotten a dose of lately! :D

My Kitchen Stories said...

I love chermoula it is such a hit of flavour and I love it with fish. You took me on a journey there. I wish I could join your journey to Morocco!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

This sounds like a very flavorful way to serve fish. I can just imagine the chermoula on so many other dishes as you have suggested.

Nancy said...

I had a difficult enough time learning Czech that Arabic is something I doubt I would ever be able to learn. Bravo to you!

Chermoula has been on my list of recipes to try. It sounds amazing and addictive. Thanks for sharing all the great tips too.

I'm sure I'll see you one day in San Miguel and can't wait for you to show me around.:)