Fish Tagine (with Saffron Couscous)
Updated: Apr 6
"Marrakech in May is unseasonably tagine-hot."
Hamish Bowles (1963-)
I’ve been building up to this one for quite a while, not only to get the cooking to the best of my liking, but also in patient anticipation of the summer catch of grey mullet that comes to market each year. A few of them obligingly showed up this weekend, presumably caught by the rods and lines that were targeting sea bass. It’s an underrated (so unthreatened in terms of stocks) fish, therefore very affordable and perfect in strongly-flavoured dishes like this, and equally in curries. It is not a fish you will find in any supermarkets but if your fishmonger doesn’t have it in stock they will be able to get it for you and likely give you a nod of approval along-with.
This recipe is adapted from one by Cooking With Alia, which I found after much searching for the sort of fish tagine I remember from the Moroccan cooking I knew during my time growing up in the Middle East. I have, admittedly, made quite a few alterations to the original recipe, but these were principally to ensure that everything has cooked to completion equally, given that, unlike the traditional method of cooking over an open fire, this is cooked in a domestic oven - and only takes about 25 minutes in that oven!. On that note, I can't help remarking that anyone thinking that they are going to cook a tagine in a tagine, for anything more than two people, is inevitably going to find that their oven is not big enough!
Because, as one of the alterations, I have opted to par-boil the potatoes and carrots in salted, saffron-infused water (another alteration being to grill the peppers in advance) a happy consequence is that we are left with the perfect "stock" with which to prepare a saffron couscous, and this is just the ideal accompaniment to a fish (or other!) tagine. The Charmoula, the spice paste so essential to a tagine, I have left unaltered as it is fantastic in its original form.
Despite being a traditional and classic Moroccan dish, and hopefully this recipe does its character deserved justice, at this time of year pretty much all the ingredients are available in UK farmers' markets. And I say this with confidence as the meal in the photograph was achieved just that way.
I really wanted to make this dish with steaks of grey mullet rather than fillets but a couple of attempts soon proved that it was an ambition too far. Apart from being really quite difficult to time the cooking, the navigation through the bones while the texture of everything else is ready to hop on to the spoon is not ideal if it's unnecessary. That said, I would happily make this dish with fillets of other species such as monkfish, gurnard, hake and cod but the cooking times will need to be adjusted a little. Monkfish will take a few minutes longer, gurnard about the same time, whilst hake and cod are likely to require a few minutes less cooking. The pre-cooking of the vegetables will accommodate the timings of any of the fish varieties you choose from the list above.
Just because a tagine that can be employed to cook sufficient food for any more than two people is barely going to fit in a domestic oven it doesn't mean your proudly-haggled-over and accident-freely-imported tagine from your souk in Marrakech can't be used. The base can be used to adequately good effect given a tight seal of foil and, even better, a close-fitting, but flattish, lid on top. The tagine "hat" is perfect for the resting period and for the traditional, eye-pleasing presentation of the dish.
One thing, however, that I have learnt from my mother (who, like all mothers, is always right) is that with earthenware dishes it is important to factor in the time it takes for them to heat up before starting any timers - they can take quite some time to heat! For this reason I have written in the method that your earthenware dish should go in the oven well ahead of time.
The ingredient list is one of the longer that I have posted but I hope this will not be off-putting. If thought of as two separate lists, the Charmoula can be knocked up quickly and a good day or two in advance. The pre-cooking of the veg can also easily be done the day before, so that leaves a very manageable amount of time for the final cooking of the dish. As someone ever-keen to get ahead when cooking for numbers, I, for one, would be perfectly happy to offer this up when entertaining.
Fish Tagine (with Saffron Couscous)
Ingredients (Serves 2)
250-300g grey mullet (or alternative fish), skinned and cut into 1" thick, 3" long chunks
1 quantity Charmoula, see below
Half a red pepper, deseeded and cut into 1" thick slices, lengthways
Half a green pepper, deseeded and cut into 1" thick slices, lengthways
Olive oil (extra virgin if preferred)
Pinch of saffron
1 small potato (approx 125g), peeled and cut into ¼" thick slices
1 small carrot (approx 125g), peeled and cut into ¼" thick slices on the diagonal
1 tomato (approx 125g), cut into ¼" thick slices
1 fresh (or dried) bay leaf
8-12 green olives, pitted if preferred (Nocellara are a good option)
Couscous, quantity as required
1 thin slice of lemon (optional)
A few picked coriander and flat leaf parsley leaves, for garnish
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp finely chopped mix of fresh coriander and flat leaf parsley
1 small garlic clove, minced (½ tsp)
¼ tsp paprika (hot, sweet, smoked, as preferred)
¼ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground cumin
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (quantity to taste)
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
Heat the grill to maximum. Coat the red and green pepper slices with a little olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Place on a baking sheet skin side up and put under the grill for 5-10 mins (check a few times) until lightly charred and then transfer the pepper slices to a cold plate to arrest their cooking.
Meanwhile, mix together the ingredients for the Charmoula in a bowl, coat the fish chunks in it then stir in 2 tbsp water. Leave the fish to marinate for 20-30 mins while proceeding with step 3.
Preheat the oven to 200°C and put in a shallow earthenware dish (or similar, see recipe intro) to heat up. Bring a saucepan of water (sufficient to boil the potato and carrot slices) to the boil with the pinch of saffron and a pinch or two of salt. Add the potato and carrot slices and as soon as the water returns to the boil, lower the heat a little and simmer the vegetables for about 8 mins until three-quarters cooked (test with the tip of a knife). Remove them from the water (reserve the water) with a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate to steam dry a little. Keep the water simmering gently.
Once the fish has marinated, retrieve the cooking dish from the oven and put a couple of spoonfuls of the marinade in the base of the dish (it should sizzle a little but if not return the dish to the oven for a few minutes more to get a little hotter). Arrange the potato and carrot slices in the dish, tuck the bay leaf in, and lay the tomato slices (reserving one for the top of the dish) over. Coat with a spoonful or two more of the marinade then arrange the fish chunks and the peppers neatly on top. Nestle the olives into gaps and finish with the reserved tomato slice and the slice of lemon. Stir 3 tbsp of the hot saffron-infused water from the cooking of the potatoes and carrots into the remaining marinade and pour this over the tagine. Cover the dish tightly with foil (and ideally put a lid on) and place in the preheated oven for 25 mins, though do check if everything is just cooked after 20 mins.
While the tagine is cooking, make the saffron couscous (see Note).
Remove the tagine from the oven and leave to rest, covered, for a further 5 mins. Garnish with the picked coriander and parsley leaves and serve with the couscous.
Saffron Couscous: Bring the potato/carrot/saffron stock to the boil and put the desired amount of couscous in a glass or ceramic dish. Pour only sufficient enough stock over the couscous to cover, but keep the stock at boiling point. Put a lid on the dish or tightly seal with foil and leave for about 5 mins. After this time fork through the couscous and add about a third to half the amount of stock (still boiling hot) first used and cover tightly again. Leave for a further 5 mins by which time the couscous should be ready once forked through again. If not, repeat with a splash more stock and leave for a few minutes more.
"Fish Tagine With Vegetables", Cooking With Alia, accessed 8 August 2021