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Moroccan Fish with Chickpeas and Saffron-Lime Aioli
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
When I first tried this dish, I loved the classic Moroccan flavors, but somehow it seemed as if I were tasting each one separately: chickpeas, fish, and heady spices, disparate notes that didn’t quite harmonize for me. Then I whipped up a batch of Cheater’s Aioli--jarred mayonnaise flavored with saffron and lime--folded it into the pan juices, and a lovely melody was born.
3 cups freshly cooked chickpeas (reserve about 1/2 cup of cooking liquid) or two 15- ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
8 large garlic cloves, sliced
1 to 2 teaspoons hot red pepper flakes or 4 to 6 dried red chile peppers, or to taste
4 to 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds fish fillets, 1 inch thick (bass, snapper, cod, haddock, or other firm-fleshed white fish)
2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice
1 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and freshly ground
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon grated lime or lemon zest
Optional garnish: cilantro sprigs
for the Saffron-Lime Aioli
Saffron threads, pinch
1/2 cup mayonnaise, good-quality jarred such as Hellmann’s, or even better, homemade
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon best-quality extra virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely minced
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and freshly ground
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Liquid from baking the fish (optional)
You can prepare the whole dish in one pan: a deep wide 12-inch ovenproof saute pan or cast-iron skillet. Combine the chickpeas, reserved cooking liquid if using freshly cooked or 1/2 cup water if using canned, garlic, pepper flakes or hot peppers, 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, the coriander, and salt and pepper to taste. (Alternatively, if you don’t have a similar pan, combine the ingredients in a regular skillet or saucepan--you may need a little more liquid). Simmer the chickpeas over low heat, covered, for 30 minutes, to marry the flavors.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
While the chickpeas are cooking, prepare the Saffron-Lime Aioli: Crush a pinch of saffron threads into a small bowl. Add 1 tablespoon hot water, stir, then let the saffron soak for about 10 minutes. Press the threads with the back of a spoon to release more color and flavor. Stir in the mayonnaise, lime juice, olive oil, garlic, cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Let the flavors unfold while you make the fish.
Pick out and discard the hot peppers, if used, from the chickpeas. Scoop out about half the chickpeas from the skillet and set them aside in a bowl. Arrange the remaining chickpeas evenly in the pan (or if you used a small pan, arrange half of the chickpeas in a baking pan just large enough to accommodate the fish), and place the fish over the chickpeas in the pan. Sprinkle the fish with lemon or lime juice, cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. Top with 2 tablespoons of the chopped cilantro. Spoon the remaining chickpeas over the fish. Drizzle everything with 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Cover the pan (or use heavy-duty foil), and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the fish is just cooked through; the exact time will depend on the variety and thickness of the fish. To test the fish for doneness, insert a thin-bladed knife in the thickest part. The fish should be opaque or show a slight bit of translucence, according to your preference.
Check the aioli for seasoning. If desired, thin it out with a tablespoon or so of the cooking liquid from the fish.
Scatter the remaining 2 tablespoons of cilantro, the lime or lemon zest, and, if you’d like, some more hot pepper flakes over the fish. I like to stir some of the aioli into the chickpeas and pan liquid, dollop a little atop the fish, and pass the rest separately in a sauce boat. But if you prefer, serve all the aioli on the side. Garnish the platter with cilantro sprigs.