This recipe by Aube Giroux of Kitchen Vignettes is one of the most stunning in our culinary arsenals and it comes from the magnificent Tunisian island of Djerba. Vibrant herbal greens add brightness alongside tomatoes and hot peppers, lightening the starches of basmati rice, potatoes, and chickpeas. Aromatic coriander and caraway seeds offer a subtle hint of citrus while paprika and turmeric provide a balancing earthiness and outstanding colour.
The preparation for this dish is remarkably simply: the ingredients are chopped, combined in a large bowl, then steamed, making this the ideal recipe to prepare over the holidays when we don't have the time or cookware to accommodate complex recipes! We also learned we could save the remaining liquid from the steaming—which gets infused with the phenomenal flavors of the riz djerbien—as a vegetable stock an it has transformed our other holiday dishes!
I will never forget the first time I ate this dish.
I was visiting my dear friend Synda in Tunisia, and her downstairs neighbour who is from the island of Djerba had offered to make us a big bowl of this rice, prepared in the authentic Djerbian way. We had barely eaten anything that day in anticipation of this meal, so by the time Khalti Baya called us downstairs, we were two very, very hungry girls. We sat in her tiny dark living room and she ceremoniously emerged from her kitchen with the largest bowl I'd ever seen, filled with a deep red rice flecked with dark green. The steamy fragrance emanating from the magical rice was out of this world. We each grabbed a spoon and dove in, eating straight out of the same bowl in traditional Tunisian style. Well. Our mouths began to burn, our cheeks turned bright red, and we broke into a sweat. But we couldn't slow our voracious feasting down because it was one of the most delicious things we had ever tasted in our lives. So we just kept eating and eating, moaning and panting through the pain and laughing with pleasure, sweat pouring down our faces, mouths on fire. My whole head felt like the lid on a boiling kettle of water, whistling and ready to pop right off. The memory is seared into my brain forever as an oddly wonderful blend of agony and delight. I guess that's why people like spicy food so much, it gives you such a strange pleasure high.
It's a challenge to exactly recreate the magic of Khalti Baya's "Rouz Djerbi" or "Riz Djerbien" as it's called in Tunisia, but Synda's version is equally delicious, though a bit less spicy, especially when she makes it for a western audience :-) But you can adapt this recipe to the level of heat you like, adding more hot peppers or cayenne if you wish. And of course, if you can get your hands on some real Tunisian harissa, throw in a couple tablespoonfuls as well!
One thing I love about this recipe is how you simply mix all the ingredients in one giant bowl. Then steam the whole thing for an hour. So aside from the rinsing and chopping of vegetables, it's really fairly quick and easy to prepare.
Be sure to use a long grain white rice such as basmati, and not the short sweet brown rice you see in the above video, I made the mistake of thinking I could use another kind of rice than what is used in Tunisia and it was too heavy and sticky in the final dish.
This dish is quite nourishing served on its own but it also makes a wonderful accompaniment served with grilled meat. In Tunisia, chopped meat is sometimes added directly to the rice mixture before the steaming stage. Feel free to add about 500 grams of either chopped lamb, chicken, or beef if you prefer a meaty version. Simply cube the raw meat into bite-size pieces and add it to the mixture before steaming(1)
You can sub other greens in lieu of the spinach, but try to use spinach if you can, it will yield the best results. The gorgeous spinach you see in the video is from the one and only Hatchet Cove Farm in Maine. A large leaf, freshly harvested local organic spinach is recommended, if available.
As they say in Tunisia, shehia taeeba (bon appétit)!
Yield: 6-8 servings
2 cups organic white basmati rice
1/3 cup olive oil
3 Tbsp tomato paste
1 pound (2 bunches) fresh organic spinach, chopped
1 large bunch flat-leaf parsley (2 to 3 cups, chopped)
2 medium sweet white onions (about 2 cups chopped)
1 medium head of garlic, chopped finely (about 1/4 cup chopped)
2 medium potatoes, cubed
1 medium tomato, chopped
3 large carrots, chopped
1 cup cooked chickpeas
1 1/2 Tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground caraway
1 1/2 Tbsp smoked paprika
1 small dried hot red pepper (or 1 tsp hot pepper flakes)
1 tsp turmeric
2 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Rinse the rice well. Drain the water out and place the rice in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and tomato paste and mix well.
Now add the chopped spinach, chopped parsley, chopped onion, chopped garlic, cubed potatoes, chopped tomato, chopped carrots, chick peas, and all the spices to the rice. Mix everything together very well.
Pour this mixture into the top part of a large deep steamer and place on top of approximately 1 inch of boiling water. Make sure the top of the water isn't touching the bottom of the steamer.
Cover the steamer with a lid and allow the whole thing to steam on medium heat for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, check the water level in the bottom pot and add more water if necessary.
Carefully spoon out the steaming rice into a large bowl and gently mix it with a large wooden spoon. This will allow the rice to finish steaming more evenly.
Return the rice mixture to the steamer and continue steaming with the lid on for 30 more minutes or until the rice is cooked to perfection. Serve warm and enjoy!