Category: Pasta with Variety Meats
Difficulty: Medium Difficulty
The meal eaten by the seigneurs and big merchants in the Dra region of Morocco described by Ḥasan al-Wazan, known as Leo Africanus (c. 1465-1550), of “roast mutton and gruel in a very fine puff pastry, layered like a lasagna, but more firm and thick than that pasta used for lasagna,” followed by couscous, was a rare occurrence, but the lasagna that he mentions is interesting. He’s comparing this preparation of rich merchants with lasagna, a food he must be familiar with from travels in North Africa. It is one of the earliest mentions of its being in North Africa with which I am familiar. Lasagna is known today in North Africa, as we can see by this traditional recipe from the Algerian oasis town of Biskra in the Sahara.
Biskra sits on the northern edge of the great desert, but it is considered a southern town. This shakhshūkha is a pasta fresca in the form of lasagne or pasta flakes, and not the vegetable-and egg-preparation that is becoming more familiar throughout the European Mediterranean as a kind of Tunisian ratatouille (called shakhshūkha), nor is it the Moroccan salade composé of tomatoes and peppers.
In Biskra, shakhshūkha is the name of a very thin fresh lasagna preparation cooked in a kiskis (couscousière) with a blazing hot sauce of lamb brains, tomatoes, and spices. This recipe is typical in oasis towns where they also make a family of lasagna preparations, sometimes using mutton or chicken or ultra-thin lasagne sheets in various shapes known as afṭīr wa’l-qiṣīl (a kind of faṭīr, made of young barley or wheat). Afṭīr wa’l-qiṣīl is the name used by the people of the Kabylie of Algeria to refer to a very thin pasta cut into strips like angel hair pasta, while in Algiers they call it qaṭṭa wa ramy, “cut and throw,” meaning the pasta is cut into strips and thrown into boiling bouillon.
If you decide to make the lasagna in the top portion of couscousière and the sauce in the bottom portion, it is best to use lightly oiled fresh pasta sheets. This recipe assumes you will boil the lasagna. The reason you are boiling “no-boil” lasagna (if not using homemade lasagna sheets) is because the manufacturer assumes you will be baking the lasagna rather than cooking it in this manner. Because there are no guidelines for boiling times on packages of no-boil lasagna, you must check often to ensure that the pasta is cooked just past the al dente stage, which will be about 6 minutes.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings
Preparation Time: 2:30 hours
1. Soak the brains in cold water to cover acidulated with 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice for 1 hour, changing the water every 15 minutes and adding another tablespoon lemon juice each time.
2. Place the brains in a medium-size pot of cold water to cover and bring to a very gentle boil. Reduce the heat to under a boil and poach the brains until firm to the touch, about 20 minutes. Drain, then dice once cool enough to handle. Set aside.
3. In the bottom part of a couscousière or in a large pot fitted with a colander if using freshly made lasagna, or in a large casserole if using no-boil lasagna, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook the onion until translucent, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the salt and pepper, harīsa, cayenne, cumin, and caraway, stir well, add the tomato purée and tomato paste, chick-peas, and 1 cup of the water, and cook for 10 minutes. Add the remaining 3 cups water, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Add the brains and potatoes and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil if using no-boil lasagna, salt abundantly, and add the lasagna. Drain when cooked a bit more than al dente, about 6 minutes, and cut crosswise into squares. If using fresh lasagna, cut into small squares, toss with a little olive oil, and place in the top portion of the couscousière or in the colander and steam until the squares are soft, 10 to 15 minutes, tossing occasionally so they don’t stick together.
5. Transfer the cooked lasagna to the bottom portion of the couscousière or pot or to the casserole, mix well with the brains and potatoes, and serve immediately with the grated cheese on top.