I’m enjoying a fair amount of Middle Eastern/North African cooking of late. I love the bold flavors and the high-intensity colors of the dishes from that region. Brings back good memories, too.
When the world was a gentler place, my husband and I did a lot of travelling in Egypt, Turkey and Morocco. From Morocco’s B’stilla (an over-the-top cinnamon spiced egg, almond, and cilantro filling stuffed into a phyllo dough crust and then improbably dusted with powdered sugar) to Egypt’s Om Ali (Egypt’s take on bread pudding–puff pastry with nuts, raisins, coconut and spices in a milk/cream pudding) to Turkey’s Imam Bayildi (vegetable-stuffed eggplants), I fell in love with the food, the adventure of trying new things, and the colorful stories that were often attached to the recipes. (Speaking of colorful stories, the name of that last dish translates to “the imam fainted” and the story goes that the imam fainted because the dish was so unexpectedly delicious.) I will post recipes for these dishes. I promise. I’ve made them all in my home kitchen and they are delicious and doable.
This recipe for Hielem is an adaptation of one of the soup recipes from Martha Rose Shulman’s 500-recipe book, Mediterranean Harvest. (Mediterranean Harvest is available on Amazon.)The dish is a staple of Tunisian cuisine and you can find many recipes that are variations on the bean-tomato-greens theme. For example, Greg and Lucy Malouf have a recipe for this dish in their cookbook, New Feast, that incorporates a bit of honey and is topped with coarsely-grated hard boiled eggs and capers. ( I can’t wait to try that one.)
This Hlelem is made with chickpeas and beans, onions, lots of garlic, tomato paste, greens and topped with a generous scoop of couscous and as many dollops of harissa as you can safely handle. (Harissa is a fiery chili paste.) The end product is a thick-spicy-wonderful soup that will send you to bed full and satisfied. Add a slice of baklava and this simple soup and dessert menu becomes guest-worthy.
I used Rancho Gordo’s dry chickpeas and cassoulet beans for my soup. (The original recipe called for chickpeas and baby limas.) If you are unfamiliar with Rancho Gordo, they sell dried heirloom beans and the quality of their products is exceptional. Here is a link to their site: Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans.
Your guests will thank you for this soup, or, as they say in Turkey at the end of a meal, Elinize sağlik. (Elinize saglik is a gentle compliment to the hostess, meaning “Bless your hand” and is offered as a thank you after the meal.)
- 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion (chopped)
- 4 garlic cloves (minced)
- 1 celery stalk (chopped)
- 1 C. dried chickpeas (picked over, rinsed and soaked in 4 C. water overnight and drained--or, alternatively, cooked in an Instant Pot)
- 1 C. giant white beans soaked in 4 C. water overnight and drained---or, alternatively, cooked in an Instant Pot)
- 6 C. water
- 1 can (6 oz.) tomato paste
- 1/2 pound baby spinach
- 1/2 C. flat-leafed parsley (chopped)
- 1/2 C. broken vermicelli
- 1-2 t. Harissa (I used Trader Joe's brand that comes in a jar)
- Freshly ground papper
- Lemon Wedges (for garnish)
- Couscous (for garnish)
- Basil leaves (for garnish)
- Heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until the onion is tender. This will take about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and celery and cook, stirring, for about one minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Add the chickpeas, white beans, water and tomato paste. Bring this mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer for 1 hour.
- Add the salt and the spinach and parsley. Cover and simmer for another 30 minutes to 1 hour or until the broth is fragrant and the beans and vegetables are tender.
- Stir in the vermicelli and simmer until the vermicelli is tender.
- Stir in the harissa and pepper. Taste and add more salt to your taste. Serve with lemon wedges and garnished with a scoop of coursous, a small dollop of harissa and decorative basil leaves.