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Tagine dreams

Farid Zadi is inspiring a California passion for North African cooking.

January 10, 2007|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

FARID ZADI is finishing off a tagine of lamb shanks braised with nuts and apricots in spicy tomato sauce, the crown of a meal that includes four Algerian salads and the flaky filo snacks called brik. As he skims the fat from the tagine's red-orange surface, he slyly says, "This is the French chef in me. In Algeria, they probably wouldn't skim it."

Born in France of Algerian Berber ancestry, married to an American woman born in Korea, with cooking experience in five countries, Zadi, 39, has the sort of cosmopolitan perspective that probably represents the future of cuisine. He's knowledgeable about North African food as well as classical French cookery.

His bully pulpit isn't a restaurant but a Le Cordon Bleu course at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, where he's training many of the upcoming generation of chefs. They're basically learning French technique, but Zadi makes sure they know the right way to make a couscous as well.

He's making his influence felt through his writing and food blogging too, and he champions North African cuisine as a board member of the new Pan-Arab division of Slow Food International, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving traditional cuisines.

"I first learned of him by reading his defense of Algerian food on eGullet.com," says food writer Paula Wolfert. "It was very touching -- so smart, so passionate, so directed toward what quite a few of us are interested in."

Training and passion are fine things, but the proof is in the tagine. The fact is, Zadi is a brilliant chef. Everything he touches explodes with fragrance.

North African food -- perhaps the last underappreciated Mediterranean cuisine -- has been slipping more and more into the mainstream around here, particularly during the last year. More and more Southern California restaurants now find room on their menus for a couscous, such as the mint-infused version on which L.A.'s Water Grill serves Dungeness crab cakes. Other North African elements are showing up too, such as the merguez lamb sausage at the Vertical Wine Bistro in Pasadena, the Cornish hen bestila at Bin 8945 in West Hollywood and the homemade harissa hot sauce that Hollywood's Hungry Cat serves with seared tuna.

As with the earlier influences of French and Japanese cuisine, we can expect to see culinary fusion (we're already seeing it in, say, the veal chop with walnut couscous at Studio at Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach). Our tables should be wonderfully enriched with North Africa's perfumed spices, feather-light couscous and earthy hot sauces.

And this is Zadi's bailiwick. On the one hand, he's cooked at the famous two-star Restaurant Jacques Cagna in Paris. On the other, he spent part of his youth in Setif, his family's hometown in the Kabylie region of northeastern Algeria, where he herded sheep in upland pastures.

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Country at heart

SO he's both a cosmopolitan and a homeboy. "When I went to Oran [in western Algeria], they told me I'm more French than Algerian," he recalls with a pitying look. "I told them, 'I'm more country than any of you.' "

Right now he's demonstrating some of his dishes: the tagine; a carrot-fennel salad; a blood orange, fennel and onion salad; a roast-chicken brik (a savory filled pastry); various condiments; and, for dessert, a sweet, nut-filled pastry with blood orange sauce.

He's cooking at his mother-in-law's house in Montebello, assisted by his wife, Ji-Young, who also knows her way around Algerian food and comes at things from her own non-European perspective.

What is Algerian food? Zadi has been writing a book that will address its history, but he's reluctant to draw any sharp lines dividing Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines. They all have a lot in common, such as the spice-rich stews called tagines and specific ingredients such as couscous, preserved lemons and a local flaky pastry somewhat similar to filo.

Still, he points out, Algeria does have a focus of its own. It's known for its use of tomato sauces and harissa. Americans would be struck by how often Algerian cooks flavor dishes with one part or another of the fennel plant -- seed, bulb or fronds (a salad may consist of olives dressed with fennel puree). Altogether, Algerians eat a lot of salads, particularly of mixed wild greens.

By comparison with Moroccan cuisine, which is colored by the aristocratic traditions of its royal cities, Algerian food tends to be simple and earthy. What's the recipe for the famous Algerian spice mixture ras el hanout? "It's just all the spices you have on hand," says Zadi -- but freshly ground (he even grinds his own turmeric root). Over and over, in demonstrating his recipes, he emphasizes that ingredients can be substituted according to availability or desire.

Not that simplicity means predictability. On his website, Zadi gives a recipe for an elegantly simple couscous flavored with lavender flowers.

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