Challenge #2: Snapper M’qualli (Morocco)

Once again, thank you to everyone who voted for our last challenge! The competition is really intense and this is a big one, so please vote for us if you’d like to see us advance! Edit: The voting page is up! Please cast your vote here:

This week’s challenge: Ready to tackle a classic dish from another culture? Pick an ethnic classic that is outside your comfort zone or are not as familiar with. Try to keep the dish as authentic as the real deal.

Christey and I were married in the Tampa Bay area, and one of our favorite restaurants out there is The Pearl. Chef Karim is from Morocco and blends North African and Mediterranean cooking in really fun ways.

I love blending cultures in a meal. Caribbean with African, Asian with French. Oddly, I’ve never attempted anything Moroccan before, so I was inspired by this challenge to give it a try for the first time.

Morocco itself has always been a cultural melting pot with its strategic location at the entrance of the Mediterranean. Local Berbers have mixed with Arab settlers, Spanish and Portuguese expatriates, Sephardic Jewish refugees, and the influence of much of Europe through war and colonialism. Each of these groups brought their own cuisines and blended them with local ingredients. On top of the cultural differences, each individual family has their version of classic dishes, so “authentic Moroccan” is something of a moving target.

Tagine is one of the most commonly known Moroccan (and North African) methods of cooking, usually referring to the conical cooking pot, but also referring to the style of the meal. The type of tagine I chose to cook is the m’qualli, which typically involves oil, saffron, and lemons, though the other ingredients vary widely. It’s similar to chili in Texas — meat and tomatoes form the base but everyone has their own recipe with additional ingredients, usually following family lines.

For the protein, m’qualli is typically chicken, but may also use lamb or beef or goat or fish. Living in Florida, I definitely wanted to make a seafood version, which typically uses whole fish. I chose to use whole local yellowtail snapper for freshness reasons.

Snapper mouths expand to quickly snap up their prey.

My snapper came gutted, but it still had scales and the gills. The gills leave a bitter taste when cooked, so it’s necessary to cut them out either by hand, or with kitchen shears. The scales are inedible, and I happen to have a fish scaler (I’m an avid fisherman), but a spoon or a steak knife also works to scrape off the scales. Your fishmonger may also scale and gill the fish if you ask.

M’qualli commonly uses a spice and herb blend called chermoula, which in itself has varying ingredients. I researched m’qualli and chermoula recipes down to the classic ingredients, but still had to make some choices. Cilantro instead of parsley (either is common). Fresh lemons instead of preserved lemons (there are recipes for either). There are discussions about ginger — fresh, powdered, or whether to use it at all. I figured one of the ways to solve the authenticity question was to use what I could find locally or had on hand — to match the spirit and history of how m’qualli came together. For the chermoula, I ended up with:

1 bunch cilantro
4 cloves garlic
1 inch cube of fresh ginger
1 whole lemon, juiced and zested
2 tablespoons paprika
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
kosher salt
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1/3rd cup olive oil

Finely chopping the cilantro

Peeling then grating the ginger

Mincing the garlic

Adding spices

Mmmmm, saffron

Lemon juiced…

…and zested

Plenty of olive oil

The result is similar to a chimichurri, or a loose pesto. Very herby, but infused with spices.

I happen to have bought a tagine for this challenge (and I’ll surely be using it for many, many meals in the future), but a ceramic roasting pan or a wide cast iron skillet may also be used, with a tent of foil to catch the steam.

I placed the fish in the bottom of the tagine, and covered it with the chermoula.

I made a series of slices thorough the skin, which helps the chermoula infuse the meat, but also helps the fish keep its shape. Snapper skin tends to shrink when cooked, and this sometimes causes the fish to curl in unpredictable ways.

Once the snapper is covered with the chermoula, it’s typically covered with onion slices, lemons, and olives. Once again, I used what I had on hand, which was shallots, and kalamata black olives.

Many recipes also add water or stock, so I added some homemade chicken stock to help the fish cook. This type of cooking is essentially a braise, and a bit of liquid helps steam and braise the fish.

On goes the lid….

And into the oven

The oven was preheated to 400 degrees, and the fish was baked for about 30-40 minutes. The smell was so absolutely amazing at this point. I think everyone in the house knew it was done!

Half of each fish was gently lifted from the bones (it fell right off) and added to a plate with warm couscous. Olives from the tagine were added, and the sauce from the bottom was spooned over the fish and the couscous. We served the fish with crisp, tart white wine from Spain.

This turned out really nice. The fish was so tender, and the sauce was really complex. The cilantro was herby, but balanced by the acid of the lemon and the almost duskiness of the spices. Four cloves of garlic sounds like a lot, but the garlic was almost roasted after 40 minutes in the tagine and was really mellow.

We’ll definitely be making this meal again, maybe with lamb shank. But, I also love how the tagine cooked the food. I could definitely see using it for cross-cultural meals. When the weather gets cooler, I think I’ll try an oxtail stew…


  1. I’m not particularly fond of whole fish, but this dish is so gorgeous I want to try it immediately! I must buy a tagine. What a fabulous cooking vessel. Your photography is beautiful and I enjoyed every word of your post. Thank you for sharing this amazing seafood recipe and best of luck in the PFB competition!

  2. Mom says:

    We were lucky enough to be beneficiaries of this challenge. I would never have sought out a Moroccan dinner, but I have to admit, this was outstanding. The fish was so tender, fabulously picking up the seasoning to a mouth-watering flavor. Christey’s photos make it all look as glorious as it was! Thanks, guys! I am learning to expect nothing less than perfect from your hands.

  3. What a delicious looking meal. And your photos are absolutely gorgeous! I’ve been looking for a whole fish recipe and this looks like one to try. Good luck!

  4. Krissy says:

    So – where’d you end up finding a tagine around here? Do they have any other cool kitchen gadgets? Love the colors in the final picture! Good luck!

  5. petermarcus says:

    TCG — Thanks! It was so tender and flavorful!

    Mom — Thanks for coming and being a part of it!

    Krissy — Williams Sonoma in Winter Park. My folks were on their way out here from St Pete, and I sent them on an errand on the way :)

  6. Delishhh says:

    I went Moroccan too. Your pictures are amazing. Nice work. You have my vote.

  7. looks really wonderful. Voted.

    (I tackled Moroccan too. see my entry here:

  8. Damn you guys are good!!! Gorgeous photos as always.


  9. This looks so tasty!

  10. Kelly says:

    Great pictures! I voted for you.

    Sounding My Barbaric Gulp!

    For the second PFB post, I made pho.

  11. Joan Nova says:

    So glad I saved a vote for you! Wonderful entry. Good luck.

  12. Heather says:

    Gorgeous photos!

  13. Lisa says:

    Who is your photographer? Outstanding photos of what looks like a great dish. Nice job.

  14. Lisa says:

    OK, now that I actually READ who you are and what you do- awesome job to BOTH of you!! Lisa.

  15. I love those photos of the fish. And your dish looks great! Good luck with getting to the next round!

  16. riceandwheat says:

    I’ve been seeing lots of meat tagines for this challenge but this is the first fish one I’ve read and it looks amazing! Great choice and a great post – voting!

  17. Your pictures are gorgeous!! I always wanted to try cooking something in a tagine. Maybe it’s time to make the investment :)
    I tried my hand at the Singaporean chili crab – check it out here:
    PS- you’ve got my vote!

  18. petermarcus says:

    Wow, thanks for all the great comments everyone! We had a great time with it, and thanks for your votes!

  19. Your pictures are so amazing. I hope one day I’ll be able to take pictures like that. Well done! (and I totally love cooking with fish heads; Americans should do it more)

  20. Thanks for the encouragement. Ths Moroccan fish looks delish. My fiancee is Moroccan the food is wonderful. Was considering doing chicken and olives in a tagine for the challenge. Good luck.

  21. shaz says:

    What sumptuous photos! I’ve always wanted a tagine, might have to get one now thanks to your inspiring post. Thanks for visiting my post and you definitely have my vote when I get to a “real” computer (on the road again!) :)

  22. So nice to see more Floridians! i love this post- you have my vote, too!

  23. Wow. I absolutely love this. I’ve read buckets of tagine recipes but nothing has ever spoken to me yet. This looks so wonderful and aromatic. And the chermoula, what an action packed sauce, I think that could be amazing with tons of things – from a flank steak to a rice side dish and could certainly revolutionize chicken! I think we may have similar taste buds! Great job!

  24. Butter says:

    This is my first time at your blog and I love the “about us section” – you have a beautiful story and seem to feed each other’s creative energy – I love that. And now for this particular entry…HOW AMAZING and beautiful. Between the writing, the pictures, the recipe and the voice – everything comes through and made me want o read more. Good job guys! I will definitely vote for you -

    - Butter
    (from Running In Butter)

  25. Kelly says:

    I must say that you photos are AMAZING. I want to eat all the food from your blog. You got my vote!

  26. wow, an amazing dish you presented here! With each photo in your step-by-step, I felt as if I was leaning closer and closer to the computer screen – I had to see more! And I’ve been looking for a new fish recipe, so thanks for sharing! Got my vote!
    Lick My Spoon

  27. Love the photo of the open-mouth fish! Yum! Voted!