When I was 23 years old, I moved to Santa Fe by myself. One of my many early jobs in this town was to collect payments from advertisers for the local alt-weekly, The Santa Fe Reporter. Some other time I’ll talk about the other great ways Santa Fe and the people I met there influenced my life, but I’ve got a specific topic for this post.
One day I met Salah Helal, a guy who was running some little ads in The Reporter for his restaurant in a strip mall called the “Pyramid Cafe”. Salah was from Tunisia. He lived in Santa Fe where he rode a motorcycle and worked as a mechanic until he met the former owner of his restaurant. He and his cousin Ziggy had lunch one day at the then Greek restaurant, and chatted with the owner who talked about wanting to get rid of the place. They bought the restaurant, and Salah, who learned to cook from his mother in Tunisia, recreated the menu and made the place his own.
I was a young, poor, eager graphic designer living on the other side of the country from my family and everyone I had ever really known. I helped him design some business cards and a takeout menu, he paid me a little money and fed me lots of his food, and we became friends. Salah introduced me to so many dishes I would grow to love, like merguez and some of his own Tunisian specialties, including a spicy carrot salad he called Salata Houriya.
I moved back to New York City after I met Brad in 2004, but we stayed friends for several years. I went to see Salah at Pyramid Cafe and have some of his food every time I returned to Santa Fe (where I have now been away from for too long). He once Fedexed me some frozen merguez (which he made himself with grass-fed lamb that he sourced from farmers in southern New Mexico) that was defrosted and starting to drip out of the box when it arrived at my Brooklyn apartment. We ate it immediately and it was delicious. Last I heard he was starting a new business and recently married to a woman from Tunisia, and we’ve since lost touch (Salah, if you come across this blog post, call me!).
I regret never asking Salah for his recipes. Last summer I started making this carrot salad, it’s just a simple dish of raw carrots, freshly toasted spices and mint, but it always makes me think of his Salata Houriya. I still hope to travel to Tunisia some day to see and taste Salah’s home for myself.
Spiced Carrot Salad
- 6 large carrots, shredded*
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
- 2 lemons, juice and zest
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1/2 cup chopped mint
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley
- salt and pepper to taste
*I use the shredding disk in my food processor to prepare the carrots, but the large holes on a regular box grater will work just fine.
In a hot dry skillet, toast the spices. They’re ready when you can smell them, note the seeds can go quickly from toasted to burned.
Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and toss to combine well. If the mixture seems dry, you can add a bit more oil. Allow to rest for at least one hour or refrigerate overnight, stirring occasionally. Bring to room temperature, tossing well before serving. This salad gets better with time – the carrots release sweet juices that mix with the oil and lemon and cause the raisins to plump, while the spices and mint permeate the whole dish.
Bonus Points: This salad is totally picnic perfect. It’s easy and delicious, packs well and tastes great later.