The French are particularly proud of their own cuisine–rightfully so–and the “foreign” section of supermarkets is slim and perplexing (you can find marshmallow fluff but no chocolate chips, not even from Nestlé, which is right next door in Switzerland; there are canned beans in some unnaturally colored sauce but good luck finding black beans, canned or dry). All the same, the top take-out food is pizza, a favorite for feeding a crowd is paella and everybody loves couscous.
As pizza comes from France’s neighbor to the east and paella from its neighbor to the south, couscous comes from its neighbors across the Mediterranean–North Africa–which also has a large representation among the immigrant community in France, the former colonial power. Lots of restaurants serve couscous and tajines, either traditional or given modern twists.
At home, the thing about couscous is that you can’t go wrong. Cook some vegetables into a soup, grill some meat, steam some couscous semolina–the grainy pasta that gives the dish its name. What you put in depends on what you have, but the usual suspects are popular: onions, garlic, carrots, turnips, tomatoes (canned stewed whole, in winter), potatoes, peppers red and/or green. Chickpeas always. Other options: zucchini, eggplant, celery, fava beans, cabbage, squash or pumpkin, beets, artichoke hearts, raisins….I’ve even snuck in broccoli stems (nutritious but not beautiful! trim the woody parts and dice small enough that the pieces can get soft). An opportunity to empty the fridge. You also can add fresh or dried herbs such as parsley, coriander, thyme….
For spices, you also get to pick and choose, though the dominant flavoring is ras el hanout, or “top of the shop”–a mix of the best spices the seller has on offer, and thus varying from vendor to vendor. Typical ingredients include cumin, ground coriander seeds, tumeric, ground ginger, cinnamon, cardamon, fenugreek, fennel, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, mace, and different kinds of pepper and chilies. If you don’t find it in a shop, you can make your own–and change it up so your couscous always delivers a bit of a surprise. I have no shortage of North African shops to turn to here and buy my ras el hanout in small quantities so I can always try different ones.
You’re supposed to cook the vegetables with a piece of mutton, often the neck, but I don’t appreciate the flavor of lamb and want to avoid meat altogether. After all, the chickpeas plus the couscous make a complete protein. A great meatless meal.
That doesn’t fly with the Carnivore, who wants lamb chops AND spicy merguez. You also can make couscous with chicken if you prefer. Couscous royale includes multiple cuts of lamb, merguez (which also is lamb but I guess doesn’t count because it’s always listed separately) and chicken. You can season the lamb and chicken with cumin and coriander powder or with herbes de Provence (thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram).
Whenever I make soup, I like to brown the onions in some olive oil first, which adds a depth of flavor that you miss if you throw everything directly into a pot of water (if you are including a piece of meat in the soup, then brown it first, too). Then I add minced garlic and the hard vegetables like carrots and potato, which I’ve cut into chunks. You want the pieces to be small enough to cook through but not so small that they’ll fall apart into mush. I keep adding the vegetables, then the canned whole tomatoes, which I break up with a wooden spoon. I add a two or three can-fuls of water to rinse out the last juices and to bring up the liquid level. I also add a small can of tomato paste, which has a richer flavor, and rinse that can, too. You don’t need to completely cover the vegetables–you’ll see how the liquid rises as the vegetables cook. Don’t forget the chickpeas. Add the ras el hanout and any other spices you fancy–a few strands of saffron, or extra cumin or tumeric? Or maybe some grated fresh ginger or diced fresh green chilies? Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat to low and cover and let it simmer for a couple of hours. It’s one of those dishes that’s better the next day. If you’re making it for the same day, count on at least 1.5 hours for it to cook.
If you are cooking with dried chickpeas, you have to plan ahead to soak them the night before in cold, salted water.
Now, the traditional way to make couscous is with a couscoussier, a special kind of steamer in which the bottom holds the soup, and it’s the steam from the soup that cooks the couscous semoule–the tiny pasta that looks like grain or rice–in the top part.
On my trips to Morocco, I got to visit local homes and see couscous being made the traditional way. In the movie “Julie & Julia,” Julie tries to handle hot canneloni without using utensils in order to get used to it. Well, in Morocco, the women would take steaming couscous and, with red, calloused bare hands, spread it out on the table to massage in olive oil, then repeat maybe half an hour later with butter, and again later with olive oil, etc. D.I.V.I.N.E.
I tried to replicate–NOT with my bare hands–the steps of adding oil and butter to the couscous, but it never came out the same as in Morocco. It was lumpy, not fluffy. Finally, I gave up and followed the directions on the package: measure your dry couscous (it comes in kilogram packages here, which is 2.2 pounds, or almost seven cups…make it all–it reheats well, and you’ll have leftover soup, guaranteed). Bring the same volume of water to a boil. While the water heats up, in a large bowl mix the dry couscous with two tablespoons of olive oil per cup of couscous. Pour the boiling water over this oiled couscous. Cover and let it sit for three minutes. Fluff. Add a half teaspoon of butter per cup of couscous and microwave for two minutes. Fluff again to distribute the butter. Voilà.Before making the couscous semoule, cook the meat–you can grill it, weather permitting, or cook it in the oven, on the stovetop (we use a plancha when it’s raining) or broil it. A rotisserie chicken is another option….
Couscous Maison shopping checklist
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves (more always welcome–up to you)
2-3 carrots, cut into inch-long chunks
1-2 turnips, cut into half-inch chunks
1 large can (480 g/ about 3 cups) whole, peeled stewed tomatoes
1 small can (140 g, about half a cup) tomato paste
Other vegetables as you like, cut into chunks–I aim for a few others, like one or two small zucchini and maybe a small slice of squash (it’s sold by the slice at markets here). More vegetable variety = more vitamins, but also more volume; consider how much you want to make, though leftovers freeze nicely.
Herbs–fresh parsley or coriander
Couscous semolina, 500 grams (about 3.25 cups) for four people
Harissa is the wild card here. It’s easy to find here, but you might have to hunt for it in other countries. It’s a Tunisian hot pepper paste and not 100% necessary if you don’t like spicy food. You put a little into the soup ladle and drop the ladle into the soup to get some broth, then mix the paste into the broth with your spoon before pouring it over your personal serving, because some like it hot but others not. Beware of squirting harissa directly onto your food!
Have you had couscous? What are your favorite ingredients?