How to Make the Perfect Couscous

Reading the august Le Monde the other day, I noticed a small article buried in the middle titled France’s most popular dish, the fabled couscous! Apparently its popularity is such that it has become the number one dish served in most regions, and the hidden beauty of it is that it can be prepared as a succulent meat dish, or as a seafood extravaganza or as a sumptuous vegetarian feast, as the pic below attests.

For me, the traditional Algerian version, the couscous Royale (without cheese!) – with lamb, chicken, merguez, chick peas (garbanzo) and served with a steaming bowl of spicy broth laced with harissa is de rigueur. I had the good fortune of having been raised in a seasonal hotel on the Riviera, and was taught how to prepare the Berber version by one particularly genial Kabyle man, Abel, and I am grateful to this day to have had not only his friendship but also inherited his culinary taste in all things North African.

Naturally, historians have different opinions as to the origin of couscous. Some have even claimed that it originated from China (well, this may be not so far fetched since pasta was brought back by Marco Polo) while others, plausibly, trace its roots to North African origin, as the text below testifies:

In the 11th century, the Arabo-Islamic conquest helped disseminate couscous to all around the North-African region. Economic growth and the development of wheat farming both accelerated this expansion. Thus couscous was brought to Andalusia, and the Mediterranean perimeter. Even the 16th century French writer Francois Rabelais was able to appreciate the taste of “Coscoton la Moresque” in Provence. South America became acquainted with couscous as well, through the Portuguese community who emigrated from Morocco.

The “conquest” of couscous as a hearty dish continued during the 20th century, driven by large waves of migration from North Africa to various European countries and especially France and Italy, where it became increasingly popular. Couscous is actually a form of pasta, made from wheat and can be tricky to get right and fluffy unless you buy it in a highly processed form: add boiling water, a dash of olive oil and fork it over till it is separated…and fluffy. If you are wheat intolerant, look no further than quinoa, a wholly gluten free grain (eaten like a grain but is actually a seed with the husk removed), high in protein and an excellent source of essential amino acids. It is also higher in unsaturated fats and lower in carbohydrates.

This is a great dish to prepare for a large group of people, winter or summer, and any leftovers can be accommodated into a spectacular salad the next day. If you want to be a purist, you’d have to have a Couscoussière (pic below), a two-tiered contraption that allows the grain to be steamed to perfection.

However, nowadays one can purchase a perfectly acceptable grain in a packet and simply follow its directions, then add a a few tablespoons of virgin olive oil, and fluff it when the accompanying dishes are ready.

Couscous Royale:

this is for 8 to 10 persons: 6 to 8 lamb neck chops, 1 large free-range chicken, 2 pounds of Merguez sausages (or 2 per person – though personally I could eat those till I explode)), 2 packets of ready-made couscous (roughly 2 pounds), 6 medium-sized zucchinis, 2 large eggplants, 6 to 8 young turnips, 1 bunch celery, 8 to 10 carrots, 3 or 4 Spanish onions, half a pound of dried garbanzo beans (also called chick peas, a must in any couscous), 2 cans of peeled tomatoes (roughly 1 pound), a small can of tomato paste, 3 tbspoons paprika, 3 tbspoons Ras el hanout, a large pinch of saffron, a large pinch of herbs de Provence, olive oil, salt & pepper, and 2 pints of chicken stock (either one you can make in advance or made with a good quality bouillon cubes). It is essential you procure yourself with a small can of harissa, awonderful paste made with chilies, garlic, cilantro and other spices.

First, rinse and soak the garbanzo beans. Then trim the lamb chops and cut into large cubes of around 2 to 3 inches. Put them into a bowl, add a pinch of sea salt, some cracked pepper, a pinch of herbs de Provence and douse with olive oil. Mix well and marinate for a couple of hours. In the meantime, cut the chicken into pieces and rub them with the paprika and Ras el hanout. In a large pot, over medium heat, pour 2 pints of water and 1 pint of chicken stock (this will lengthen your stock and give it extra taste). Peel all the vegetables except the eggplant (why some people would get rid of the skin is beyond me, it’s where the taste is) and the zucchinis, and cut in big chunks. When the water is simmering, drop the chicken pieces and the lamb chops and simmer for 30 minutes then add all the vegetables, the tinned tomatoes, as they are, the tomato paste and the other pint of chicken stock. At this stage I would add a large dollop of the famed harissa, and believe me, this will give the stock the needed kick it deserves. Simmer the whole lot for another 30 minutes, then add the garbanzo beans and cook till they are soft, usually around 30 to 40 minutes. Now you’re wondering what to do with the Merguez sausages. There are two schools of thought: either you roast them slowly in the oven and serve them on top of the platter, or add them to the stock 10 to 15 minutes before serving. I go with the former, I like my snags nice and crunchy. Last but not least, make sure you have your couscous grain ready, and your individual plate should look like this:

Usually a large serving pot is placed in the middle of the table with the stock, so everyone can add this exotic liquid at will.

I have made seafood couscous using a firm white flesh fish, and added mussels, shrimps and sometimes soft shell crabs towards the end. It’s basically the same process as the meaty one, same amount of vegetables and spices. As for the vegetarian version, I would use a vegetable stock, and add greens like kale, chard and spinach.

Note: if you want to use quinoa instead of couscous, know that in its raw form it is coated with a bitter-tasting deposit called saponin. Check the directions on the package – if the manufacturer hasn’t processed the quinoa to remove the resin, you’ll need to give it a thorough rinse before cooking, which by the way takes half the time as rice, and is incredibly nutritious.

In contemporary times quinoa has come to be highly appreciated for its nutritional value, as its protein content (12%–18%) is very high. Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it an unusually complete foodstuff. This means it takes less quinoa protein to meet one’s needs than wheat protein. It is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten free and considered easy to digest.

And a last word and a pic: one of the best thing about couscous is that there will be leftovers, and the pic below is of a salad made with it, adding some greens and smoked tofu. East meets West.


This entry was posted in Food, Memoirs, Recipes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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