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.
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.
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.
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.
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.