This week I learned that I’ve been going about couscous all-wrong. To right this wrong, this post is more about technique, rather than a particular recipe. Until now, my method for cooking couscous was bringing water or broth to a boil, stirring in couscous, turning off the heat, and letting the couscous stand in the hot water for 10-15 minutes before fluffing. I’ve been using this method for years. So, when Omar suggested that I ask Madam Ayesha (or A’isha) to teach me to “make couscous” my initial thought was that she’d teach me how to make the sauce and vegetables that go into a traditional Moroccan 7 vegetable couscous, not the couscous itself. Oh, was I mistaken.
First, a little bit about Seven-Vegetable Couscous. From what I’m told and what I’ve been able to research on the internet, Moroccans consider it good luck to combine seven vegetables in one dish. Because Madam A’isha and I have a pretty substantial language barrier, I could not get a straight answer, or at least I could not confidently understand her answer when I asked whether there must be a specific combination of seven vegetables, or if any seven will do. Regardless, there are several vegetables I see consistently appearing in recipes and these include carrots, mini-zucchinis, parsnips or turnips, onions, and tomatoes. Many recipes also incorporate squash/pumpkin, cabbage, and/or potatoes. The magic number appears to be seven, so I’ll use that as my guide when I make this on my own. Plus, I’m not going to purposely give up an opportunity for some good luck!
Ok, onto the equipment. Madam A’isha brought us a couscoussier and I am a proud owner of this wondrously large device. A couscoussier looks like a double boiler. The bottom chamber is quite large and holds the soup/stew with the vegetables and the meat. The top chamber is a steaming basket that sits atop the bottom chamber. This is how the flavors of the stew are infused into the couscous, without over saturating the couscous with liquid (apparently, a BIG NO-NO). Apparently, traditional couscous is steamed three times, and Madam A’isha faithfully followed and showed me this method. It turns out wonderfully, flavorful couscous that is light, fluffy and not overcooked.
The methodology and a rough recipe follows. The recipe is easily modified for vegetarian tastes by omitting meat, and you can add or take away spices your prefer. In my short time here, I’ve seen couscous served with chickpeas and broad beans as well. One thing is for sure, in Rabat, couscous is NOT a condiment. It is the main course. Don’t have a couscoussier? Food & Wine has a great method and recipe for steaming couscous, that can be found here.
I looks labor intensive. It kinda is. Try it. Hands down, this was the best couscous I’ve had.
4-5 cups of dry couscous (the traditional recipes calls for an entire kilo, but there is no way Omar and I would eat a kilo of couscous)
1 pound of lamb or beef, on the bone and cut into large chunks (I think we used shoulder – just choose a lean, tough cut as you would for a stew)
2 large onions, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon dried ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 handful fresh parsley
1 handful fresh cilantro (coriander)
2 quarts of water, plus more as needed
1 small cabbage, washed and cut into large pieces
7-8 small carrots, peeled and cut into chunks (not baby carrots)
3-4 turnips, peeled and quartered
1-2 medium, waxy potatoes, washed and quartered
3-4 small tomatoes, peeled and quartered
4-5 small zucchini, ends removed and halved
Place the base of the couscoussier over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive oil, meat, 2 onions, the dried spices, a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper, stirring to coat. Cook for 8-10 minutes, until the meat is browned.
Add the water, the fresh parsley, and fresh cilantro, then cover and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce the heat to medium and keep it at a hearty simmer for 20-25 minutes.
The 1st Steaming
While the meat is simmering, begin preparing the couscous. In a large bowl empty the couscous and drizzle about 1/8 cup olive oil over the couscous. Work the oil into the couscous with your hands, swirling and rubbing the couscous vigorously with your hands to coat the couscous. Next, drizzle about ½-3/4 cups of water over the couscous and work it in with your hands the same way. The couscous should not feel wet, and should not be clumpy. In fact it hardly feels moist at all, but the grains are evenly coated.
Take 2 handfuls of couscous and spread it in the bottom of the steamer basket with your hands to form a barrier (so the couscous doesn’t go through all of the steam holes), then add the remaining couscous into the basket.
Add the cabbage to the broth, keep the stew liquid going at a hearty simmer and place the steaming basket on top of the base and cover. Let the couscous steam for about 15 minutes.
The 2nd Steaming
Remove the lid and the steamer basket from the base. Transfer the couscous from the steamer basket back into the large bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and another 1/8 cup olive oil, and GRADUALLY work in about a cup of water, rubbing and swirling the couscous between tween your hands like you did before the first steaming.
Madame A’isha has experienced hands and went at this right away, but I think I would let the couscous cool a little bit before I could get my hands in there and working the salt and water into the couscous. Return the couscous back to the steamer basket.
Add the carrots, turnips, and potatoes to the stew simmering in the base. Once the stew returns to the hearty simmer, place the steaming basket atop of the base, cover, and steam for another 15-20 minutes.
The 3rd Steaming
Repeat the same steps as in the second steaming, but work in 2-3 cups of water by rubbing and swirling the couscous with your hands in the large bowl. Taste the couscous and add salt only if desired. Transfer the couscous back to the steaming basket.
Add the tomatoes and zucchini to the stew. If the liquid has evaporated, add a little more water to the stew so that the liquid level is about 1 cm below the top of the vegetables. Bring to a hearty simmer, and return the steamer basket, cover, and let the couscous steam for another 20 minutes.
After the 3rd steaming, use your senses. Taste the couscous and test the vegetables to make sure everything is cooked. If not, simmer the vegetables until they are soft. Taste the broth and add salt and pepper to taste.
To serve, pile up the couscous, and make a well at the top. Place vegetables and meet at the top, and ladle some broth over. Serve with a side bowl of broth/sauce for those who prefer more sauce.
What are those little red dots on my couscous? Sriracha sauce. Yes, not traditional, but I like the kick!