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The secret life of couscous

September 10, 2010

Couscous may look like a grain, but it’s not. The fettuccine alla carbonara I ate in Milan this summer looked nothing like the seven-vegetable couscous I ate in Marrakesh a week later. But appearances can be deceiving; the couscous was as much pasta as the pasta.

It’s true that couscous granules seem like tiny grains—cousins of amaranth or quinoa—but they’re actually tiny balls of dough. Making this miniature pasta, as the Berber people of Morocco and Algeria have been doing since the 11th century, takes time and nimble fingers. Women traditionally have turned the chore into a social occasion, chatting as they rub, rake and sieve moistened flour into even “grains” with their hands. The name comes from the Berber seksu: rounded, or well-rolled. Shaping couscous is like hand-making pearls.

Proper cooking isn’t simple either. Cooks strive for an elusive balance. Ideally, the couscous granules should swell generously in cooking, but remain separate, light, and aerated—not soggy, gummy, and clumped. The fastidious cook has to give the granules what amounts to a spa treatment. They get soaked, patted dry, combed, steamed, patted dry again, massaged, and steamed a second time before they’re ready to serve.

The first dish I ordered in Morocco was not couscous, but seffa, billed as a pasta dessert. I was skeptical about sweet pasta, but I had to try it. Seffa, it turns out, is couscous tossed with cinnamon, sugar, and almonds. And the sweetness isn’t shocking at all. Couscous served with milk is another common dessert or snack.

But couscous usually forms a base for the magnificently fragrant slow-cooked stews for which the Maghreb region is famous. In her cookbook Couscous and Other Food from Morocco, Paula Wolfert, an expert on the food of the Mediterranean and Maghreb, includes no fewer than 23 couscous variations. As a general rule, morsels of lamb, beef or chicken combine with tender vegetables—turnip, pumpkin, squash, or even cabbage—in a sauce spiced with cinnamon, coriander, cumin and sometimes saffron.

It’s possible to keep things simple and still achieve great flavor. One can take shortcuts with the vegetables and use pre-soaked couscous that boils in a few minutes. For a more authentic meal, steam the couscous in a couscoussiere (double-boiler steamer) and slow-cook the sauce in a tagine or Dutch oven.

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Quick Couscous for Two

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 Tblsp. olive oil

1 leek, chopped

2 tomatoes, chopped

¼ c. mixed golden and black raisins

1/3 tsp. cinnamon

¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

¼ tsp. cumin

¼ tsp. ginger powder

½ cup chickpeas (canned or pre-cooked)

½ cup diced cooked chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups water

1 cup dry couscous

For the sauce:

Pre-cook the carrots by steaming or microwaving, and then set aside. In a skillet, sauté the leeks in the oil until just tender. Add the tomatoes, raisins and spices, and cook until the tomatoes are tender. Add the cooked carrots, chickpeas, and chicken. If the mixture seems dry, add water or diluted tomato paste. Simmer a few minutes and season to taste, adjusting the spices.

For the couscous:

Boil the water. Stir in the couscous and simmer two minutes. Remove from the heat, cover, and let stand five minutes. Fluff with a fork, and served topped with the sauce.

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