Cooking from Future Memories

So much of what I cook is the product of taste memories: things I've eaten on my travels, in restaurants, at home, at friends', etc. But there are a few moments in my life when I've become enamoured with -- even obsessed with -- certain dishes and cuisines that I've only ever experienced in my imagination. I'm never sure what, exactly, prompts these fascinations. Perhaps they are purely aspirational, an acting out of what I want to do, where I want to go; perhaps they are some sort of exotic fantasy, a projection into a culture or a place that I experience in an entirely bastardized form because it exists at such a distance to my daily experience.

The thing is, I end up creating a whole culinary fantasy without anything to measure my efforts against. For years, I have been an enthusiastic purveyor of Moroccan couscous royale -- by which I mean not simply the tiny, grain-like semolina pasta that Americans generally get in instant form, but the whole, sumptuous feast of a dish involving a fragrant stew over which the couscous steams. I would serve it whenever I was hosting a party, and many a night in Paris over the years I would gather friends to enjoy it with bottles of St. Joseph and a greedy hunger. It never occurred to me how strange it was that I had never been to one of the myriad very good North African restos in that city to see whether what I was making compared, let alone the country itself; it tasted good to me, and I didn't want my bubble burst. This dish, brimming with vegetables and meats and spices and herbs, impossibly perfumed, adhered to my fantasy of Morocco. I wanted that fantasy to remain intact.

Since the divorce, I've had fewer big dinner parties and thus fewer reasons to make this dish, and it sort of fell out of my culinary repertoire. I remembered it, though, in the weeks leading up to my trip to Paris in June, and I decided I needed to start making it again. When I got to Paris, the apartment that I had rented happened to be right in the middle of one of the big North African neighborhoods; butchers and charcuteries offered mountains of couscous and trays of stew for take out, and the streets were chockablock with North African restaurants. I decided to go to one of the restos, to finally figure out what couscous was all about; after all, however well one might reproduce the flavors of a dish in a state of cultural blindness, it's the how's of eating -- how the dish is presented, how it's eaten, what else is on the table, what comes before and after -- that can't so easily be imagined.

So. Went for dinner, at a chic little place with the most adorable Moroccan man as our waiter. And the meal was pretty great. But even greater: I discovered that my own version, though it is unlike what I had in that restaurant in Paris, pleases me still. It tastes like I imagine Morocco feels. I can still hold on to that fantasy, at least for a while.

Couscous Royal
Serves 8 at least

This dish is not something you whip up on a weeknight; it is an event. A few notes: The couscous steams atop the stew. There are two ways to manage this: one is to use a large pot on top of which you fit a steamer insert or a colander that can handle a tight fitting lid. The other way -- and now you know my indulgence of the summer -- you can purchase a couscousier, which is especially made for the purpose. This one, from Amazon, is both practical and lovely. If the steaming process seems too complicated, you can make the stew and couscous separately; I've provided a simpler method of making the couscous below the main recipe, a modification of Claudia Roden's recipe. As for the couscous itself: do NOT buy the brand that you see on your supermarket shelf that claims to be reconstituted in two minutes. If you have access to a good specialty or organic grocery with a bulk food section, the couscous there is more likely to be the (slightly) slower-cooking variety. Buy that. Finally, merguez: this is the spicy lamb sausage that is typically used in this dish. I've found it at my local country co-op (D'Artagnan brand), and at a bunch of big-city groceries. If you can't get hold of it, you could substitute chorizo or andouille sausage, but to me that seems a bit of a travesty -- Muslim North Africans don't eat pork -- so I just leave it out if I can't find it.

1. Prepare your vegetables: chop 1 large onion into a large dice, 1 lb peeled carrots into 1" chunks, 3 medium turnips into 1" chunks, 2 small zucchini or summer squash into thick half moons, and 1 small butternut squash into 1" chunks. Make your spice mixture in a small bowl: 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1.5 tsp ground ginger, 1/4 tsp ground cloves, 1/2 tsp ground allspice, 1/2 tsp (or to taste) red chili powder, 1 TB dried mint, 1/2 tsp black pepper, and 1.5 tsp salt. (Alternatively, you can simply use 1.5 TB ras-el-hanout, a spice mix which you can find in well-stocked spice sections at your grocery store, plus the dried mint.) 

2. In a large skillet, heat 2 TB olive oil. Brown 2 lbs lamb which you've sprinkled with salt in until nicely colored; do this in batches without crowding the pan so that the lamb browns instead of steams. (If you're not averse to using your hands when you eat, use bone-in lamb neck or lamb shoulder chops that you've asked your butcher to cut into half or thirds; don't use loin chops or leg, which will be too dry in the final dish. If you'd prefer to skip the bones, use lamb stew meat.) Transfer the meat to the bottom of your coucousier or stew pot.

3. In the same skillet, brown 8 skinless chicken drumsticks, sprinkled with salt, until it turns a bit golden. (Add a little olive oil if necessary.) Transfer to a plate and keep aside. Brown 1 lb merguez sausage (a spicy lamb sausage), and transfer to the plate with the chicken.

4. In the same skillet, adding a bit of olive oil if necessary, sauté the onion, carrots, turnips, and 3 cloves of garlic, smashed, along with a good pinch of salt. Scrape the bottom of the pan to get the remaining meaty goodness into the veggies. (You're essentially deglazing the pan with the vegetables.) When the vegetables have softened a bit, add the spice mixture. After a minute or so, transfer the spicy vegetables to the stew pot, scraping as much out of the skillet as possible so as not to lose a drop of that yumminess. (You can add a little water to the pan to help get everything out.)

5. To the stew pot, add 1 cinnamon stick and 2 bay leaves, along with 2 TB tomato paste and 10 c water. Bring to a gentle boil and let simmer for 1 hr.

6. After the stew has been simmering for about 45 minutes, pour 3 c couscous into a fine-meshed sieve, and rinse with copious amounts of cold water. Dump the wet couscous into a large bowl, and let sit for 10 or so minutes. Now start raking your fingers through the couscous, breaking up every single lump; it will be light and fluffy. 

7. When the stew has completed the first hour of simmering, add the browned chicken and merguez to the pot, along with a good pinch of salt. Put the top of the couscousier or the steamer basket/colander set up on the pot; if you're rigging the colander, you'll want to seal the edge of the pot to the colander with tin foil to keep it sealed. Line the basket with two layers of cheesecloth, and add the couscous. Let the stew come to a gentle boil; when you see steam coming through the top of the couscous, cover tightly and let steam for 30 minutes.

8. Remove couscous into your large bowl. Sprinkle 2 c cold water mixed with 1 tsp salt over top. After a few minutes, fluff couscous with a fork and your fingers to break up any lumps.

9. Add the reserved zucchini and butternut squash along with 3 c cooked chick peas and 1/2 c sultana (golden) raisins to the stew. Put top back on couscousier. Add couscous back into the cheesecloth-lined basket. When you see steam, cover and let steam for additional 30 minutes.

10. While the stew cooks for this last 30 minutes, take a large handful of parsley, a large handful of cilantro, and a large handful of mint, and chop them together. Toast 1/2 c of blanched, slivered almonds in a small skillet. In a small bowl, take a ladleful of broth from the stew and mix with 2 TB store-bought harissa (a North African hot chili sauce).

11. Remove couscous from steamer into the large bowl. Work in 3 TB butter, and continue to fluff up with fork so there are no lumps. Serve the couscous on a platter mounded into a cone-like pile, and the stew in a serving bowl, sprinkled with the herb mixture and the toasted almonds. Serve the harissa on the side for guests to mix into their dish as they prefer.

Oven-Baked Couscous

Put 3 cups of couscous in a wide baking dish (like a gratin dish, or a glass or porcelain baking pan). Gradually add 3 c warm water to which you've added 1/2 to 1 tsp salt. Stir constantly so that the couscous absorbs the water evenly, fluffing up the grain with a fork to break up any lumps.

Put the dish, uncovered, in a preheated 400˚ oven for 15-20 minutes until very hot. Fluff up again with a form, and just before serving work in 3 TB butter.


Unknown said…
Wish I would have known--I would have directed you to our favorite, but it sounds like you had a good experience anyway!
Which is your favorite, Pamela?