Couscous makes a comeback

Wednesday, December 3, 2003
Using a couscousiere, left, the couscous was steamed and then spread out and allowed to rest for approximatley ten minutes before being worked into a light, fluffy consistency.

Once considered an exotic dish, the Moroccan cuisine is turning up in trendy restaurants and on grocery store shelves.

"A handful of couscous is better than Mecca and all its dust." So says a famous Moroccan proverb about almsgiving.

The maxim cannot be tossed off as mere chauvinism about the tiny balls of dough that are Morocco's national dish. You don't have to be from Africa to appreciate couscous. The late Craig Claiborne, for example, called it one of the dozen greatest dishes in the world. Paula Wolfert, who 30 years ago wrote what is still, in my judgment, the definitive treatise on the subject, claimed that couscous can be compared without exaggeration to such great specialties as Japanese sukiyaki, Peking duck, bouillabaisse, and paella Valenciana and called it the "crowning achievement" of Moroccan cuisine. It is to Morocco what pasta is to Italy. Indeed, some of the local names used for it there are identical to the word for "food" in general.

No wonder the French, who know a thing or two about fine food, have embraced it. Atlantic Monthly, noting that couscous has outstripped both rice and potatoes as the country's favorite side dish, maintains that it is arguably the national food of France. As the Christian Science Monitor recently observed, "Bouillabaisse may be Marseille's most famous dish, but couscous is its most popular."

Likewise in this country couscous, once considered an exotic ingredient, has become fashionable, upstaging even polenta at trendy restaurants. You can now find it at almost any grocery store and it is quickly becoming part of the home cook's repertoire.

It's about time couscous got its due. While the "Oxford Companion to Food" insists that there is no evidence for its existence before the 13th century, it nonetheless speculates that it was invented as far back as the 11th. Some say it even predates pasta and goes back to the 10th. (The name may be derived from the Arabic word "kiskis," which refers to the steamer pot in which couscous is traditionally cooked, or it may be onomatopoetic, mimicking the hissing sound which the steam makes.)

Now perhaps you've tried couscous, soaking the granules in water for 5 minutes and then fluffing them with a fork as the instructions on the box typically direct, and wondered what all the fuss is about. I felt the same way until a recent visit to Tangier, where I learned that Moroccans would never think of using such an approach. Rather, as they have for centuries, they steam their couscous, sometimes as many as seven times, in a specially designed piece of equipment resembling a double boiler, called a couscousiere.

In the shadow of the Kasbah I bought a couscousiere and when I got home I discovered that the difference between couscous made with it and couscous made by mere soaking is nothing short of astonishing. Steamed couscous turns out light, fluffy, and tender and not at all gummy as it sometimes does with mere soaking.

Once you've tasted properly prepared couscous you'll understand why in Morocco it's always served at feasts and celebrations to insure that guests achieve what is called "shaban" or total satisfaction.

Cranberry-Pecan Couscous

If there's such a thing as Christmas couscous, this is it. It's what we'll be serving with the holiday turkey, instead of stuffing, at our house this year. If you don't have a couscousiere, you can substitute a steamer basket or fine-holed colander and a stockpot.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups couscous

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 cup diced onion

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup chopped cilantro

1/2 cup chopped green onions

Directions:

Wash couscous in 4 1/2 cups water and drain through a sieve. Place grains in a large, shallow pan, smooth them out, and let rest for 10 minutes. Scoop up handfuls of couscous, breaking up lumps, and rub between your hands. Rake the couscous with your fingers and let swell another 10 minutes. Mound one-fourth of couscous in top part of couscousiere set over simmering water and steam, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add remainder and steam 20 minutes longer. Return to pan, spread out, and sprinkle with 1 cup cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Break up lumps and with oiled hands work the grains again. Smooth out couscous and let dry for 10 minutes. Steam for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile sauté onions in butter and oil until translucent. Add cranberries and pecans. Combine with prepared couscous. Stir in cilantro and green onions. Serves 4.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays and at 11:59 a.m. Saturdays KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or e-mail tharte@semissourian.com.

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