Curious couscous

Cooking Jewish specialties at the California Couscous Festival

By FAYE LEVY
November 12, 2010 12:24
Couscous with vegetable skewers

311_coucous. (photo credit: MCT)

Recently I was invited to give a cooking demonstration on North African Jewish cuisine at the first annual Couscous Festival in Pasadena, California. My presentation followed a cooking class by America’s couscous guru, Moroccan cooking expert Paula Wolfert.

Couscous is symbolic of Maghreb food and the festival was a celebration of the cuisine of this region, which extends from Morocco to Libya. It was organized by chef Farid Zadi, who was born in Lyon, France, to Algerian parents and is known for his flavorful and refined style of cooking.


A highlight was Wolfert’s demonstration on how to hand-roll couscous. Many people don’t realize that couscous does not necessarily come in packages. Traditional cooks in North Africa still often make their own couscous from semolina moistened with water. In fact, couscous is a simple form of pasta, and rolling couscous, emphasized Wolfert, is easier than making pasta. The basic procedure is to moisten coarse semolina lightly, and then sprinkle it with fine semolina. The couscous is put through a coarse strainer to take out the pieces that are too big, and then into a fine sieve to shake off the excess flour.

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When using packaged couscous, Wolfert and Zadi advised steaming it instead of following the quick-cooking directions. Steamed couscous cooks up to a substantially greater volume than quick-cooked couscous, making it much lighter and fluffier.

During the years I lived in Paris, I often dined in couscous restaurants, and the main difference I found in kosher ones was that the couscous was enriched with oil and not with butter because the menu included meat. Therefore the Jewish restaurants didn’t feature a favorite of mine – buttery couscous topped with dates and served with hot milk, which to me was like luxurious breakfast cereal. Wolfert demonstrated a version of this dish that was flavored with orange flower water, cinnamon and almonds. However, this dish is popular among North African Jews too, and so are variations made with raisins or even fresh fava beans. They are simply served at dairy meals.

At the festival we watched the making of tasty briks, a fried North African pastry that’s popular in Paris. They contained seafood, harissa – the famous North African hot pepper garlic paste – and an egg enclosed in thin, round phyllo-like warka pancakes. There were also freshly- made merguez, or spicy lamb and beef sausages, and a whole lamb roasted in a smoker. To make serving easier in a festival setting, the lamb was cut in small pieces and wrapped in tortillas – a sort of Mexican-North African fusion. Flavorful condiments were served with the moist, tasty marinated lamb, including freshly made harissa, milder harissa mayonnaise and charred eggplant salad with roasted garlic and tomato.

As popular as the couscous were the tajines, the North African stews traditionally prepared in earthenware or cast iron dishes with cone-shaped lids, also called tajines. Best known are tajines made with meat, like the spicy beef tajine with white beans and the chicken tajine with green olives and preserved lemon that we sampled at the festival.

New to many attendees was the seafood tajine, and this was the dish chef Zadi chose to demonstrate. To make his stew base, he gently cooked onions and garlic in olive oil, and added a pinch of saffron and a touch of tomato – in the form of his “tomato jam” made of concentrated roasted tomatoes. At this point the tajine seemed almost like the beginning of bouillabaisse. But then came the signature Algerian elements – a spice mixture that included cumin, turmeric, ground coriander and caraway seeds; a little harissa and a touch of chopped green olives and preserved lemon. These seasonings gave his stew, which can be made with any fish, a unique, delicious flavor.

Fish tajines are also popular among North African Jews, especially those from Tunisia, according to a friend who was born in that country. Indeed, the cuisine of Jews from the Maghreb is not that different from that of their neighbors. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews who had to find substitutes for nonkosher meats and fats used in Eastern and Central Europe, the style of cooking used by North Africans had much in common with kosher cooking.

It is the special holiday dishes that give North African Jewish cooking its distinctive style, such as the Shabbat dafina. This flavorful all-night stew might include beef, chickpeas, wheat berries, fresh sausages, harissa, garlic, cumin and whole eggs in their shells. A quick and easy couscous dish is Sunday couscous, a spicy side dish made of couscous leftover from Shabbat.

Sunday Couscous

This is one of the dishes I prepared for my cooking demonstration at the Couscous Festival. Among Jews from Tunisia, this dish is sometimes called “Sunday couscous” because it is the way families make use of leftover steamed couscous from Shabbat. Even if you cook couscous the quick way, the recipe, flavored with spices and garlic, is a terrific way to turn couscous into a zesty side dish in just a few minutes. The Tunisians use ground caraway seeds, but I find that whole ones work well too.

If your family or friends are sensitive to hot pepper, add the harissa gradually until you get the taste you like; or serve it separately.

1 cup couscous
1 to 2 Tbsp. hot pepper-garlic paste, such as harissa or s’hug, or 11⁄2 tsp. bottled hot pepper sauce, or to taste
3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 tsp. caraway seeds, preferably ground
3 or 4 medium cloves garlic, very finely minced
1 tsp. paprika
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a bowl, whisk together the hot pepper-garlic paste, 3 tablespoons olive oil, caraway seeds, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons water.

Cook couscous according to package directions; or see Note below. Add sauce to couscous and mix gently. Taste, adjust seasoning, and add remaining tablespoon oil if desired. Serve hot.

Makes 2 or 3 servings.

Note: To quick-cook the couscous: Combine 11⁄3 cups water, 2 teaspoons olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir in 1 cup couscous and return to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

Fish in Saffron Harissa Tomato Sauce

I first learned to make poached fish balls in saffron tomato sauce in Paris from a Moroccan-born friend, Paule Tourdjman, who served them as an appetizer for Shabbat. For this spicier version of the sauce inspired by chef Zadi’s fish tajine, I also add garlic, cumin, turmeric, coriander and harissa. If you like, add 1 tablespoon chopped green olives and 1 to 2 teaspoons chopped North African preserved lemon.

Serve the fish stew hot with couscous or fresh bread.

1⁄8 tsp. saffron threads
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
700 g. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped; or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup fish or vegetable stock
1⁄2 tsp. ground cumin
1⁄2 tsp. ground coriander
1⁄4 tsp. turmeric
1 to 2 tsp. harissa (North African hot pepper-garlic paste), s’hug (Yemenite hot pepper-garlic paste) or other pepper paste or hot sauce, or to taste
700 g. to 850 g. fish fillets, such as cod, halibut or sea bass, cut in 2.5-cm. cubes or in strips

Slightly crush saffron with your fingers and soak in the oil in a small cup about 20 minutes. Transfer to a large saute pan or skillet. Add onion and saute over mediumlow heat for about 5 minutes or until onion is tender but not brown. Add garlic and cook 1⁄2 minute, stirring. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 8 to 10 minutes or until sauce is thick. Add stock, cumin, coriander and turmeric and bring to a simmer.

Add fish cubes and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, spooning sauce over fish from time to time, for 5 minutes or until they have changed color and are just cooked through. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning.

Makes 4 main course or about 6 fish-course servings.

Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes and Feast from the Mideast.


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