Classic combination

In Paris, looking for tasty, inexpensive meals, I liked to dine at casual couscous eateries.

fay stew 88 (photo credit: )
fay stew 88
(photo credit: )
As students in Paris looking for tasty, inexpensive meals, my husband and I liked to dine at casual couscous eateries. Couscous with chicken was often my choice. Usually it was served in the customary North African manner, with a platter of poached chicken and vegetables, a bowl of broth for moistening the couscous, a small ramekin of fiery harissa (hot sauce) and often a dish of chickpeas in tomato sauce. I loved the taste of the couscous moistened with the flavorful chicken broth, and I was pleased that there were always plenty of vegetables. When I ate this wonderful dish, I was reminded of my first taste of Friday night couscous at the home of Hanna, a Tunisian-born neighbor of my husband's parents in Givatayim. After steaming the couscous above broth in a couscoussier in the traditional Maghreb style, Hanna served the fluffy pasta grains with stuffed vegetables and meatballs, as well as the vegetables and meat she had used to make the broth. According to Edmond Zeitoun, author of 250 Recettes Classiques de Cuisine Tunisienne (250 classic recipes of Tunisian cuisine), Tunisian-Jewish Friday night couscous is one of the glories of Tunisian cooking. To make the chicken variation, he wrote, you remove all the meat from a chicken and use it to make meatballs. Then you prepare a broth from the chicken bones with tomatoes, parsley and garlic, cook some dried chickpeas in the broth, and steam the couscous above it several times. In another pot you make a separate sauce and cook the chicken meatballs in it. Then you cook a variety of vegetables in the chicken broth (which, by the way, is seasoned with dried rosebuds) and last you poach another, whole chicken in it. You serve the couscous in a bowl, the chicken meatballs in their sauce in another bowl, the broth in a tureen and the whole chicken and vegetables on a platter. Making and serving this dish is a big production. It seems to use every pot and serving dish in the kitchen. Once I realized this, I began looking for simpler ways to enjoy the delicious chicken and couscous combination. One idea came from a wonderful entree we sampled years ago at Timgad, which was the best Moroccan restaurant in Paris. There we dined on a tajine, or stew, of chicken and almonds, with couscous as an accompaniment, instead of ordering the grand couscous entree served the customary way. The sauce, richly flavored from cooking with the bird and more concentrated than chicken broth, was the perfect complement for the tiny pasta. Here was a type of dish that shouldn't be too much trouble to cook at home. Serving couscous with a chicken stew has another advantage besides convenience. To make a stew, you brown the chicken pieces, then braise them in a sauce, which is often reddish-brown from tomatoes and spices. For many people, browned or reddish-brown chicken is more appealing than boiled chicken. That's why at Koutoubia, a wonderful Moroccan restaurant in Los Angeles, if you want to have chicken couscous, the bird comes not boiled, but roasted (and embellished with raisins and browned onions). For the same reason, in many Paris couscous restaurants, you can order couscous topped with grilled chicken brochettes (kebabs). When you want to serve a chicken couscous dinner at home, stewing the chicken is more practical than grilling or roasting. This way you don't have to make a separate sauce because the stewed chicken produces a savory sauce to moisten the grains of couscous. I like to add chickpeas and vegetables to the stew so the entire entree is cooked and served together. Once the chicken is cooked, I use part of its sauce to cook the couscous the quick way, which takes about five minutes and doesn't need a special couscous pot. As for seasonings, there are plenty of good formulas from the Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian kitchens. To cook chicken with chickpeas in a delicate Moroccan style, according to Ahmed Laasri, the chef of Timgad and author of a Moroccan cookbook called 240 Recettes de Cuisine Marocaine, you flavor the sauce with onions, saffron and parsley. To make a chicken stew with more robust flavors, you add extra onions, cumin and paprika, and garnish the dish with olives and preserved lemon. Algerian and Tunisian chicken stews tend to have garlic as well as tomato in some form, chopped or as tomato paste, and might be spiced with paprika and dried hot peppers or harissa. You can add the usual couscous vegetables - carrots, turnips and zucchini - or vary them according to what's at the market. Mohamed Kouki, the author of Cuisine et Patisserie Tunisiennes, suggests several different combinations of vegetables to add to the chicken: zucchini with fava beans; baby onions with cabbage strips; or pumpkin with sweet and hot peppers. I find that eggplant and mushrooms also make good additions. CHICKEN STEW WITH ZUCCHINI AND COUSCOUS Chicken couscous is one of the classics of the North African kitchen. For this easy version, the chicken is braised with tomatoes, garlic, cumin, zucchini and chickpeas. Instead of repeatedly steaming the couscous above a chicken soup, I use the quick method to prepare the couscous and enrich it with some of the sauce from the chicken. Serve it with harissa or other hot sauce. 1.4 kg chicken pieces Salt and freshly ground pepper 2 Tbsp. olive oil 1 large onion, sliced thin 6 garlic cloves, chopped 1 tsp. paprika 11⁄2 tsp. ground cumin 2 small zucchini, diced an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and chopped 2 cups chicken broth 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes a 425-gr. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained 2 Tbsp. tomato paste 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander or parsley 11⁄4 cups couscous Season chicken lightly with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large stewing pan. Add chicken in batches and brown on all sides. Remove to a plate. Add onion to pan and cook over low heat until soft but not brown. Add garlic and cook about 1⁄2 minute. Stir in paprika, cumin and tomatoes and cook for two minutes, stirring often. Return chicken to pan and add pepper flakes and 3⁄4 cup of the broth. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Add zucchini and simmer for 20 minutes or until chicken and zucchini are tender. Stir in chickpeas, tomato paste and one tablespoon cilantro and heat briefly. For quick couscous, combine remaining 11⁄4 cups broth with 1⁄4 cup sauce from the chicken in a heavy small saucepan and bring to a boil. Add couscous, stir and cover. Turn off heat and let stand for five minutes. Fluff couscous gently with a fork. Taste and adjust seasoning. Spoon couscous onto a deep platter. Arrange chicken pieces around it, moisten them with a little sauce and sprinkle them with chopped cilantro. Serve remaining sauce, with zucchini and chickpeas in it, separately. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.