Pascale's Kitchen: Traditional North-African couscous

The process of preparing couscous might be a bit complicated, but it does have the advantage of all being cooked together at the same time with the soup, at the end of which you have an entire meal.

Preparing couscous (photo credit: PASCALE PEREZ RUBIN AND CHAGIT GOREN)
Preparing couscous
Couscous is one of the most well-known dishes from North African cuisine. Each community has developed its own specific ways of preparing couscous, and each family takes pride in its own unique recipe. Couscous is made from semolina, which is a basic and cheap staple, and yet the dish holds much prominence, while its preparation requires complex steps and a certain level of skill.
The semolina grains that absorb water as they are steamed over water or soup are served with a rich soup filled with vegetables, chicken or beef. The couscous is served in a deep serving dish with the vegetables or meatballs arranged around the edge. Some people serve it in a separate bowl with stew, soup or stuffed vegetables. Each person can fill their bowl with a bit of couscous and then add the vegetables or meat on top.
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Couscous can be served in the middle of the week, on Shabbat or on holidays. The process of preparing couscous might be a little bit complicated, but it does have the advantage of all being cooked together at the same time with the soup, at the end of which you have an entire meal.
Each North African community has its own unique recipe for preparing couscous. For example, in Tunisia, couscous is served with stuffed meatballs or fish. In addition, Tunisian cuisine includes a recipe for a special semolina cake that’s stuffed with dates and nuts.
In Moroccan cuisine, on the other hand, turmeric is added to the couscous, giving it a vibrant yellow tinge, which is served with mutton, dried fruit or a nut tagine. On festive occasions and holidays, these dishes are traditionally served with tiny meatballs.
In my experience, making couscous is not complicated at all. I know people are always talking about how difficult it is to make couscous the traditional way, but I’m telling you here and now that it’s not. It does take a long time, but it’s actually quite simple.
What you do need in order to make good couscous is a proper couscous pot and the right utensils. If you’ve never tried to make couscous from scratch, I recommend that you follow these directions meticulously. If you do that, your couscous will come out perfectly, if not on the first try, then certainly by the second. I promise you that by the time the Tishrei holidays arrive, you will be a master and will be equipped to prepare a tasty and filling vegetable, chicken or beef couscous and soup to your family.
There are a number of types of couscous:
• Sweet couscous is common in Tunisian and Algerian cuisine and is traditionally served on festive occasions and holidays.
• Dairy couscous, which is served with milk or sour milk, is a dish from Algerian and Moroccan cuisine. It is made with thick or medium couscous, is sweetened with sugar and seasoned with cinnamon. It’s commonly served with fava beans just after Passover has ended, or on Shavuot.
• Festive couscous is served on holidays or special events. The grains are seasoned with saffron or turmeric to turn them yellow during the steaming stage. After piling on the couscous, the serving dish can be adorned with almonds, hazelnuts and raisins cooked in honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.
HOW TO make homemade couscous (and not the instant kind that takes just five minutes):
It’s essential that you purchase the required utensils, including:
• A tall couscous pot called a burma, in which you cook the chicken or vegetable soup or boil the water, upon which the couscous is steamed.
• A wide, deep bowl called a kinka, kasa or ma’aj’na that is large enough to let you handle the couscous grains comfortably.
• A metal strainer, called a rolbal or jalal, through which you press the couscous with your hands after it’s steamed for the first time. This is the utensil that determines the size and texture of the couscous.
• A steamer, called kishkash, which is placed above the soup in order to steam the couscous. The steam enters the steamer through the little holes.
Makes 1 kg. of couscous.
1 kg. semolina
1½ - 2 cups water (depending on absorption in semolina)
3 cups water
5 Tbsp. oil
1 tsp. salt
Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. (You can also steam the semolina in a couscous steamer pot above soup and then serve them together). Put the semolina in a large bowl and pour the 1½ - 2 cups of water over the grains gradually, while stirring. Only pour in as much water as needed to get all of the semolina wet and clumpy.
Push the grains through a metal strainer with the ball of your hand. Place the grains in the steamer basket of the couscous pot, cover it and then place it over the bottom part of the pot with the boiling water. Cook over a medium flame for 30 minutes.
Remove the steamer pot and pour the couscous into a large, wide bowl. It will probably be a large clump of couscous in the shape of the strainer. Pour 3 cups of water on top and then add the oil and salt. Mix a bit with a spoon.
When the couscous has cooled down a bit, mix it with your hands and try to crumble it with your fingers to separate the granules from each other. Transfer the couscous back to the steamer pot and place on top of the boiling water for another 30 minutes. Then, pour the couscous back into a bowl and let cool.
Makes 6-8 servings.
6 pieces of chicken (any part of the chicken will do)
1 medium onion
8-9 stalks of celery, including leaves
2 large carrots
2 medium turnips
250 g. pumpkin
½ head of cabbage
1-2 medium tomatoes
2 potatoes
2 stalks of cilantro
2 Tbsp. oil
2 cup chickpeas (after being soaked overnight and without the thin peel)
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
¼ tsp. harissa or spicy paprika
Chop the celery, onion and cilantro. Heat the oil in the couscous pot. Add the chickpeas and the cut-up celery, onion and cilantro. Stir and cook for 3-4 minutes. Add 9 cups of water and continue cooking. When the pot begins to boil, add the chicken pieces.
Cut up the rest of the vegetables and add them to the pot. Add the salt, pepper and harissa. Cover and cook for 30 minutes over a medium flame.
To serve the couscous, place the grains in a large, deep bowl. Ladle in liquid broth from the soup on top of the couscous and serve the chicken and vegetables on a separate platter, with chickpeas on top.
Couscous with chicken and chickpeas (Credit: Pascale Perez Rubin and Chagit Goren)Couscous with chicken and chickpeas (Credit: Pascale Perez Rubin and Chagit Goren)
Makes 6-8 servings.
4 Tbsp. oil
4 large onions, sliced thinly
½ kg. dried apricots, or mixture of dried and fresh apricots
½ kg. prunes
½ kg. seedless raisins
Juice from ½ of a large lemon
2 Tbsp. sugar
½ tsp. ground cinnamon or 1 stick
¼ tsp. ground cloves
1 cup water
¼ cup whole or chopped walnuts
Heat the oil in a large pot and fry the onion until it turns golden. Add the apricots, prunes and raisins and mix well. Add half a cup of water, the lemon juice, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Bring to a boil. If you want to add meatballs, form balls with a diameter of 3 cm. and add them now.
Cook for 35-40 minutes, until the dried fruits have softened and the meat is cooked.
Dried fruit tagine (Credit: Pascale Perez Rubin and Chagit Goren)Dried fruit tagine (Credit: Pascale Perez Rubin and Chagit Goren)
Makes two 500-g. jars.
½ kg. seedless raisins
1 cup sweet wine
¼ cup cherry liqueur or brandy
1½ cups sugar
1 Tbsp. oil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
150 g. walnuts
Rinse and clean the raisins. If they have seeds, remove them. Put the raisins in a bowl and add the wine and liqueur and let sit for 30 minutes. Add the sugar and stir. Transfer to a pot and cook for 35 minutes over a medium-low flame, stirring constantly. Add the lemon juice and oil and mix. Cook for another 15 minutes and then turn off the flame. Add the walnuts, stir and let cool.
Raisin and nut jam (Credit: Pascale Perez-Rubin and Chagit Goren)Raisin and nut jam (Credit: Pascale Perez-Rubin and Chagit Goren)
Translated by Hannah Hochner.