A Friday night Tunisian feast

Who knew couscous could offer a symphony of flavors?

Couscous (photo credit: Yakir Levy)
(photo credit: Yakir Levy)
When a friend told us she was coming to Los Angeles for a visit, we suggested dining at Got Kosher? Café, a restaurant that specializes in Tunisian cuisine and serves the kind of dishes that became favorites of ours during the years we lived in Paris.
After tasting appetizers of banatage, a beef-filled potato croquette, and brick à l’oeuf et au thon, a crunchy pastry enclosing tuna, capers and an egg, we ordered a main course of chicken couscous. It came with a rich broth, and a chicken meatball that caught our attention – it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
We returned to the restaurant to meet the chef-owner, Alain Cohen, and discuss his specialties.
“In Tunisian Jewish homes, if it’s Friday night, there has to be couscous,” said Cohen, who was born in France to Tunisian parents and worked for years at his father’s Tunisian restaurant in Paris. “The meatball is an essential component of a Tunisian- Jewish couscous feast. Each family makes the meatballs somewhat differently. The recipe is often a family secret passed from mother to daughter, and brought by the daughter to her husband’s home.”
Cohen’s mother, for her part, chopped the meat for her meatballs by hand until it was fine, and left some of it coarse for better texture.
The key to good meatballs, Cohen explained, lies in the cooking technique. The meatballs should first be fried until well browned, and then braised in a little water combined with some of the savory broth prepared for the couscous.
We asked Cohen what makes the red-hued broth that came with his couscous so flavorful, and he said that it cooks with a variety of vegetables – tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, turnips, potatoes and celery.
According to Cohen, one difference between Tunisian and Moroccan cooking is that Tunisians like their couscous savory. They do not garnish it with prunes or raisins, as Moroccan cooks sometimes do. To add piquancy to their couscous, Tunisians serve a side dish of harissa, which Cohen makes as a thick paste of ground dried red peppers, garlic and salt, and keeps covered with olive oil in a jar. At serving time, he squeezes fresh lemon juice into the harissa, stirs in water to bring it to the consistency of a thick dip and drizzles it generously with olive oil.
There is a ritual for eating couscous Tunisian-style, explained Cohen. When the couscous is served, there should be kemia, an assortment of vegetable salads, on the table. His kemia might include carrot salad with fennel seeds and harissa, spicy eggplant salad, roasted pepper and tomato salad, potato salad with cumin and harissa, cooked beets with mint, and lemon-flavored turnip slices. With each spoonful of couscous, you take a bit of meatball, a bit of vegetable and a little salad – one spoonful might be slightly spicy from a harissa-flavored salad, another might be lemony from the turnips and still another might be cumin-flavored from the potato salad.
When the couscous is eaten this way, said Cohen, each taste is different, and the feast offers your palate a symphony of flavors.
This recipe is a simplified version of the chicken couscous recipe in 250 Recettes Classiques De Cuisine Tunisienne by Edmond Zeitoun. Chef Cohen considers this book the bible of Tunisian cooking; we have enjoyed using it since the late 1970s.
Zeitoun uses two chickens – one for poaching in the broth, and another for making into meatballs; its bones are used to enrich the broth. To make the preparation easier, we use ground chicken to make the meatballs.
If you’d like the broth to have a reddish hue, season it with paprika. Serve the couscous with harissa.
Makes 8 servings
❖ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil❖ 2 garlic cloves, crushed ❖ 2 tomatoes, peeled and diced ❖ 4 parsley stems ❖ 1 whole onion (optional)❖ 100 gr. (½ cup) chickpeas, soaked overnight if desired, and rinsed ❖ 2 or 3 chicken necks or wings, or chicken bones for stock ❖ Steamed Couscous (see recipe) ❖ Chicken Meatballs (see recipe) ❖ 1.5 kg. (3.3 pounds) chicken pieces ❖ 4 carrots, peeled ❖ 4 turnips, peeled ❖ 4 potatoes, whole ❖ 1 or 2 tsp. paprika, or to taste (optional) ❖ ¼ tsp. rosebud powder, or to taste (optional) ❖ Salt and pepper to taste ❖ 2 zucchini or white squash (In Hebrew: kishuim) ❖ 1 small bunch of celery, ribs cut in 7.5-cm. (3-inch) lengths, leaves reserved for adding to meatballs ❖ 2 green peppers, preferably pale-green type (optional)
Pour 1 tablespoon oil in a couscous pot or soup pot. Add garlic, tomatoes, parsley stems, whole onion, chickpeas and chicken necks. Add 10 cups water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, begin steaming the couscous and prepare the meatballs (see recipes).
Remove the chicken bones, the whole onion and the parsley stems. Reserve ½ cup of the broth for cooking the meatballs.
Add the chicken pieces, carrots, turnips and potatoes to the broth in the pot. Add water if necessary to ensure chicken and vegetables are covered. Add paprika, rosebud powder and a pinch of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes.
Add the zucchini, celery and green peppers, and simmer for 30 more minutes or until the chicken and vegetables are tender.
Before serving, taste the broth and adjust the seasoning.
Serve the hot couscous in a shallow bowl. Serve the meatballs in a platter and coat them with their sauce. Pour the broth into a soup tureen. Serve the chicken and vegetables on another platter.
One of the meatball seasonings used by Tunisian chefs is rosebud powder, which is a component of some formulas of ras el hanout, a popular North African seasoning blend.
Tunisian cooks often dip the meatballs in flour and beaten eggs before frying them, for a richer taste; we have omitted that step in this simplified recipe.
Makes 8 servings, when served with couscous and chicken
❖ 2 onions, chopped fine ❖ Salt to taste ❖ 75 gr. (2 ½ ounces) stale white bread (about 3 slices), crusts removed ❖ 6 garlic cloves ❖ 1 bunch parsley, leaves only ❖ Leaves of 1 bunch celery (reserved from chicken broth ingredients above) ❖ 700 gr. (1½ pounds) ground chicken ❖ ½ tsp. mixed spice, such as ras el hanout, baharat or French quatre epices ❖ ½ tsp. ground pepper ❖ ½ to ¾ tsp. salt ❖ ¼ to ½ tsp. rosebud powder (optional) ❖ 2 eggs ❖ About ¼ to ⅓ cup oil for frying ❖ 1 or 2 Tbsp. unseasoned breadcrumbs (optional) ❖ ½ cup chicken broth (reserved when preparing couscous above) ❖ 1 tsp. tomato paste
Put the chopped onions in a strainer, sprinkle them with salt and let stand for about 30 minutes. Put the bread in a bowl, cover it with water and let stand until soft; squeeze dry. In a food processor, chop 4 garlic cloves with the parsley leaves and celery leaves.
Put the chicken in a bowl and add the parsley mixture and the bread. Rinse the onions, squeeze them well to remove any excess liquid, and add to the chicken. Add the mixed spice, pepper, salt and rosebud powder. Add eggs and mix well. If mixture is too soft to be easily shaped into meatballs, add 1 or 2 tablespoons bread crumbs and mix well.
Heat oil in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.
Shape spoonfuls of the mixture into meatballs the size of small eggs. Add meatballs to the oil in batches and brown them on all sides, taking about 5 minutes; stand back to avoid splatters. With a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to paper towels.
In a saucepan, combine 2 cups water, ½ cup chicken broth, salt, pepper and the tomato paste. Crush remaining 2 garlic cloves and add to the pan. Bring to a simmer. Add the meatballs. Cover and cook for 45 to 60 minutes, adding water from time to time if most of the cooking liquid is absorbed. Towards the end of the cooking time, the cooking liquid should become a thick sauce that coats the meatballs. Taste sauce and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, with the couscous.
When we lived in Givatayim, we learned how to steam couscous from our Tunisian-born friend, Ninette Bachar. Her Friday night feast included a variety of stuffed vegetables, in addition to poached meat and vegetables.
To steam couscous, you need a couscous pot called a couscoussier, in which the stew simmers in the bottom pot and the couscous cooks in the steamer above it, or another steamer with small holes. If you don’t have time to steam the couscous, use the quick preparation method on the package.Makes about 8 servings
❖ 700 gr. (1½ pounds or 3¾ cups) couscous ❖ ¾ cup water ❖ 1½ tsp. salt❖ 6 Tbsp. vegetable oil ❖ ⅓ to ½ cup chicken broth
Rinse couscous in a bowl and drain in a fine strainer.
Transfer to a shallow bowl and rub grains to be sure they are separate. Let dry for 15 or 20 minutes.
Put couscous in steamer part of couscous cooker. Tie a damp towel around base of steamer part so steam won’t escape from sides. Steam couscous uncovered above the simmering broth for ½ hour.
Remove couscous, put it in a large bowl and let cool.
Mix ¾ cup water and 1½ teaspoons salt. Sprinkle couscous lightly with the salted water, rubbing and tossing it between your fingers to prevent grains from sticking together.
About ½ hour before serving, return couscous to steamer and set it above simmering broth. Steam uncovered about 30 minutes or until steam comes through the couscous. Transfer to a large bowl.
Sprinkle the oil over the couscous in bowl. Slowly add ⅓ to ½ cup of broth. Mix lightly with a fork or with your fingers. Serve hot, accompanied by broth.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.