Monday, September 28, 2009

Moroccan-Inspired Couscous

I lived in Paris in 1998-99 and for a while was friends with a crazy New Zealander. Though the friendship later fell apart, I have many times mentally thanked her for sharing her couscous recipe with me. I love to make it in the fall and winter when there is a chill in the air, often accompanied by a dollop of harissa (or sriracha sauce if that's what you've got around).

The Moroccan-inspired bit refers to North African traditional couscous, a fragrant stew ladled on top of the grains. This kind of couscous has been widely adopted by the French and I was also lucky enough to have couscous in Morocco (where I was offered 5,000 camels for my hand in marriage, but that's another story). I admit to using boxed instant couscous, as I can't imagine taking the time to find non-instant and then steam it multiple times. Trader Joe's whole wheat couscous fits the bill for us.

I am a bit superstitious about this recipe, for some reason. While I often like to play fast and loose with my cooking, adding or subtracting ingredients based on what I've got on hand, I always make this dish with the same vegetables and spices. I always used to cut everything into batons, but took a wild chance today and diced everything and it was much easier to eat! Don't let my weirdness influence you, though, and feel free to experiment with vegetables and spices. The saffron and the fennel seeds are what really make the flavor of this dish stand out for me, so I'd recommend trying it with them the first time before making any spicing changes.

Eating this meal without meat is easy and satisfying. However, we do love it with some merguez dotted on top. Uli's Sausage in the Pike Place Market makes an excellent version that Evan home-smokes to wonderful effect. Merguez is very spicy, though, which means it's not particularly toddler-friendly. Spanish (dry) chorizo added a nice smokiness to the meal and worked well as a substitute.

The trick with this recipe, as I've cautioned with several others, too, is not to add too much water. You don't want a limp-tasting broth. I'm going to try to be more systematic than usual and give a better idea of a good ration of veg-to-spice-to-water. The broth and vegetable mixture freezes reasonably well, though the potatoes will never be quite as nice a texture after a thaw.

INGREDIENTS
1 1/4 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1/8 tsp cayenne (optional)
2 tsp fennel seeds
1 large pinch saffron plus a few tablespoons of boiling water
1 medium onion or 1/2 a giant onion, diced
2 medium potatoes (I used red potatoes), diced
4 small carrots, diced (I used 1/4 lb carrots)
1 small zucchini, diced
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 red, orange, or yellow sweet pepper, diced
2 c. cooked chickpeas (I soaked and cooked 1 c. dry chickpeas) OR
1-2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6 c. water
Salt to taste
Whole wheat couscous, prepared according to the package
Cooked merguez or dry chorizo (optional)

DIRECTIONS
  1. Toast all of the spices except the saffon in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant
  2. Put the saffron in a small bowl and pour over some boiling water to help it bloom. Set aside
  3. Placed the diced onion, potatoes and carrots into a large saucepan and add 6 cups water
  4. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and add the toasted spices and some salt
  5. Cook for about 20 minutes and then add the remaining vegetables and the chickpeas
  6. Continue cooking until the vegetables are very soft and the broth starts to look integrated
  7. Add the saffron and its water and taste. Adjust seasonings (you may wish to add a bit more of all the spices or more salt)
  8. Serve over whole wheat couscous with some harissa and/or merguez or chorizo

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