Moroccan food must be counted amongst the world’s great cuisines. DonQui has been in love with it for many years and he enjoys preparing a Moroccan feast as much as he enjoys partaking in it.
His faithful guide to unlocking the secrets of this wonderful cuisine has been Paula Wolfert’s brilliant Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. The pages of his copy are now stained from use and the pages are coming apart. It is from these pages that DonQui discovered how to make delectable tagines as well as the traditional way of preparing couscous.
Couscous in the West is rarely prepared properly. Most instructions simply tell you to pour boiling water or stock over the couscous, let it swell for 5 minutes and then loosen the grains with a fork, perhaps adding a little butter. You can make couscous this way and it will be edible but the grains will swell to at most twice their size. Done in the traditional way the couscous grains will swell up to at least three times their original size without becoming soggy or lumpy. The result is a deliciously light, fluffy concoction — perfect for sopping up the deep rich bouillon in which the accompanying meats and/or vegetables are prepared.
The trick is to let the grains absorb water in three stages, drying out in between and steaming the couscous over the meat, vegetables and spices which will accompany it. You will need a couscousiere to do this. The process is simple but it takes time. DonQui is a great fan of the slow food movement and he is of no doubt the time taken is well worth the effort.
This is how it is done:
First Stage. Washing and Drying
Put approximately 1 cup of dry couscous for every two people in a large deep bowl. It will not look like much and DonQui often worries that it will not be enough. Fear not. It will grow to three times as much — or more.
Pour a good amount of cold water over it. DonQui never measures exactly but is should be more than enough to cover the grains and then some. Swish the grains around in the water for a few seconds with your hands (the water will then become cloudy).
Gently pour off the excess water (no need to use a sieve) leaving the wet grains in the bowl to settle.
Set aside to let the grains absorb the remaining water and then dry. This will take about 30 minutes. You can let the couscous sit for as long as you like. DonQui often does this hours before he intends to start cooking.
When the grains are dry (this does not have to be done immediately) break up the couscous with your hands so that the grains are no longer sticking together. By this time the couscous will have expanded to about twice the original size.
Second Stage. The First Steaming
Place the fluffed up couscous grains in the colander of a couscousiere on top of the food you are cooking to accompany it.
You will need a good deal of liquid in the bottom half of the couscousiere as much of it will evaporate in the steaming process.
Bring the liquid in the bottom half of the couscousiere to a vigorous boil and steam the couscous on top of it for 20 minutes, uncovered.
Tip the steamed couscous back into the bowl and immediately pour about ¼ litre of cold water with a dash of olive oil over the hot grains. Swish the bowl around for a few seconds then let it settle for the couscous to absorb the water. It is best to add the water in stages as too much at this stage may cause the couscous to become soggy.
Set aside to dry as in the first stage. Once again this can be done hours in advance. By this time the grains will have expanded to three times their original size or more.
Third Stage. The Second Steaming
Thirty minutes before you wish to serve, break up the couscous with your hands so that they are no longer sticking together and there are no lumps.
Once again steam the couscous for 20 minutes, uncovered, in the top half of a couscousiere. In the last few minutes DonQui often adds a few dots of butter.
Tip out onto a serving platter and fluff up with a fork or two so that there are no lumps.
Either form a mound, over which the meat and vegetables can be placed. Or form a well in the centre for the same purpose. Then enjoy!
In his next blog, DonQui will give a recipe for a vegetable accompaniment which he recently cooked in the bottom half of the couscousiere as the grains were steaming. Over time he will add additional recipes.
If you only want light fluffy couscous (for a salad, for example). You could steam the couscous over a simple stock.