Exploring ancient Sicily

DonQui not only loves his food and drink, he is also a bit of a history fanatic, particularly when it comes to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

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Mosaic of a late Roman soldier

Fortunately for him the Greeks and Romans left lots of stuff behind in Sicily. The Arabs and Normans also left their marks. There are even a few traces of the Carthaginians which is pretty rare as the Romans did their best to eradicate everything Carthaginian they came across.

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Carthaginian and Greek foundations of ancient Lilybaeum

In Marsala (ancient Lilybaeum) there are traces of the early Carthaginian city. This probably looks like a pile of old rocks to most people but DonQui gets quite excited by it.

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Salt pans near Marsala

He is also fascinated by the salt pans which have been in operation (with a few breaks) since Carthaginian times. The salt is still harvested by hand.

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The temple of Juno at Agrigentum

Three magnificent Greek Doric temples still proudly stand at Agrigento (Greek Akragas, Roman Agrigentum). The beauty of their perfect architectural design takes DonQui’s breath away. 

While appreciating their beauty DonQui spares a thought for the 25,000 enslaved Carthaginian prisoners of war who were put to work building the so-called Temple of Juno (Juno being a Roman goddess) circa 450 BC . It is hardly surprising that newly victorious Carthaginians did their best to destroy it half a century later.

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The Temple of Concordia

The temple of Concordia is still pretty well intact thanks to the fact that it was converted into a Christian church in the 6th century AD

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Late Roman city walls and tombs at Agrigentum

Parts of the Roman city walls are also still standing. Carved into them are Christian tombs from the 5th-6th  centuries AD when Agrigentum was controlled variously by the Romans, Vandals and Goths. 

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The huge late Roman villa near Piazza Armerina

Some way inland lies the 3rd – 4th Century Roman villa at Piazza Armerina. It is utterly stunning in its scale and in the beauty of the incredible floor mosaics. 

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Hunting scene mosaic
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Expedition to India mosaic
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Mosaic of female gymnasts
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Mosaic from the floor of the master bedroom

DonQui has seen photographs of some of the mosaics before but nothing compares to seeing them in-situ.

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Norman cathedral of Palermo showing Arab influences

The Normans came to Sicily to drive out the Arabs in the 9th century AD, more or less at the same time as they took over England.

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The Norman cathedral of Monreale decorated by Byzantine craftsmen

The Norman conquerors of Sicily employed Arab and East Roman craftsmen to build some magnificent churches incorporating Arabesque features in the architecture along with Roman mosaics to rival Ravenna and Constantinople.

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The remnants of the walls of Syracuse

The ancient Greek City of Syracuse rivalled Athens in the 5th century BC. Its strong defensive position on a small island allowed the city to fend off many invaders over the centuries. Not much remains of classical Syracuse but wandering around the narrow streets, DonQui gets a sense of the ancient city. 

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DonQui enters the Labyrinth

Plunging underground he is able to explore the foundations of the Greek city below modern Syracuse. Trotting around the dimly lit, deserted underground passages, he feels a little bit like Theseus descending into the Labyrinth. 

Olives, bread and cheese

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Continuing his exploration of Sicilian food, DonQui Oaty turns his attention to olives, the second most important staple of Sicilian cuisine (after wine!).

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Olive grove in an ancient Greek quarry

The olive trees at Casa di Latomie near Castelvetranto on the west of the island, are rooted in the limestone of an ancient Greek quarry. They derive much of their flavour and nutrients from it. They are picked by hand from in order to ensure the careful selection of high quality olives. 

 

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1200 year old olive tree

DonQui is introduced to the great-grandfather of the olive trees. 1200 years old, this tree was a sapling when the Arabs took Sicily from the East Romans and grew into maturity when the Normans came. It is still producing fruit.

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Oil and tapenade with tumminia bread

The olives, the oil and tapenade that DonQui samples are utterly delicious. The tapenade is served on crusty rustic bread made from tumminia flour. This ancient grain has a delectable nutty taste and is unique to Sicily.

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Animals are rarely seen in the fields of Sicily

Meat does not feature much in Sicilian cuisine. Milk and butter are noticeable only by their absence. Olive groves and vineyards dominate the landscape and, apart from a few sheep and and the odd cow or two, DonQui does not see any animals in the fields.

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DonQui’s Sicilian cousin

Livestock is mostly important for cheese. At La Masseria dairy, near Ragusa, DonQui encounters a whole menagerie including a distant Sicilian cousin.

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Shaping the cheese

At the dairy DonQui learns how caciocavallo is made. This a semi-hard cow’s milk cheese is quite mild.  Sicilians prefer to use it rather than northern Italian parmesan on their pasta. 

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A selection of medium-aged and mature caciocavallo

DonQui finds it pleasant enough but a bit too bland to get excited about.

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Fresh caciocavallo

He does rather like the fresh version which has not been aged and is served with olive oil and herbs. It is a bit like mozzarella but slightly firmer 

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Fresh ricotta

The curds are made into a delicious ricotta. The taste is vastly superior to any ricotta DonQui has tasted at home in England.

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The most wonderful cannoli

Sweetened ricotta is the filling for cannoli. These ones also have a few chocolate chips in them and they taste fabulous.

 

Wines from ancient grapes

Since Roman times Sicily has been the bread-basket of Italy. The industrial revolution passed by the island without stopping. The result today is an agricultural landscape of small family farms abundant with vines, olives, almonds, lemons, oranges and grain. These together with cheese from livestock and fish from the sea have produced a delectable and healthy cuisine that harks back to the days of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. 

In order to more fully appreciate Sicilian cuisine, DonQui Oaty is spending a bit of time exploring its sources. He starts with wine.

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The sweet fortified wines from Marsala on the west of the island were made famous in northern Europe by the English in the 18th century.

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At the Alagana winery DonQui has the opportunity to see the grapes being delivered from the surrounding vineyards to make this most well known of Sicilian wines.

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DonQui had thought that Marsala was Marsala — strong, sweet wine. He learns that there are actually many types of Marsala wines. Although the sweet ones are the most well known there are also dry and semi-dry versions, tasting a little bit like dry sherry. Marsala ranges in colour from oro (gold) to ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). The latter is made from red grapes while the others are from white. The amber wine gains its darker colour from simmering the grape must until it reduces and caramelises.

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DonQui is rather impressed by the Cotto which is the highly concentrated non-alcoholic grape must (musto). It can be used as an alternative sweetener in dressings, sauces and deserts. The locals recommend pouring it over chunks of rustic bread for a simple sweet treat.

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The west of Sicily is best for its white wines. DonQui particularly likes the dry yet fruity Grillo made from a grape unique to Sicily and particularly well suited to the climate and conditions of the Marsala region. 

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He is also rather fond of the sweet Zibibbo. This is an ancient grape variety related to Muscat.  The name is derived from the Arabic word for grape. It is as good a desert wine as DonQui has ever sampled. It is said that this is the wine favoured by Cleopatra and it is sometimes called Muscat of Alexandria.

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The volcanic slopes of Mount Etna in the east of Sicily are particularly good for red wines. In the past these were produced in bulk and exported to mix with northern Italian and French vintages. Over the past 40 years there has been a move away from quantity in favour of quality  something DonQui utterly approves of.

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At Gambino Vini, on the northeastern slopes of Mt Etna, DonQui has the opportunity to sample several excellent wines along with some rather tasty titbits.

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He particualrly likes the Tifeo, named after Typhon, the monster of ancient Greek mythology whom, according to legend, is the source of Mt Etna’s volcanic eruptions. This full-boddied wine has earthy, mineral tastes derived from the volcanic soil in which it is grown. The 2016 is just ready to drink but would benefit from a bit more time in the bottle. It would keep well for up to up to another 8 years according to the vintner.

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Even better (and quite a bit pricier) is the elegant Petto Dragone made from the Nerello Mascalese grape, originally brought to Sicily by the ancient Greeks.

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Later at a caffe DonQui samples a local brandy (Brandy Siciliano). It is quite rough and not at all up to the standards of a basic Cognac or Armagnac. The Sicilians still have a bit of work to do in this department.

After a few tastings DonQui is anything but an expert on Sicilian wine. He has, however, had his taste buds awakened by delicious new flavours from ancient and nearly forgotten grape varieties. He vows to learn more.

 

Cooking like a Sicilian

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Getting ready to cook

DonQui has the opportunity to try his hand at Sicilian cooking under the watchful eyes of the chefs from Duca di Castelmonte, near Trapani.

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Duca di Castelmonte

Duca di Castlemonte is an old farm estate now converted into an excellent country restaurant and guest house. 

DonQui Oaty’s first lesson is in making a traditional Sicilian spiral pasta (busiate).

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Roll out a thin finger of dough

This is done by rolling out a thin finger of dough then gently rolling it around a wooden stick to produce an elegant spiral. The stick is first dipped in flour to stop the dough from sticking to it.

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Make the spiral by rolling it around a kebab stick

DonQui takes his time with the first one, learning that it is best to make them quite thin and not too long.

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DonQui begins to get the hang of it

Once he gets the hang of it he is able to produce them with confidence but it is a time consuming process which would be best done with several willing helpers. DonQui is fortunate that the dough (hard flour and water — no eggs) is pre-made for him.

The sauce is a Trapanese tomato pesto. The ingredients (for two) are:

2 pealed garlic cloves
approximately 2 tablespoons of blanched, lightly roasted almonds.
a small bunch of fresh basil (torn up)
a pinch of salt and pepper
a generous glug of olive oil
pulp of 4 red, ripe tomatoes; peeled, seeded and roughly chopped

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Peel the tomatoes by first immersing them in boiling water

To peel and seed the tomatoes: score the skin in quarters, cover with boiling water for about 5 minutes then let cool. The skins will peel off easily. To de-seed, squeeze the tomato over a bowl and the seeds and excess liquid will come out leaving just the pulp.

Method:

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Use a mortar and pestle to make the pesto

Prepare the pesto by first mashing up the dry ingredients and garlic, with a mortar and pestle, until it forms a sort of paste. Add the torn basil and pound together a bit more until well blended.

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After adding the tomatoes and olive oil

Add the tomato pulp and olive oil then mash it all together until well mixed. Set to one side.

Cook the pasta in salted boiling water (You don’t necessarily need to use home-made pasta). Drain and tip out into a bowl and mix in the pesto.

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The completed dish

Serve with a good sprinkling of chopped roasted almonds on top then enjoy.

It is one of the most divine pasta dishes DonQui has had the opportunity to taste. In his view it does not benefit from the addition of cheese.

Palermo Street Food

Having decided to eat his way around Sicily, DonQui begins his gastronomic tour in Palermo.

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Time for an espresso 

The coffee from the machine in the hotel breakfast room is not that great so he takes a tip from a local and starts his day with a super-charged shot of espresso from the bar over the road.

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Capo market

Then he makes his way over to Capo market which is reminiscent of an Arab souk. This is hardly surprising given that it sprung up during the Arab occupation of Sicily 1200 years ago.

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The tastefully arranged displays of vegetables are amazing and DonQui learns a couple of interesting facts.

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Long Zucchini

These super long zucchini (courgettes) are a local speciality. They are grown over trellises which allow the zucchini to hang down and gain their long length.

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When broccoli becomes cauliflower

In Palermo, broccoli is called “sparacelli” and cauliflower is called “broccoli”.

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Palermo is famous for its street food.  

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After a bit of a wander around the market, DonQui stops off at  Arianna’s “Friggitoria Gastronomia” to sample some. 

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Cazzili are a sort of potato fritter flavoured with mint and parsley. Although not a great potato eater, DonQui rather likes them although one is plenty for him.

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Next up are arancine — deep fried balls of saffron-flavoured rice with a filling of meat and vegetables. These can be found all over Italy but these ones use the original recipe which pre-dates the introduction of tomatoes to Europe. They are utterly delicious and DonQui much prefers the saffron rice to the tomato infused version often served elsewhere. 

DonQui is informed by his local guide that a good arancina needs to be crisp and crunchy on the outside. This can only be achieved if freshly fried. If left in a display case for any length of time the steam will cause it to go soggy.

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Panella — a fritter of chickpea flour is OK but a bit boring. It needs a good squeeze of lemon to give it some cut-though but even then it is rather bland, stodgy and a bit greasy. DonQui can imagine that it would be the sort of thing he might enjoy later in the evening after a few too many beers.

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After a bit of a trot around the old city to work off one or two calories, DonQui summons up the courage to taste that most infamous of Palermo street food — the pani ca meusa, or spleen sandwich.

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Pippo serves up his Palermo delicacy

The inhabitants of Palermo love their spleen sandwiches and 72 year old Pippo has been preparing them since he was 6. His are reputed to be the best in the city. 

Thinly sliced pieces of offal are slowly simmered in a cauldron. The only spicing is salt. You can have them “single” with just a squeeze of lemon, or “married” with a sprinkling of cheese as well. DonQui goes for the former as his guide advises that it is best to remain single at first and only contemplate marriage later.

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DonQui finds it absolutely delicious. The meat is very tender and quite mild-tasting. The lemon juice provides a bit of a zing which balances the flavours perfectly. Maybe next time he will try ithe ‘married’ version with cheese.

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A short trot away from Pippo’s spleen sandwich stall is a tiny taverna which has been operated by the same family since the 19th century.  It is a bit of a dive but DonQui rather likes this as the place has plenty of atmosphere.

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A barrel of Sangue

Here he samples the local sangue or “blood wine”. This is a rough, sweet, fortified wine — a little bit like port without any refinement. It is rather good and DonQui is glad he tried it, even if it does not quite match the taste of a good port or marsala.

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Sfincione

To accompany his sangue he nibbles on some cheese and a piece of sfincione — thick soft bread with a topping of tomato, onion and anchovies. Although often described as Sicilian pizza, DonQui thinks it is perhaps more like a soft bruschetta. It is OK but not outstanding.

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Having grazed his way around the old city, DonQui stops off at a gelateria for a coffee and bacio ice cream. A more traditional way to have an ice cream in Palermo would have been a broscia which is a brioche cut in half with an ice cream in the middle. Since he has eaten so much already DonQui decides to stick with a cone as do most of the locals eating there.

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His stroll around the city provides DonQui with more than enough food to last him the day. In the evening he settles down at the very  pleasant Caffe Spinnato on via Belvadore for a beer or two.

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As these come with copious snacks he has no need to seek out a restaurant for dinner.

Note: DonQui likes to portray himself as an intrepid, independent explorer. He has a bit of that in him but the truth is that he would never have discovered the delights of Palermo street food on his own. His guide was the knowledgable and cheerful Marco on Exodus’ Sicily Food Adventure tour.

Off on his travels again

Donk with passport

Clutching his well-used passport, DonQui Oaty is getting ready to leave his home paddock on a new adventure.

He very excited to be going to Sicily for a week.

He has often wanted to visit the island but has not managed it before now. His intention is to take in the many historical sites as possible, indulge in a bit of Sicilian cuisine, and enjoy the late summer sun.

No doubt he will be writing about his adventures as they unfold.

 

Lucky Couscous

For many people, and the odd donkey, 7 is a lucky number. The recipe that follows must be very lucky indeed as DonQui makes it with seven vegetables and seven spices.

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Couscous with seven vegetables

This is DonQui’s take on a traditional couscous from Fez, adapted from Paula Wolfert’s excellent book: Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. DonQui’s recipe differs from the traditional in two ways.

Firstly he uses no meat while the original contains both chicken and lamb. This is not because DonQui is a vegetarian — he is anything but. Rather it is because he is cooking for just two people, not a vast horde, and very occasionally he likes to experiment with vegetable dishes.

Secondly he likes his vegetables crisp and crunchy while the vegetables in most traditional Moroccan couscouses are cooked to the point where they are soft and soggy. This is because the vegetables (and meat) are used to produce a deep rich bouillon. It is the sauce that is important rather than the the individual ingredients that are used to make it. DonQui’s recipe tries to balance both — crisp, crunchy vegetables as well as a deep rich sauce.

Ingredients (for two people)
1 cup of dry couscous
500 ml chicken stock
500 ml lamb stock
1 small tin (250 g) of chopped tomatoes or 2 fresh large tomatoes peeled and chopped
a bunch of chopped coriander leaves (cilantro)
a bunch of chopped parsley
½ cup of dry chickpeas (garbanzo beans) soaked overnight
a handful of raisins
a handful of blanched almonds
salt to taste
harissa to taste
lemon juice to taste
a mix of butter and oil for frying

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The seven spices

½ tsp ground coriander seed
½ tsp ground cumin seed
½ tsp turmeric
½ tsp dry ground ginger
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp ground black pepper
a pinch of saffron threads

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The seven vegetables

DonQui parts from tradition here, using whatever is fresh and available as well giving a good colour balance rather than sticking to traditional Moroccan vegetables. This time he uses:
1 onion, finely chopped
1 small courgette (zucchini)
4 baby sweet corn
6 sprigs of tender stem broccoli
3 carrots
a handful of fine french beans
a bunch of broad beans (later podded).

The onion is essential but the other vegetables are entirely up to your taste. Turnip is a traditional vegetable in Moroccan couscous and it adds a nice peppery flavour to the sauce. Unfortunately there were none available in his local shop when he made this dish. Normally he would try to include it.

Notes:
DonQui uses a combination of chicken and lamb stock as the traditional recipe is made with both chicken and lamb. He sometimes uses only chicken stock. Alternatively if you want a vegetarian dish then you could use 1 litre of vegetable stock instead.

To peel fresh tomatoes, place them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for a few minutes and the skins will come off. It is easier if you quarter the tomatoes before peeling.

Method
Note: This dish takes several hours preparation. DonQui usually starts in the morning for an evening meal. Most of the more complicated stages can be done well in advance to leave the final preparations to the last 30 minutes.

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The couscous grains after washing and drying

Prepare the dry couscous by washing and drying as described in step 1 of How to Make the Perfect Couscous. This should be done several hours in advance.

Drain the chickpeas and simmer in boiling water for 1 hour. Then drain.

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Fry the chopped onion and carrot in the bottom of a couscousiere

In the bottom of a couscousiere gently fry the chopped onion in the butter and oil until it begins to colour. DonQui also likes to add one chopped carrot as well.

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Add the chickpeas and spices

When the onion-carrot mix begins to colour but before it burns, add the chickpeas and all the spices. Stir for about a few seconds over a medium heat.

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Add the tomatoes and herbs

Add the tomatoes, salt, coriander and parsley, stirring continuously so that the mix is well blended but does not scorch. The add the stock and bring to the boil.

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Place couscous in the top half and steam

Place the couscous in the top half of the couscousiere and steam over the mixture for 20 minutes as described in step 2 of How to Make the Perfect Couscous. Up to this point everything can be done well in advance and it is better to do so. You can then set everything off to one side and make the final preparations without time-stress.

Thirty minutes before you wish to serve, add the raisins to the mixture in the bottom of the couscousiere and bring back up to the boil. Place the pre-prepared couscous back on top to steam another 20 minutes as described in step 3 of How to Make the Perfect Couscous.

The original 1 litre of stock will have reduced considerably by the end of this stage but it should be enough to continue to steam the couscous while forming a rich broth. If it looks like it is evaporating too much then add a little water.

Gently fry the blanched almonds in butter until they turn a golden brown. Tip out on a plate covered with paper towels to dry and set aside to dry.

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Prepare the vegetables

Meanwhile prepare the fresh vegetables by cutting the larger ones (carrots and courgette) into julienne style batons about 3 cms long. Cut the french beans in half widthwise and slice larger baby corn in half lengthwise. Cut off the thicker parts of the broccoli stalks. Although not essential, broad beans are best if you remove the outer skin of the individual beans after podding. This is best done by blanching for a minute or two, pinching an opening in the outer skin and then squeezing the tender inner bean through it.

When the couscous has steamed for 20 minutes add the carrots to the broth and continue to simmer for 2 minutes more. Then add the baby corn, broccoli and beans, and simmer for 3 minutes. Finally add the courgette for a final 2 minutes. In this way the carrots will have cooked for 7 minutes, the beans and corn 5 minutes and the courgette for 2 minutes. Adjust your cooking times to the individual vegetables and your taste. DonQui likes his still a bit crunchy and these timings give him that.

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Make a well in the centre of the couscous

Tip the couscous out onto a serving platter. Fluff up with a fork (possibly adding a few dollops of butter) and form a well in the centre for the vegetables.

Strain the vegetables, reserving the broth. Tip the drained vegetables into the well of the couscous.

 

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Serve the broth in a gravy boat on the side

Pour the strained broth back into the bottom of the couscousiere. Bring back up to the boil and immediately take off the heat. Add a dollop of harissa and a squeeze of lemon juice to taste and stir well. Taste for seasoning and pour the broth into a serving jug or gravy boat.

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Sprinkle the fried almonds on top

Sprinkle the vegetables with the fried almonds and serve with the broth on the side.