How to make perfect couscous

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.

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DonQui’s copy of Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco

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.

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Couscous with Merguez and Vegetables

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.

 

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Absorbing water in several stages produces a light fluffy couscous

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

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They dry couscous at first seems to not be enough

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.

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Swish the grains around in the water

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).

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Pour off the excess water

Gently pour off the excess water (no need to use a sieve) leaving the wet grains in the bowl to settle.

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Set aside to dry

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.

 

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Break up the grains once dry

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

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Place the grains in the top half of a couscousiere

Place the fluffed up couscous grains in the colander of a couscousiere on top of the food you are cooking to accompany it.

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Ensure there is plenty of liquid in the bottom half of the couscousiere

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.

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Steam for 20 minutes uncovered in a couscousiere

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.

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Pour water with a bit of oil over the steamed grains

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.

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Set aside to dry again

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

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Break up the grains before 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.

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Again steam for 20 minutes

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.

 

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The finished couscous

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!

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Serve the couscous with food it was steamed over

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.

 

Casamia, Bristol

After enjoying his day at Jekka’s Herb Farm, Duchess treats DonQui to a meal at Michelin-starred Casamia — Bristol’s finest restaurant. Many of the herbs they use are sourced from Jekka’s farm.

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The entrance to Casamia

After the slightly disappointing experience at the Black Swan in Yorkshire, DonQui wonders if the multi-course tasting menu at Casamia will also be a little over-fussy. He need not have worried. The meal is utterly exquisite — each small dish of the 12 course menu is a wonderful gastronomic experience in its own right and the courses build beautifully.

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The open kitchen

Tucked away on a pedestrianised road beside the Bathurst Basin water, the contemporary styled restaurant has room for only 35 diners, creating a nice intimate atmosphere with the tables spaced well enough apart that there is no crowding. On arrival Duchess and DonQui are treated to a quick tour of the huge open kitchen where the enthusiastic young cooks prepare the dishes. 

We are given no menu in advance. Instead we are advised to sit back and enjoy the journey. Every dish is brought to our table by one of the enthusiastic cooks who helped prepare it. They give detailed explanations and are happy to answer questions. The pride in their creations is palpable. 

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Parmesan tartlet

The meal begins on a high note with an incredible parmesan tartlet. The ultra-fine crisp pastry filled with a parmesan cheese mouse and topped with grated parmesan is a taste explosion with beautifully contrasting textures. It is one of the most wonderful things DonQui had ever eaten.

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Prawn on lava

Hot on its heals came a fabulous dish of Canary Islands prawn served on a lava rock evoking the islands’ volcanic state.

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A tiny but delicious salad

The dishes are very small — tiny even, but with 12 courses to get though this is a good thing. Every dish is exquisite and DonQui finds it hard to find the words to do justice to the tastes. In addition to the parmesan tart a couple of other dishes stand out.

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Trout with served with hot charcoal

The brown trout served with a white-hot piece of charcoal on top still cooking the fish is not just a piece of showmanship. The lingering taste of charcoal infuses the fish with its flavour and the crispy skin is served on the side, much like a piece of pork crackling. The monkfish tail with a champagne sabayon is also quite delectable and definitely one of the stand-out dishes. It is helped by the fact that DonQui opted for the wine pairing and a glass of the champagne which was used in the sauce is served alongside it.

A wonderful sourdough bread with tangy cultured butter is served as a separate course after the salad and before the two fish dishes. DonQui remarks to the chef that he is not a fan of bread being served before the meal. Inevitably he is hungry then and eats far too much of it. The chef replies that the bread is so good that it deserves to be served as a course in its own right. He is correct and it helps that the previous dishes have knocked the edge off DonQui’s hunger. 

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Duck breast

The meat courses are based on duck with a flavourful consommé preceding a beautifully cooked piece of breast with a crisp, spicy-herb skin and a rich sauce.

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The red wine is breathing

DonQui is very glad that he chose the ‘wine flight’ as Cassamia calls it. In doing so each of his dishes is accompanied by a different wine, few of which are familiar to DonQui. Amongst the most notable are the Equinocio Branco from Southern Portugal which goes very well with the opening courses and the French Uroulat Jurançon desert wine.

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Passion fruit desert with Jurançon wine

The deserts are as sublime as the savoury courses. There are several of them including a passion fruit concoction served in an elegant ceramic pot as well as a mix of strawberry based sweets. Perhaps the most unusually interesting is the tiny porcini mushroom fudge served at the end of the meal — the earthiness of mushroom unexpectedly and beautifully combining with the sweetness of the fudge.

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Strawberry second desert

This is probably the best meal DonQui has had in a long time. Given the restaurant’s reputation and its small size, bookings need to be made well in advance. 

How to use herbs

Busy with other things, DonQui has been a bit lax of late when it comes to his writing. Never mind — his hooves are once again tapping the keyboard.

Recently he had the delightful experience of spending a day at Jekka’s Herb Farm just outside Bristol.

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Jekka McVicar is the Herb Guru of the UK. Her many acolytes include Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal. DonQui can now also be counted amongst their number having completed Jekka’s How to Use Herbs masterclass.

DonQui loves his herbs especially those from the Lamiaceae family which includes thyme, rosemary, mint, basil and oregano amongst others. Until now he did not know that much about them and his attempts to grow various herbs have been rather hit and miss. Now he knows much more although the paradox of knowledge is that the more he learns the more he realises just how much more there is still to learn.

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So what did he learn?

In no particular order the things that stand out most for DonQui are:

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In the West we use the wrong part of lemongrass. In many parts of Asia it is the leaves which are prized, not the stalks. The stalks are exported to the West and the leaves are used at home. DonQui therefore purchased a lemongrass plant so he can start experimenting with the leaves.

Rosemary has been proven to improve memory. This is a good thing to know as DonQui is hopelessly forgetful. This is not just down to his ageing brain — he has always been that way. When he was a young colt his father once told him that it was a good thing his head was screwed on as otherwise he would forget it.

Oregano (and marjoram) is good for stomach upset and indigestion while fennel seed can prevent heartburn. This is why fennel seeds are a key component of Mukhwas, an Indian after-meal digestive. Mint is also a natural digestive and helps to calm the gut. A glass or two of fresh mint tea after a meal is probably a much better bet than DonQui’s usual espresso!

Aniseed, tarragon and fennel seeds help to break down cholesterol. DonQui is rather fond of cream sauce with tarragon (with fish and chicken breast). Now he knows that the tarragon not only adds to the taste — it also helps his body deal with the cholesterol overdose.

Garlic helps to reduce blood pressure — something DonQui needs to do. He also learned that the little shoot in the middle of the bulb (often slightly greenish) can taste bitter in old garlic. It can easily be removed by splitting the clove length-wise down the centre before slicing or crushing.

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The flowers of most herbs are not only edible but they pack a fabulous flavour punch. They do loose their taste in cooking so use them in a salad or by sprinkling over a dish after cooking. After flowering the herbs should be cut back,

It is incredibly simple to create a herb infusion. Simply pour boiled (but not boiling) water over a sprig of your favourite herb to make a refreshing tea which can also be kept to drink cold. DonQui hopes that the occasional Rosemary infusion may help him to remember where he left his keys, or his phone, or his wallet.

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With over 300 culinary herbs, Jekka’s Herb Farm is the largest single collection in the UK. Delivered with dry humour by Jekka and her two adult children, the masterclass was as fun as it was informative. There was plenty of opportunity to create and try various concoctions and decoctions as well as a lovely lunch which showed off the use of many of the herbs.

DonQui highly recommends taking a class or just visiting on one of the open days. Be advised that classes fill up almost as soon as they are advertised. It took DonQui almost a year to secure a place which he got off a waiting list. It is worth persevering!

 

Good food in Belgium

DonQui is off to Brussels for a few days in search of good food and beer. This shouldn’t be too hard as the Belgians take their food and beer very seriously indeed.

The problem is that there are so many options it can be difficult to decide where to go. Most of the top rated restaurants seem to serve up what has come to be known as Modern European — often small dishes topped off with some foam, a squirt or two of sauce, and a scattering of edible flowers or pea shoots. This is not what DonQui wants. He is looking for traditional Belgian fare washed down by a strong abby-brewed beer. 

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Brasserie de la Ville

After a bit of research DonQui stumbles on a little gem offering exactly what he is looking for. Although just off the Grand Place, the small Brasserie de la Ville (Rue de chapeliers 14) remains resolutely traditional in an area swarming with places mostly catering to tourists in a party mood.

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A calm, relaxed, atmosphere 

The atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious with the quirky decorations adding character.

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A bit of a Tintin theme

There is a strong Tintin theme going on — even the menus are inserted into Tintin comics. 

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Les boulettes à la Liègeoise with pommes frites

After a delightful starter of scampis à l’ail (prawns in garlic sauce), DonQui goes for Les boulettes à la Liègeoise (meatballs in Liège syrup).  Liège syrup is made from highly concentrated apple and pear juice. DonQui has a bit of a penchant for sweet-savoury combinations. He thinks the combination of the slightly sweet, rich, brown sauce with the beutifully lean meatballs is utterly delicious.

Then there are the frites. The Belgians lay claim to having invented chips (French fries) and have perfected the way of making them. Soft on the inside, crispy on the outside and salted immediately on coming out of the fryer, Belgian pommes frites are, in DonQui’s opinion,  the best in the world. The frites at the Brasserie de la Ville are just about perfect.

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DonQui’s Westmalle Dubbel

Don’t look for an extensive wine list — this is a brasserie after all. In Belgium, beer is the drink of choice with several wonderful brews on-tap and many more in the bottle. DonQui enjoys a Dubbel, brewed in the Trappist abbey at Westmalle.  With 7% alcohol this rich brown ale is for sipping and savouring rather than for quenching a thirst. It goes perfectly with his meatballs — far better than any wine would do. 

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Duchess’ moules-frites

As DonQui is tucking into his wonderful meatballs, Duchess throughly enjoys a classic moules-frites (mussels and fries). She was less impressed with her onion soup starter which she thought was a bit lacklustre. 

Everything else is fabulous, including the helpful, enthusiastic and multi-lingual staff.

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More touristy restaurants in the area

DonQui is rather sad to see the obvious tourist traps full to overflowing while this more or less traditional brasserie is only half full. He hopes that the Brasserie de la Ville will be able to hold its own against the swarm of identikit restaurants serving up variations of more or less the same thing.

A Big Fat Goose Egg

Geese.jpgLiving on a farm with a flock of geese gives DonQui the opportunity to try a goose egg for breakfast. Geese do not lay a lot of eggs and they usually only do so in Spring. Geese are stubborn, independent creatures and so far humans have not yet found a way to factory-farm them. This is why you are unlikely to find goose eggs in your local supermarket and why a Christmas goose is so much more expensive than a mass-produced turkey.

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Goose eggs are big — at least twice the size of a hen’s egg and they have a very hard shell. Any attempt to gently crack them on the edge of a bowl is unlikely to succeed. DonQui uses a heavy knife.

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There is a much higher yolk to white ratio in a goose egg and the white is more glutinous. DonQui has heard that they make good omelettes or scrambled eggs. He opts for the latter.

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DonQui prepares the egg as he would a couple of hen’s eggs, beating it up well and then adding a touch of water to thin the mixture slightly as he senses that the beaten goose egg is quite a bit heavier than hen’s egg.

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He cooks it as normal, in a small pot with butter and a little bit of salt.

The result looks very similar to normal scrambled eggs, if a little more yellow thanks to the high yolk to white ratio.

So how does it taste?

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The taste is similar but slightly different. The constituency is much denser so perhaps he should have added a bit more water to the beaten egg. He could have added milk instead but he thinks this would not have lightened it as much as water.

He enjoys it and is glad to have experienced goose egg for the first time. That said he prefers scrambled hen’s eggs. Perhaps next time he should try an omelette?

Best Restaurant in the World?

DonQui is rather excited to be going for dinner at the Black Swan in Oldstead, Yorkshire.

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The Black Swan at Oldstead

This restaurant, in the middle of nowhere on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, was crowned the Best Restaurant in the World in TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice Restaurants awards in October 2017. It has one Michelin star which Michelin defines as ‘worth a visit’. As a Christmas present from Duchess, DonQui was giving it the three star treatment — ‘worth a trip’.

The Black Swan is a family run business with Tommy Banks running the kitchen and his brother James overseeing the front of house. The Banks family have transformed a country pub into a world renowned dining experience, knocking Martin Berasategui in Lasarte, Spain from the top spot it had held since 2015. 

 

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The menu

The isolated country setting looks idyllic although the single track road leading to it is less so. A warm, welcoming fire greats DonQui and Duchess as they settle into a comfortable seat to peruse the menu and sip on aperitifs. Despite the Black Swan’s global reputation the atmosphere is cosy and relaxed. The staff are young, friendly and very knowledgeable. 

 

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Celery and walnut tart

DonQui opts for an excellent Alsatian Pinot Blanc as his aperitif while Duchess is more adventurous with her Jerusalem artichoke cocktail which she thoroughly enjoys. To accompany their drinks they nibble on a delightful celery and walnut tart. DonQui is not a great fan of celery but he tastes none of the bitterness he normally associates with the vegetable. Instead, the combination of walnut, cream and celery blend together beautifully. 

Ushered upstairs to their table, DonQui and Duchess settle down to the remaining 11 courses of the tasting menu. DonQui also opts for the suggested wine pairings.

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Langoustine with salted strawberry

The langoustine with salted strawberry is exquisite — quite possibly the best single dish on the menu. As the other courses come DonQui increasingly feels that some are over-fussy with too much attention paid to artistic presentation and the chef’s technical skill which hides the taste of the fine local ingredients. 

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Scallops cured in rhubarb juice

Duchess is put off by the visceral rawness of some of the dishes from the venison tartare to the raw scallops in rhubarb juice. Why is it that so many chefs seem to think that raw food is the epitome of modern cooking? DonQui cannot order scrambled eggs in a posh restaurant anymore for fear of receiving a puddle of yellow liquid instead of something nice, light and fluffy.

The main lamb dish actually turns out to be three — sweetbreads, loin and rib. They are excellent. The loin is perfectly tender and pink, just as DonQui likes it and the rib is succulent and slightly salty. DonQui is too busy enjoying it to take a photo.

The matching wines are a mixed batch. The Sussex sparkling wine was touted as being as good as any champagne but DonQui does not agree. The Greek and South African whites are fine but not extraordinary.

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Baden Spätburgunder

On the other hand, the Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) from Baden, Southwest Germany, is exquisite. It is as good or better than many Burgundies he has sampled. With a slight peppery hint it goes superbly with the lamb. DonQui asks for a second glass. German wines are underrated in the Anglo-Saxon world, mainly because the good stuff is rarely exported. The best of them come from Baden.

The Black Swan certainly deserves its Michelin star but DonQui would not rate it as the best restaurant in the world. DonQui enjoys the meal and the atmosphere it but he can think of many others he has enjoyed more. These include the Great House in Lavenham, Suffolk;  Restaurant des Epicuriens near Laon, France and Jean-Luc Rabanel in Arles, France.

DonQui’s verdict is that the Black Swan is definitely worth a visit if you are planning to go to north Yorkshire but probably not worth a trip in its own right. Be advised that due to its popularity you will need to make reservations months in advance.

Breakfast at the Wolseley

This is something DonQui has wanted to try out for some time.

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The Wolseley on Piccadilly in London, is a self-proclaimed ‘café-restaurant in the grand European tradition’. It is famous for its breakfasts.  Although the magnificent art-deco building dates back to 1921 it has not been a restaurant all that long. In previous lives it has been both a car showroom and a bank.

Elegant and with formally dressed waiters the Wolseley not cheap. Nor is it easy to get a table without a reservation. Finding himself at a loose end in London on a cold February Sunday morning, DonQui decides to take his chances. He is slightly disconcerted to find the place absolutely buzzing at 10am. Fortunately the friendly lady at the door is able to find him a spot. He is very glad she did.

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The breakfast menu is extensive offering almost anything one might want from the piles of delicious looking croissants strategically placed around the rooms, to classic egg dishes, müslis, and yoghurt.

DonQui orders french toast with bacon. This is one of his favourite breakfast dishes and it is surprisingly hard to find on European menus.

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It is just about perfect. Nice thick slices of bread, properly soaked in egg mixture with no dry bread bits in the middle. It is smothered with proper crispy bacon and served with a generous jug of real maple syrup on the side. DonQui thinks he would be hard pressed to cook better himself.

The elegant setting, filled with a mix of tourists and Londoners, makes breakfast here feel like a real treat. The coffee is great too.

 

The bill at the end did not break the bank as DonQui suspects a dinner bill might.