My arrival in Nice was marked by a mouthwatering cous cous, presented in a multitude of dishes. Chickpeas, chilles, artichoke hearts, squash, bell peppers, tomatoes, chilli paste, raisins, fresh coriander, and of course, the cous cous itself. Everything was served separately so we could choose just how much of everything to combine on our plates (one of us preferred to keep the cous cous separate from everything else, another mixed it all together). My hosts were clearly well-schooled on the ritual of damn fine cous cous creation; I’d never had anything like it!
If you’re into the background stories, here’s what Wikipedians have to say on cous cous history (scroll down for the recipe):
One of the first written references is from an anonymous 13th-century North Africa/Andalusian cookbook, Kitāb al-tabǐkh fǐ al-Maghrib (North Africa) wa’l-Andalus (Arabic) “The cookbook of the Maghreb and Al-Andalus“, with a recipe for couscous that was ‘known all over the world’. To this day, couscous is known as ‘the North Africa national dish’. Couscous was known to the Nasrid royalty in Granada as well. And in the 13th century a Syrian historian from Aleppo includes four references for couscous. These early mentions show that couscous spread rapidly, but generally that couscous was common from Tripolitania to the west, while from Cyrenaica to the east the main cuisine was Egyptian, with couscous as an occasional dish. Today, in Egypt and the Middle East, couscous is known, but in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya couscous is a staple. Couscous was taken from Syria to Turkey in the 16th century and is eaten in most of the southern provinces.
Couscous is a traditional meal of the cuisine from Trapani. In Rome Bartolomeo Scappi‘s culinary guide of 1570 describes a Moorish dish, succussu; in Tuscany.
One of the earliest references to couscous in France is in Brittany, in a letter dated January 12, 1699. But it made an earlier appearance in Provence, where the traveler Jean Jacques Bouchard wrote of eating it in Toulon in 1630. Couscous was originally made from millet. Historians have different opinions as to when wheat began to replace the use of millet. The conversion seems to have occurred sometime in the 20th century, although many regions continue to use the traditional millet. Couscous seems to have a North African origin. Archaeological evidence dating back to the 10th century, consisting of kitchen utensils needed to prepare this dish, has been found in this part of the world.
In some regions couscous is made from coarsely ground barley or pearl millet. In Brazil, the traditional couscous is made from cornmeal.
This isn’t the precise menu used for my meal, but the recipe looks quite similar (and scrumptious!) . Be warned: it’s a multi-step process and takes a considerable amount of time:
This is my mother-in-law’s outstanding recipe for classic Moroccan Couscous with Seven Vegetables. Steamed couscous is piled high with stewed meat and vegetables – very delicious! Omit the meat for a vegetarian couscous.
See How to Steam Couscous if you’ve never used a couscoussier. If cooking chicken, an organic, free-range bird works best due to the long cooking time.
Vary the vegetables to your family’s preferences, but try to include the full variety to achieve an authentically flavored sauce. Popular additions are listed as optional ingredients.
Buttermilk or Saycouk are traditionally offered afterward.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
Total Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Yield: Generously serves 6 adults
- 1 kg (2 lbs. 3 oz.) dry couscous (not instant)
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 kg (2 lbs. 3 oz.) lamb or beef, cut into large pieces on the bone (or 1 whole chicken)
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 3 tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon pepper
- 2 teaspoons ginger
- 1 teaspoon turmeric, or 1/4 teaspoon Moroccan yellow colorant
- 1 handful of parsley and cilantro sprigs, tied into a bouquet
- 1/2 of a small cabbage, cut into 2 or 3 sections
- 3 or 4 turnips, peeled and halved
- 10 carrots, peeled and halved
- 1 or 2 tomatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 or 2 small onions, whole or halved
- 1 small acorn squash, quartered (or a small section of pumpkin, cut into 3″ pieces)
- 4 or 5 small zucchini (long or 8-ball round), ends removed and halved
- 2 or 3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and halved (optional)
- 1/4 cup dry chickpeas, soaked overnight (optional)
- 1/2 cup fresh fava beans (optional)
- 1 or 2 jalapeño or chili peppers (optional)*
- 2 tablespoons butter (for the couscous)
- 1 tablespoon salt (for the couscous)
- 1 teaspoon smen (Moroccan preserved butter – optional)
Note: A free range chicken (djaj beldi) will require the same cooking time and procedure as indicated below for beef or lamb. If using a regular factory-raised chicken, remove it from the pot when fully cooked and set aside. Return it to the pot to reheat for a few minutes just prior to serving.
Mix the meat, onion, tomatoes, oil and spices in the bottom of a couscoussier. Cook uncovered over medium to medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the meat is browned and the onions and tomatoes have formed a thick sauce.
Add 2 1/2 liters (about 2 1/2 quarts) of water, the parsley/cilantro bouquet, and the chick peas. Cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer rapidly for 25 to 30 minutes. (Note: If omitting both meat and chick peas, there’s no need to simmer for awhile before proceeding to the next step.)
First Steaming of the Couscous
See the photo tutorial How to Steam Couscous if you’ve never used a couscoussier before.
While the meat is cooking, get the couscous ready for its first steaming. Oil the steamer basket and set it aside. Empty the dry couscous into a very large bowl, and work in 1/4 cup of vegetable oil with your hands, tossing the couscous and rubbing it between your palms. (This will help prevent the couscous grains from clumping together.) Next, work in 1 cup of water in the same manner, using your hands to evenly distribute the liquid into the couscous. Transfer the couscous to the oiled steamer basket.
Add the cabbage to the broth, and place the steamer basket on top. Once you see steam rising from the couscous, steam the couscous for 15 minutes.
Note: If you see steam escaping from between the basket and couscoussier, you’ll need to seal the joint. You can do this in several ways:
- wrap and tie a long piece of damp cloth over the joint, or
- tightly wrap a long piece of kitchen plastic film around the joint, or
- wrap and drape a long piece of kitchen plastic film onto the rim of the couscoussier, and then place the basket on top (this is my preferred method)
Once the couscous has steamed for 15 minutes, empty it back into your large bowl and break it apart.
Second Steaming of the Couscous
When the couscous has cooled enough to handle, gradually work in 2 cups of water and 1 tablespoon of salt with your hands. Again, toss the couscous and rub it between your palms to break up any balls or clumps. Transfer the couscous back into the steamer, taking care not to pack or compress the couscous.
Add the turnips, tomatoes, onions, carrots and fava beans (if using) to the pot. Place the steamer basket on top of the couscoussier, and steam the couscous a second time for 15 minutes, timing from when you see the steam rising from the couscous. (Again, seal the joint if you see steam escaping.)
When the couscous has steamed for 15 to 20 minutes, turn it out into the large bowl again. Break it apart, and leave to cool a few minutes.
If using pumpkin, add it to the couscoussier, and cover the pot.
Third Steaming of Couscous
Gradually work 3 cups of water into the couscous with your hands, tossing it and rubbing the grains between your palms. Taste the couscous, and add a little salt if desired.
Transfer about half of the couscous to the steamer basket. Again, try to handle the couscous lightly and avoid packing it into the steamer.
Add the squash, zucchini, and sweet potatoes to the couscoussier, and place the steamer basket on top. (Again, seal the joint if necessary.)
When you see the steam rise through the couscous, carefully add the remaining couscous to the steamer. Continue cooking, watching for the steam to rise from the couscous. Allow the couscous to steam a third time for a full 15 to 20 minutes. At this point, all of the vegetables should be cooked. Test the vegetables to be sure, cooking longer if necessary. Taste the broth – it should be salty and peppery – and adjust the seasoning if desired.
If you’re using smen, add it to the sauce in the pot.
Serving the Couscous and Vegetables
Empty the couscous into the large bowl, and break it apart. Mix in the 2 tablespoons of butter with 2 ladles of broth.
To serve the couscous, shape it into a mound with a well in the center. Put the meat into the well, and arrange the vegetables on top and all around. Distribute the broth evenly over the couscous and vegetables, reserving one or two bowlfuls to offer on the side for those who prefer more.
* If you’re serving the couscous with jalapeño peppers, simmer the peppers, covered, in a half-ladle of broth and a little water, for about 40 minutes, or until the jalapeños are tender. The peppers are typically placed on top of the couscous, and small pieces may be broken off as a condiment.