"A handful of couscous is better than Mecca and all its dust." So says a famous Moroccan proverb about almsgiving.
The maxim cannot be tossed off as mere chauvinism about the tiny balls of dough that are Morocco's national dish. You don't have to be from Africa to appreciate couscous. The late Craig Claiborne, for example, called it one of the dozen greatest dishes in the world. Paula Wolfert, who 30 years ago wrote what is still, in my judgment, the definitive treatise on the subject, claimed that couscous can be compared without exaggeration to such great specialties as Japanese sukiyaki, Peking duck, bouillabaisse, and paella Valenciana and called it the "crowning achievement" of Moroccan cuisine. It is to Morocco what pasta is to Italy.
Now perhaps you've tried couscous, soaking the granules in water for 5 minutes and then fluffing them with a fork as the instructions on the box typically direct, and wondered what all the fuss is about. I felt the same way until a recent visit to Tangier, where I learned that Moroccans would never think of using such an approach. Rather, as they have for centuries, they steam their couscous, sometimes as many as seven times, in a specially designed piece of equipment resembling a double boiler, called a couscousiere.
In the shadow of the Kasbah I bought a couscousiere and when I got home I discovered that the difference between couscous made with it and couscous made by mere soaking is nothing short of astonishing. Steamed couscous turns out light, fluffy, and tender and not at all gummy as it sometimes does with mere soaking.
Once you've tasted properly prepared couscous you'll understand why in Morocco it's always served at feasts and celebrations to insure that guests achieve what is called "shaban" or total satisfaction.
If there's such a thing as Christmas couscous, this is it. It's what we'll be serving with the holiday turkey, instead of stuffing, at our house this year. If you don't have a couscousiere, you can substitute a steamer basket or fine-holed colander and a stockpot.
- 1 1/2 cups couscous
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 cup diced onion
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 1 cup chopped cilantro
- 1/2 cup chopped green onions
Wash couscous in 4 1/2 cups water and drain through a sieve. Place grains in a large, shallow pan, smooth them out, and let rest for 10 minutes. Scoop up handfuls of couscous, breaking up lumps, and rub between your hands. Rake the couscous with your fingers and let swell another 10 minutes. Mound one-fourth of couscous in top part of couscousiere set over simmering water and steam, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Add remainder and steam 20 minutes longer. Return to pan, spread out, and sprinkle with 1 cup cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Break up lumps and with oiled hands work the grains again. Smooth out couscous and let dry for 10 minutes. Steam for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile sauté onions in butter and oil until translucent. Add cranberries and pecans. Combine with prepared couscous. Stir in cilantro and green onions. Serves 4.