Saturday, August 18, 2007

Couscous recipe - who needs one?

Who needs a couscous recipe anyway?

After a successful dinner party it's quite likely that one of the guests will ask me for the couscous recipe or something like that. It's a tricky situation because when I tell them there isn't a recipe, they often don't believe me. They think I'm holding back a secret, keeping the special knowledge to myself. Let me tell you the secret now. There is no couscous recipe! Couscous, like many of the world's favourites is a peasant dish. Irish stew. Cottage pie. Minestrone. Cornish Pasty. Lancashire Hotpot. All absolutely delicious in their own right but do you know what? Thay are all basically great ways of using up leftover ingredients. Whatever you happen to have handy can usually be included, within reason. There are some basic necessities, like beef for the Irish stew, swede for the pasties, vermicelli for the minestrone, but most of the other ingredients can be substituted for something else. As for measuring out quantities, well that's just a waste of time. It's something people think they need to do when they are just learning how to cook.

Couscous recipe - Ingredients

This is not a couscous recipe - ingredients

So now I'm going to tell you how to make the most fabulous tasting authentic dish which will satisfy your family and friends without recourse to anything resembling a couscous recipe. Ingredients:

A traditional couscous dish, as served in the North African restaurants of Paris with mint tea and Algerian pop music is usually a choice between Lamb, chicken or Merguez sausage. There's also the 'Couscous Royale' which is a bit of all three, but you probably won't want to bother with that at home. These days people like to make up versions which are all vegetarian or seafood as well. It all depends on two things: What you like to eat, and what you have in the cupboard.

The single most important coucous ingredient, apart from the couscous grain itself, is a bowl of chick peas. This is important because if you are starting with dried chick peas ( tinned, cooked chick peas are never going to give the right texture so I'd say always use dried) then you need to think ahead and put the chick peas to soak the day before. The other thing is harissa sauce. That's the spicy red chile sauce made with the best fiery pimento chilli, garlic and caraway seed. The best one is made in Tunisia, not France. "La phare du cap bon". Fererro is also good. Squeezy tubes or little tins, it doesn't matter which. Stock up when you can find it. You'll also need root vegetables, onion, butter and some tomato or puree - not much.

Couscous Recipe - method

This is not a couscous recipe - method

I told you I wasn't going to give you a couscous recipe, and I've already explained the flexible approach to ingredients. Now here's the method.

The stew needs to be cooked long and slow. Seal and brown the meat first, then put it in the big pot. Add some onions, quartered not chopped, and big chunks of root vegetables. If you're using potatoes then put them in a bit later than turnips and carrots. Liquid goes in when the bottom starts to catch. A slosh of red wine will sort that out. Then enough warm water to just cover the vegetables and make sure that the meat is submerged. Turn the heat down as low as it will go, or better still put the pot in a low to medium oven and leave it to almost simmer away for a good hour or two. If you get this right, and there's no reason why you shouldn't, the meat will be lovely and tender whilst the vegetables still have some resistance. The flavours of meat, vegetable and spices intermingle to make an idescribably satisfying whole. Boil the chick peas seperately then add to the stew half way through. Finally take some of the liquid from the stew and use that, diluted with water, to rehydrate the couscous grain.