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Couscous - What is it and how do I cook it?

Couscous is a type of semolina pasta formed into small grains native to northern Africa. It is often known as a Moroccan food, but is equally native to other countries of the Maghrib (the western part of the Arab world), such as Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. Throughout the Maghrib, couscous is the grain of choice. In fact, Greg and Laidia Chouat Noakes in an article in Saudi Aramco World report that Habib Bourguiba, the former President of Tunisia, defined the Maghrib as the area where people eat couscous, not rice.

The traditional method of making couscous involves rubbing together a small amount of salt water with semolina (a coarsely ground durum wheat flour) until you get appropriate size grains. A sieve is used to ensure the proper size grain. This is hard work and usually done by a group of women to share the work. The finished grains are then steamed, cooled, steamed again and dried. Boxed couscous is also available, although it is reportedly not as good as homemade. I've heard that it can be improved by steaming it, but I've always followed the directions and just added hot water to reconstitute it. Then again, maybe I just don't know what I'm missing.

The term couscous is used not only to refer to the grain dish, but also to the various dishes made with couscous. Couscous dishes can be hot or cold, sweet or savory. The following recipe is adapted from one previously available on a Moroccan government website.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

1 1/2 to 2 pounds of mutton shoulder, cut into chunks (for a vegetarian version, use the equivalent amount of seitan plus 4 T olive oil)
1 small cabbage
1 piece of stale bread
1 t lemon juice
1 clove
5 medium onions, 1 whole, 4 minced
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/2 stick butter
scant pinch of saffron
1/2 t pepper
pinch of salt
1 can whole tomatoes
1/2 lb turnips, peeled
1 lb carrots, cut into large chunks
1 - 2 bunches cilantro
1 hot pepper
1/4 Red Kuri Squash, Red Hubbard Squash or other winter squash (approx 1 lb)
1/2 lb sweet potatoes
4 T olive oil

2 boxes of couscous (10 oz boxes)

Remove the core from the cabbage and discard. Blanch for 5 minutes in boiling water with lemon juice and a slice of stale bread. Discard the bread and drain.

Insert the clove into the whole onion and place it in a large pot with the meat, the cabbage, the chickpeas, saffron, salt, pepper and 3 quarts water. Bring to a boil and simmer in a closed pot for half an hour.

Place the winter squash and sweet potatoes in a separate pan. Remove enough broth from the other pan to cover and cook them separately.

Add the minced onions, tomatoes, turnips, carrots, cilantro and hot pepper to the meat and cabbage mixture, return to a boil. Simmer both pans until the vegetables are soft and the meat is cooked. Discard the whole onion with the clove. Mix together and adjust seasoning to taste.

Prepare the couscous according to package directions.

To serve, place couscous in a large bowl and form a well in the center. Fill the well with the stew and allow the broth to soak in. Serve any remaining stew in soup bowls.

Enjoy!

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