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On A Cloud

26 Apr

I’ve conquered my fear of couscous.

I thought you’d all be excited to hear that.

And who was holding my hand throughout the entire harrowing affair?

Well, Claudia Roden, of course.

She has quickly risen to the highest level of my pantheon of cooking gods. She’s joined Nigel and Bert and Roy and Madhur at the apex of my culinary esteem.

Claudia Roden

First she helped me conquer my fear of rice. Then she introduced me to a new way to pickle cauliflower. Now couscous? The decision to deify her was a snap.

So why should any grown woman have a fear of couscous? I blame the ’80s.

My mother has been a lifelong subscriber to Aramco World. For those unfamiliar, it’s a free magazine published by the Saudi oil consortium to further understanding of the Arab world and the Muslim religion. I was never interested in it as a child unless they had a feature on Arabian horses. I was obsessed with them, and I mean, who wouldn’t be. They’re gorgeous. They look so fragile and yet they’re some of the most sturdy equines in the world. They’re intelligent, loving and did I mention beautiful?

But I digress…

The magazine is also a wonderful resource for people interested in the Arabic kitchen (oh and look, Claudia Roden wrote for them). I figure this is how my mother was first introduced to couscous. I have this vision of her scouring the shelves of the local co-op and the Grand Onion for years and years hoping to spot couscous, until one glorious day in the ’80s when it finally appears. And, not only has it appeared, but it’s instant! Cooks up in 5 minutes! Comes pre-flavored! Serve alongside your favorite chicken recipe!

Oh, Near East foods… Thank you for introducing the world to couscous. But curse you for making that couscous so unlike the real stuff. You’re cheating people out of one of the greatest culinary experiences ever!

Couscous, The Right Way

It was only recently, during a lunch at La Maison du Couscous, that I discovered what a culinary hoodwink has been pulled on the children of America. Couscous is not supposed to be soggy. It’s not supposed to be flavorless. It’s not supposed to be gummy. It’s not supposed to be hard and crunchy. It’s not supposed to be lumpy.

It’s supposed to be airy, ethereal, toothsome, silky and so light that if you inhale wrong it can easily go straight up your nose. In short, it is supposed to be exactly everything instant couscous is not.

Vaguely Middle Easter Stew

Of course, cooking couscous the proper way is not nearly as simple as emptying a bag, adding one cup of water and one tablespoon of butter to a pot and allowing to simmer for 5 minutes. Yes, it takes an hour, but dear god, it’s so easy and downright enjoyable to make it fills me with sadness that this method has fallen out of favor.

Here’s what you do:

  • Take a large colander (big holes are okay) and place it in a pot that it will fit snugly in. Take the colander out and put a shallow layer of water into the pot. It must not touch the bottom of the colander. Place the colander back in, place on the stove and bring to a simmer.
  • Pour as much couscous as you want into a bowl. Sprinkle it lightly with cold water. It will cause little lumps, that’s okay. Use your hands to rub the lumps out and to distribute the water evenly amongst the couscous. I found this to be a great pleasure. It was so tactile and earthy. And it made my fingers feel really cool!
  • Once the water is simmering, gently pour the couscous into the colander. There will be some collateral damage, you will lose a few, but it’ll be alright. Do not cover. Allow the couscous to steam, uncovered, for 30 minutes.
  • Using a pot holder remove the colander from the pot and pour the couscous back into the bowl. Some will most likely be stuck to the bottom and really sticky, scoop them out too. Lightly sprinkle the couscous with cold water again and season with salt. Rub the grains again to distribute the moisture, break up lumps and make the grains airy. Return to the colander and allow to steam, uncovered, an additional 30 minutes.
  • When the time’s up, return the couscous to the bowl and rub a nubbin of butter into the grains and toss them about to make them airy. Serve and enjoy!

That’s it. That’s all the work that goes into making a perfect bowl of couscous. I served mine with harissa marinated lamb, a vaguely Middle Eastern stew and a classic cucumber and yogurt salad.

Kirbys In Yogurt

Claudia says that traditionally the grains are steamed over a stew that’s been cooking for hours. I’m sure it adds flavor but might be a bit awkward if you, like me, do not have a couscouserie lurking about in your cabinets.

And so, yet again, culinary superhero Claudia Roden has righted another egregious culinary wrong. First rice, now couscous.

What culinary fear will she help me conquer next? Might it be okra? Dates? Tahini? Stay tuned to find out!

Head below the jump for the recipe for Vaguely Middle Eastern Stew.

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