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.

Vaguely Middle Eastern Stew

prep time: 15 minutes ~ cooking time: 1 hour

  • 1 large Sweet Onion, chopped
  • 8 or so cloves of Garlic, chopped
  • Olive Oil
  • 1/2 small Preserved Lemon, pulp removed and finely diced
  • 10 Oil Cured Olives, pits removed and roughly chopped
  • handful frozen Artichoke heart
  • handful frozen Green Garbanzo Beans
  • handful Golden Raisins
  • Vermouth
  • Salt & Pepper

Add a glug of olive oil to a large skillet over medium heat and allow the onions and garlic to slowly caramelize. This may take as long as half an hour. Don’t panic.

Once the onions are deeply golden and limp, add the lemon, olive, artichoke heart and grabanzos. Stir to incorporate. Add a glug of vermouth, cover and allow to cook until the frozen things have thawed.

Uncover, add the raisins and stir to incorporate. Check the seasoning and add salt & pepper if necessary. Serve alongside couscous.

If there are leftovers mix the stew and couscous together. To reheat, place in a pot with a lid with about 1/3 cup of water. Allow to reheat. Some of the couscous will get golden and crusty. Trust me, this is a very good thing. Enjoy!


15 Responses to “On A Cloud”

  1. Terry B April 26, 2007 at 2:49 pm #

    Hmmmmm. I’ve always taken the lazy man’s way to riches, using the quick cook couscous. But I always doctor them, with a little olive oil or butter and maybe a little chopped arugula or parsley. I may have to try this slow approach. I must admit, though, usually when I think of couscous is when the rest of the meal is almost done and I suddenly feel I need one more thing.

  2. sher April 27, 2007 at 2:32 am #

    Your couscous looks so gorgeous! i’m going to make it your way now! Wonderful!

    Hey, what happened to your kitty friend? Is he still around?

  3. s'kat April 27, 2007 at 9:52 am #

    So ethereal you can snort it? I’m sold.

  4. Toni April 27, 2007 at 2:38 pm #

    Girl, we are on the same page! I just posted an eggplant recipe from Claudia Roden, and the other thing I made with it is her Moroccan couscous. (A la Toni, of course!) I bought mine in bulk, not in a box, but I cheated and used the down and dirty method of cooking. But so ethereal you could snort it? Hmmmm…..makes me think I’ll be trying the long way soon!!

  5. Julie April 27, 2007 at 8:40 pm #

    Couscous must be in the air. I just read about this way of cooking couscous (with the rubbing and the steaming) in one of Anya von Bremzen’s books. And only yesterday I read something about barley couscous in this month’s (or maybe last month’s) Gourmet magazine. Again with the rubbing and the steaming.

    I’ve always been pretty couscous neutral — I don’t think the boxes of instant couscous cause passion in either direction — so when I first read of this time consuming way to prepare couscous I was not inspired, but now I’m thinking that one of these days I might just have to try real couscous.

  6. ann April 28, 2007 at 9:38 am #

    TerryB — That’s the problem! Couscous should be more than an after thought! Then again, maybe I’m thinking about this too much.

    Sher — I haven’t seen Fred in awhile and I’ve been afraid to mention it because it makes me a little sad. I hope he’s okay. I look for him every day.

    s’kat — I said, inhale, not snort ;-) LOL

    Toni — I’ll have to take a look at that eggplant recipe. I love them!

    Julie — REALLY? I know what magazine I’ll be picking up this weekend! If you try it, I hope you love it.

  7. lobstersquad April 28, 2007 at 1:29 pm #

    Oh, I don´t know, you make a very good case, but I´ve never found instant cous cous to be as bad as you say. Maybe we get some better stuff over here. No excuse for anything else, with Morocco so near.

  8. izzy's mama April 29, 2007 at 11:29 pm #

    I discovered the delights of real couscous too many moons ago to tell you, while living in Paris. I was living with a a frenchman whose mother made a mean couscous. When we went to visit her she would begin cooking early Saturday morning to prepare it for lunch. I also ate couscous quite often in Paris.

    Inspired by these couscous experiences, I purchased Paula Wolfert’s books. I believe that she may be even more of a couscous maven than Claudia Roden. Her recipe requires more work than the one you describe..but makes for magnificent results.

    As for instant couscous, enjoy it for what it is, a decent side-dish of carbs that bares little resemblance to the real stuff but works in a pinch and needn’t be lumpy or hard if you do it right.

  9. Glenna April 30, 2007 at 6:49 am #

    Wonderful! I’ve always been intimidated by cous cous but you make it sounds so easy and friendly .

  10. ann April 30, 2007 at 6:49 am #

    Lobstersquad — Oh I wonder if that’s it, that you’re so close to Morocco that it’s better there. Some day I need to go to Andalucia, if only for the horses, but also to see the Moorish cities. I know the instant stuff isn’t that bad, but when you compare to the real stuff… Oh mama!

    Izzy’s Mama — what a lovely memory! I need to get my hands on that Wolfert book.

    Glenna — Thanks! I like to think that’s what I’m here for ;-)

  11. Susan in Italy April 30, 2007 at 9:42 am #

    Let’s hear it for Claudia Roden! I’ve been looking for a good, real (as in, don’t just add water) Middle Eastern Cookbook for a while now. Does the book include Persian cuisine as well?

  12. ann April 30, 2007 at 10:15 am #

    Hi Susan! This is really real Middle Easter cuisine. I know the book I’ve been cooking from (the older one) has Persian recipes in it, but I’m not so sure about the newer version.
    Abe Books has both, for rather cheap as well: http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&an=claudia+roden&y=15&tn=Book+of+Middle+Eastern+Food&x=43
    Hope that helps!

  13. Andrea April 30, 2007 at 5:32 pm #

    I found your site today and noticed that your family had a lifelong subscription to Aramco World. As a former “Aramcon” myself, I am curious if your family lived in the kingdom at some point! And even though I enjoyed good couscous while in the Middle East, I’ve never made it since my husband isn’t a fan. I’ll have to make it sometime when he’s out of town, using your excellent instructions, of course.

  14. ann April 30, 2007 at 8:06 pm #

    Hi Andrea — Thanks for stopping by! My family has never lived outside of New York, Iowa or Pennsylvania, so I have no idea how my mom began her subscription to Aramco World. I should really ask her someday… My best guess is that she’s just a really smart woman who never had any formal schooling past high school but has taught herself, mainly through reading magazines and books, more about the world than I can ever hope to know. She insatiably hunts out information wherever she can find it. Everyone hates playing against her in Trivial Pursuit. She’s my hero, as you can tell!


  1. Mom cooks for Calvin and friends - May 26, 2007

    […] except the couscous, which I had tried to make a new way, according to directions I read on another blog. I had been seduced by the description of how light and fluffy the couscous would turn out using […]

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