Spicy couscous

It took me a while to come around to couscous. My first (and second, and third, and fourth) experience with it was disappointing – in France, there are lots of Moroccan couscous restaurants serving wet, wet stews and dry, dry couscous to soak up your sauce with. Back when we lived in Paris, these restaurants were actually a lot of fun with friends…but they weren’t somewhere I looked to for delicious carbohydrate.

So I steered clear of couscous (which is not a milled grain, but actually almost a kind of pasta, made by rolling damp semolina flour between the hands and then powdering the resulting ‘grains’ with dry flour to stop them sticking) for some years, until we went to a friend’s house here in the UK and she served a flavoured couscous. This wasn’t stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth dry like the stuff I’d had before – it was moistened with lots of sweet butter and spiked with spices, onion and a clever agrodolce – a vinegar/sugar mix. The addition of a small amount of a good vinegar lifts the flavour and really enlivens the spices, without adding any vinegary, sour taste – try it. It’ll surprise you.

Since then we’ve eaten couscous several times a month. It’s a great accompaniment to middle-eastern dishes, and it also goes surprisingly well with grilled meats. Couscous keeps well, once cooked, in the fridge, and can be eaten cold (very good as a salad at a picnic with some chopped tomatoes, celery, cucumber and olive oil thrown in) or reheated in the microwave.

To make couscous as an accompaniment for four, you’ll need:

4 shallots, chopped finely
1 stick celery, chopped finely
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large knobs butter
1 teaspoon cumin, crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 teaspoon coriander, crushed in a mortar and pestle
1 inch-long piece cinnamon
1 teaspoon Ras al Hanout (use Belazu brand if you can find it)
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon caster sugar
250g couscous
450ml chicken stock
Salt and pepper

Fry the shallot, celery and garlic in a large, heavy-bottomed pan in the olive oil and a knob of butter, until the shallots are translucent. Add the cumin, coriander, cinnamon, Ras al Hanout, bay leaves, a teaspoon of salt and a generous amount of freshly ground pepper, and continue to fry for two minutes until the spices are giving up their aroma.

Add the vinegar and sugar to the hot pan. It will bubble and spit. Keep the pan on the heat, stirring, until the vinegar reduces to a glossy syrup. Add the dry couscous to the pan and stir well to make sure it is completely mixed with the other flavourings. Pour the hot stock into the pan and put the lid on. Turn the heat down low and simmer for about 7 minutes, until all the stock is absorbed into the couscous. Take the second knob of butter and fluff it through the grains and taste to check the seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. Garnish with some fresh herbs – I like oregano and parsley.

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