The Tax Advisor had decided to have another bring-a-course dinner party and, because the Boyfriend and I have plenty of space in our current Dublin flat – as well as small but useful items such as cooking utensils, crockery, chairs and a table – I volunteered us as hosts. Although there were to be eight for dinner, we decided to avoid having as many courses as last time, and limited it to just an opener, mains plus salads, and deserts. There were still the usual “who’s cooking what ” emails doing the rounds and, only being just back from our travels, I decided to make something Moroccan.
Having always treated couscous as a salad or accompaniment, it was only during our travels there that I realised it is a dish in itself. Couscous is both a basic ingredient – a semolina, synonymous with Moroccan food – and a dish, which is the semolina topped with a stew with the rich broth served on the side. In Morocco, the stew is often cooked in the bottom of a special two-level pot called a couscoussier (check out the cover of Nigella’s Feast to get idea of what it looks like) while the couscous is steamed on top. I had hoped to bring a couscoussier home with me but the morning that the Boyfriend was looking at them he only saw terribly light aluminium ones so we decided to leave it. But there’s plenty of other ways of steaming couscous – I often use the microwave and, if you’ve the oven on, it’s as easy to land your tinfoil-wrapped dish of couscous in there until it’s warmed through. And, when you’ve a kilo of raw couscous reconstituted – with six boys going to be in the house, I was having lack-of-food-fear on Friday night! – it definitely won’t fit in the microwave.
A bit of scouting around brought me to Claudia Roden’s recipe for Couscous with Spring Vegetables (from her current book, Arabesque) which I amalgamated with Paul Gayler’s Seven Vegetable Couscous with Dried Fruits and Ras el Hanout (Mediterranean Cook) and several of my own additions – more spices, some tinned tomatoes, a chilli and just a pinch of sugar. Luckily our friend, the English Engineer, turned up just in time to painstakingly peel a bowl of defrosted broad beans. Offering to help in my kitchen often means that you get landed with the fiddly tasks that I don’t have time to do! I’m a recent convert to broad beans but don’t think that there’s any point unless they’re naked and vivid green rather than wrapped up in a dull, tough, indigestible skin. The broad beans peeled, they were chucked into a pot of aromatic broth along with six other vegetables to make up the magic (and traditionally Moroccan) seven vegetable combination.
Despite Dublin selling out of Pimm’s because of this current stretch of glorious summer weather, we managed – courtesy of the English Engineer and his flight through Stanstead – to get our hands on a couple of bottles, making a suitably atmospheric opening to a very entertaining evening. As a matter of fact, we ended up having such a good time that some people didn’t get home until Saturday evening – they still didn’t manage to finish the couscous mountain though! Note to self: a kilo of couscous is more likely to feed 12-14 people than just 8…
Seven Vegetable Couscous
For the couscous:
Couscous – 500g
Salt – ½ to 1 teaspoon, depending on taste
Extra virgin olive oil – 3 tablespoons
For the vegetable broth:
Extra virgin olive oil – 3 tablespoons
Ras el hanout – 1 teaspoon
Saffron strands – 1 pinch
Turmeric – ½ teaspoon
Ground cumin – ½ teaspoon
Ground cinnamon – ¼ teaspoon
Vegetable stock – 1 litre, I normally make it from Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon Powder
Tinned tomatoes – 1x 400g tin
Carrots – 4, peeled and cut into 2.5cm slices
Cooked chickpeas – 240g or 1x 400g tin, drained
Dried apricots – 100g, halved
Broad beans – 400g (shelled weight), podded, or defrosted, and skinned
Spring onions – 250g, trimmed and sliced thinly
Fresh red chilli – 1 large or 2 small, deseeded and sliced thinly
Young peas or frozen petit pois – 400g (shelled weight)
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, granulated sugar
Fresh coriander – a large handful of leaves, chopped
Put the couscous into a large ovenproof dish. Dissolve the salt in 600ml of water and add to the couscous, stirring so that the water is absorbed evenly. After about 10 minutes, when the couscous has plumped up and is tender, add three tablespoons of olive oil and, with cupped wet hands, lift the couscous, rub it between your hands to break up any lumps and let it fall. This will aerate it. This can be done in advance and, 20-30 minutes before serving, heat the couscous through in an oven preheated to 200°C until it is steaming hot.
For the broth, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in the bottom of a large, deep saucepan; when warm, add the ras el hanout, saffron, turmeric, cumin and cinnamon and infuse for a minute. Add the vegetable stock and tinned tomatoes, bring to the boil, then add the carrots, chickpeas and dried apricots.
Cook for 15 minutes, then add the broad beans, spring onions and fresh chilli to the pot and cook for another 10 minutes, or until tender. Taste and season with salt, freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of sugar, if necessary. Add the peas and cook for 2 more minutes. Stir in the chopped coriander just before serving.
Fluff up the couscous with a fork, breaking up any lumps. Using a slotted spoon, fish the vegetables out of the broth and arrange on top of the couscous. Pour the remaining broth into a bowl for everyone to help themselves.
Serves 6, abundantly.