Flavors of Morocco
Couscous! Who doesn’t love a couscous full of fresh seasonable vegetables and lamb, chicken or fish simmered together in a saffron laced broth along with exotic aromatic spices? It is a dish with a thousand variations, beginning with its origins in Persia, and sifting through the Arab cultures of the Middle East, Andalucía, and into North Africa. On its long journey, couscous evolved with various additions of regional ingredients and cooking methods along the way.
I first encountered couscous while traveling around Morocco, a county as colorful and as exotic as its cuisine, and I have been cooking it ever since, always adapting with seasonal produce and various meats, poultry and fish, or without meats for a healthy vegetarian alternative. It is basically a one pot meal, easy to prepare ahead, and an excellent choice for a large dinner gathering. Once you have grasped the balance of basic flavors you are set free to innovate as you cook through the seasons using the freshest produce available as the star of this beautifully simple Moroccan meal that is always accompanied with couscous, harrisa, and often with piquant zesty preserved lemon.
Couscous actually has two meanings. It is both a stew of vegetables and meats and the pale yellow granules of semolina that most of us associate with the meaning of couscous. Traditionally both are cooked together in a couscousiere, a large pot for the stew underneath and a smaller pot fitted on top with holes to steam the semolina couscous. Essentially, as they are cooked and eaten together, couscous means both elements of what is considered one dish.
The traditional cooking method, particularly when using lamb, is to cook the lamb with onions and seasonings for several hours that produces a well seasoned broth (stock), adding vegetables towards the end of the cooking so that they retain their flavor and texture. For poultry and fish, making the broth precedes the addition of the chicken or fish, as they cook quickly. A flavorsome broth (stock) is, in essence, the soul of this dish and well worth a long slow simmering to allow the flavors to develop and flower with the addition of the poultry or fish towards the end of the cooking.
Couscous with chicken:
- 1 whole organic chicken
De-bone the chicken as best you can, removing the backbone and splitting the breasts and removing the breast bones. Separate the thighs from the drumsticks and remove the thigh bones. The drumsticks and wings need not be de-boned. Set the bones aside for making the broth (stock).
- 6 garlic cloves, grated
- 1 small onion, minced
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- salt & freshly ground black pepper
Place the chicken pieces in a bowl along with the marinating ingredients and set aside.
For the broth:
- chicken bones
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- green tops of leeks, chopped
- 1 small carrot, peeled and finely diced
- hand full of broad leaf parsley leaves, chopped
- 6 to 8 coriander roots
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 teaspoons black peppercorns
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
- 1 to 3 whole dried red chilies
- 2 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 whole cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoons sea salt
Place all the chicken bones in a large stock pot and add the trimmings from the onions, leeks, and coriander along with the remaining ingredients. Utilizing the trimmings from the vegetables that will be used later in the couscous adds nuanced flavor to the both as it simmers and reduces.
Simmer for 1 ½ hours or until reduced by half. Strain the broth though a mesh strainer removing and discarding the solids, leaving you with both (stock) for cooking the couscous. Set aside.
Meanwhile, remove the chicken from the marinade and remove any onions or garlic that may be clinging to the chicken. Add some olive oil to a skillet and when hot add the chicken pieces, skin side down and brown. Turn the chicken and brown the other side. Set aside to add to the couscous later.
For the Couscous:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 cups pumpkin, skin and seeds removed and cut into bite size chunks
- 2 carrots, peeled and cut into bite size wedges
- 4 medium turnips, peeled and cut into bite size wedges
- 3 large zucchini, unpeeled and cut into bite size wedges
- 6 leeks (tops trimmed/added to broth), cut into diagonal slices
- 1/2 head green cabbage, cored and chopped
- 1 ½ cups chickpeas, precooked or canned
- 1/4 cup sultanas/raisins
- 1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves, (roots/added to broth)
Heat the olive oil in the stock pot until hot. Add the onions and saute until soft. Add the garlic and continue to saute until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the reserved broth and bring to a slow simmer. Add the pumpkin, carrots, and turnips and cook until semi soft, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the zucchini, leeks, and reserved browned chicken pieces and simmer about 15 minutes. Add the cabbage, chickpeas (precooked or canned) and sultanas. Cook another 15 minutes.
The couscous is now ready to serve. Ladle the vegetables and chicken into a large bowl or deep platter along with plenty of broth. Scatter the coriander leaves over the top.
Serve with semolina couscous and harissa. The harissa is spooned over the vegetables and chicken couscous when plated and mixed in, adding a hot and aromatic note to the couscous.
If you don’t happen to have a couscousiere, as I do not, this is the alternative to steaming the couscous over the simmering stew below. Not quite the same in theory, but the couscous quickly absorbs the broth from the chicken couscous when plated.
- 2 cups semolina couscous
- boiled water or stock
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
Place the semolina couscous granules in a good size bowl as it will double in size. Pour the boiled water or stock over the couscous with and additional inch of liquid above the couscous. Add the salt and give it a stir. Seal the bowl with plastic film and place a kitchen towel over the top to retain the heat. Allow to sit for 20 minutes. When the couscous has absorbed all of the liquid, remove the plastic film and fluff the couscous with a fork. Scatter the butter over the surface and toss in gently. The couscous granules will separate nicely. Fluff once again before placing the couscous on a platter, mounding it in a conical shape, and serve along with the chicken couscous.
Couscous is often served with preserved lemon. For a quick preserved lemon, try the pickled lemon recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem cookbook. It’s fast and absolutely wonderful! The recipe is available online at nigella.com