Heston Blumenthal on couscous

Many people think of couscous as a grain, but in fact it's nothing of the sort. What it is - and here, as so often, I owe much to Alan Davidson's immense Oxford Companion To Food - is tiny lumps of dough that are traditionally made by sprinkling salted water on to flour and then working this with the hands in a circular motion until it clumps into pellets. As the dough is stirred and rolled, a layer of starch is formed, which protects the dough from deteriorating and can also prolong its shelf life for months.

These balls are then sieved to ensure that they are of even size, and then graded, before they are dried for storage - for couscous comes in several sizes, ranging from 1mm to more than 3mm in diameter, and each type is best suited to one preparation or another (much like different pasta shapes are used for different sauces).

Of course, these days most of the couscous available in the shops is made by automated water sprinklers and mechanical hands. But there is no reason why you shouldn't try out the old-fashioned technique at home and make it yourself - if you are so inclined, the dough can be made from a variety of flours, although the couscous we find in this country is usually made with hard wheat semolina (barley and green wheat can also be used).

Couscous is traditionally cooked by steaming, although the larger grained versions tend to be cooked directly in the stewpot. It is usually cooked in a special vessel, called a couscoussier, which is made from either earthenware or woven grass and has two compartments. The couscous cooks by steam coming from water, or stock, in the lower part of the vessel. The couscous that is available in British supermarkets, however, needs to be cooked and rehydrated at the same time, and there are several ways of doing this. The easiest by far is simply to pour some boiling water over the grains, then to cover them and leave them to absorb all the water, as they will then cook at the same time.

The origin of couscous is not altogether certain, but it is generally agreed that it hails from north Africa, Algeria and Morocco to be more specific. And it reaches its finest hour in couscous royale, a feast that is truly fit for a king, featuring a spicy stew of chicken, lamb collar, beef shin, merguez and vegetables, on a mound of glistening couscous.

Recipes serve four to six.

Couscous with hazelnut and rosemary

This simple recipe is a delicious way to prepare couscous. It differs from conventional methods in that the couscous is toasted first, which helps contribute to the nutty flavour provided by the hazelnuts.

400ml water
4 branches fresh rosemary
10g peeled hazelnuts
1 tbsp groundnut oil
250g couscous
30g unsalted butter
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180C. Bring the water to the boil, remove from the heat at once, set aside to cool for a few minutes, then add three of the four branches of rosemary. Leave to infuse for half an hour.

Roast the hazelnuts in the hot oven for 20 minutes, or until lightly toasted, then remove and set aside to cool. When the nuts are cold, roughly chop them and set aside.

Place the rosemary water over a medium flame. In another pan that is large enough to hold all the couscous at a depth of more than half a centimetre, add the oil and place on high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the couscous and stir continually, turning it over to ensure an even colouration - this whole process will take about five minutes.

When the couscous has started to turn a light golden-brown, add the reheated rosemary water - please make sure that you stand well back, because a lot of heat will have built up in the pan, so there will be a lot of steam when you add the water. Take the leaves off the remaining rosemary sprig, chop and add to the couscous, along with the chopped hazelnuts.

Take the pan off the heat, cover with clingfilm and leave the couscous to cook and absorb all the water. This will take up to half an hour. To serve, incorporate the butter with a fork, then season with salt and pepper - and be brave: this dish requires pretty heavy seasoning.

Couscous-c'est moi au pain perdu

This recipe comes from a book written by the wife of one of the world's great pastry chefs, Pierre Hermé. Frédérick E Grasser-Hermé's book, Delices d'inities, is a wonderful collection of recipes using commercial food products with which modern France has grown up. This one calls on good old English mass-produced long-life bread to make couscous - and why not? After all, couscous is essentially a basic dough. Although a couscoussier is advised for this recipe, a steamer with holes that are small enough for the couscous not to escape will do the trick, too. In the original recipes, a round loaf of bread is hollowed out to create a serving bowl for the couscous, but for ease - yes, I know that's unlike me - I have omitted that and simply increased the slices of bread required accordingly.

10-12 slices American sandwich bread (this is a French bread that, over there, is thought to replicate the plastic bread of America and England - in other words, sliced white)
600g diced lamb shoulder
1 lamb bone (marrow in)
2 soupspoons dried haricot beans
1 soupspoon lentils
1 bunch fresh coriander
bunch flat-leaf parsley
1 large onion
1 tomato, peeled
3 cloves garlic
1 coffeespoon fenugreek
1 coffeespoon powdered ginger
2 slices fresh ginger
5 strands saffron
1 coffeespoon paprika
2 soupspoons olive oil
1 soupspoon tomato concentrate
Salt
Pepper
1 small red chilli
lime
bunch coriander

Trim the crusts off the slices of bread then place it in a food processor. Process until the crumb turns sand-like in texture, then pass it through a flour sieve - this helps to give the final couscous an even texture.

Place the diced meat and bone in a casserole. Add the beans, lentils, onion, tomato, garlic and aromatics to the casserole along with the spices. Cover with cold water, add the olive oil and tomato paste, and place on high heat. Bring to the boil, skim, reduce the heat and simmer for one and a half to two hours.

Finely zest the lime, then chop this with the coriander. Mix this and a little olive oil into the sieved breadcrumbs, then season well.

When ready to serve, put the couscous in the top part of the couscoussier (or a steaming basket), place this over the stew and cover. Steam for three minutes, and serve at once with the stew.

Sweet couscous

This interesting variation on the couscous theme can easily be adapted to serve individual tastes, though that said it works particularly well with chopped fruit. Strawberries and raspberries in summer and pineapple, or apple (perhaps caramelised) in winter would make a great accompaniment.

1 brioche
1 big knob butter
12 mint leaves
lemon, zested
1 pinch salt
1 level teaspoon icing sugar

Cut the crusts off the brioche and discard. Process the bread in a food processor until crumbed, then pass through a sieve so that the grains are of similar size. To cook, simply steam the crumbs for a couple of minutes, then turn them out into a bowl.

Add the butter, and gently toss it in to the crumbs with a fork until melted. Add the mint, finely sliced, and the lemon zest, then season with salt and sugar. Serve at once

· Heston Blumenthal is chef/proprietor of the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire (www.fatduck.co.uk).

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.