There is a theory that the word couscous comes from the rustling, whispering sound of the little granules of wheat being worked under the hand. I hope it is true. There are few enough onomatopoeic words in the foodie's lexicon, save the hiss of something being lowered into hot oil or the boxer-hitting-a-punchbag sound you get when you knead dough, dough, dough. Just as bread is to a Frenchman, pasta to an Italian and rice is to a Thai, couscous is part of the soul of the people of the Maghreb.
It has taken me a while to click with the tiny pellets of durum wheat that turn up without fail at dinner in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. I didn't truly appreciate couscous when I spent a while in Marrakesh. Perhaps I had other things on my mind. Even now, I invite scorn by using the instant variety that is ready in the time it takes to, say, roll a cigarette. You boil a pot of stock, water even, add the grain in a steady rain, stir, cover and switch off the heat. The couscous swells and softens in 10 minutes.
But to cook couscous quickly (it's a weekday thing) is to lose a bit of its magic. After all, there is more to cooking than the end result. Cook the wheat in the traditional way with its two soakings and two (brief) steamings and you increase its pleasure. There is the tactile delight of running your fingers through the warm, swollen grains to separate each tiny nib of ground wheat, and the joy of filling a kitchen with the homely, comforting smell of steaming starch. That, surely, counts for something.
It is tempting to call couscous a grain, but that would be incorrect. It is the product of hard wheat ground into semolina, sprinkled with salt water (historically in an earthenware dish called a ga'saa) then mixed by hand into tiny pellets the size of an ant and left to dry. It is either sold as it is, or, nowadays, partially steamed and dried again to cut down the cooking time.
I cook couscous as often as rice, and almost as regularly as pasta. Its presence has become as usual in my kitchen as spuds. OK, it's easier. But there's more to it than that. Couscous is made from hard durum wheat, the same as any workaday pasta, but it carries with it the ghost of romantic mystery, of dark alleyways and street markets with tethered and bleating goats, of bearded men wearing djellabahs, and the ever-present whiff of charcoal braziers, cumin and hash. Well, yes - and roast beef is all about Merrie Olde England.
Home, hungry and tired, I can have poured a kettle of boiling water over a bowl of the dry 'instant' pellets even before I have even taken off my coat. Instant couscous is that way because it has been partially steamed for us already. But I cheat myself. According to Kitty Morse, Casablancan writer and author of Couscous (£12.99, Chronicle Books), North African women 'roll the mixture with their fingers and palms, in alternating figure of eight and circular patterns, until the hard, minuscule semolina particles agglomerate into small, spherical pellets, ranging in size from peas to garbanzo beans (chickpeas). With their hands they work the pellets through a series of screened sieves to produce a gradation of large, medium and fine granules.' No wonder I buy mine ready for the pot.
Couscous is the name of both the grain and the meat-and-vegetable stew it often accompanies. You need harissa, the rust-red paste made from chillies, garlic and cumin, to excite the rather dull boiled meat and its thin but copious juice. Although most popular in tins and bottles, I find harissa keeps best in toothpaste-like tubes. (One day, I'll confuse the two.)
It is the grain itself that interests me more. It is underused here, and providing you have the stomach for creativity in the kitchen, can be used as a base for a salad, a stuffing or kneaded into dumplings. In Morocco they also serve it, or at least a very fine grade of it, as a dessert called s'ffa. A mound of granules is sweetened with honey, almonds, cinnamon and dates. It is scented with orange-blossom water and paraded as a wedding dish, rather like the French will serve a croquembouche.
Two days ago I made a couscous salad to go with a couple of grilled mackerel. The couscous was steamed, tossed with olive oil and allowed to cool. I stirred in some toasted pine kernels, half a preserved lemon cut into nuggets, a handful of chopped mint, a vast amount of chopped flat-leaf parsley, black pepper and some of the juice from the lemon. The grain was comforting, peaceful. The herbs fresh and earthy, the preserved lemon wild, salty and sharp. The fish skin had scorched a tad on the grill. I can hardly think of a finer mouthful I have eaten this year.
Wild mushroom ragout with steamed couscous
This is the sort of hearty stew that goes down well after an autumn walk. There's no reason why it couldn't be Sunday lunch, what with the wine and onions it is so goddamn beefy that no one will notice they are not eating meat. You could easily double the recipe for a big lunch for friends. Plums piled high on an oval plate would be an apposite dessert. Don't be put off by the length of the recipe, it is quite straightforward and takes less than an hour. Serves 4
15g dried porcini
2 medium onions
2-3 tbsp olive oil
3 ribs celery
1 large carrot
2 small turnips or 1 larger one
3 cloves of garlic
320g large mushrooms
250g chestnut or medium-sized cup mushrooms
2 good handfuls of girolles or other 'wild' mushrooms
1 tbsp harissa paste
2 big tsp herbs de Provence
2 sprigs of rosemary
a long strip of orange peel
Juniper berries, about 15
2 good tbsp flour
3 bay leaves
500ml red wine - big and cheap, but not nasty
a little olive oil
Put the porcini in a small bowl, pour over 500ml tepid water and leave for 15 minutes or so, until the fungi is bloated with water.
Peel and roughly chop the onions. This is a rustic, cool-weather stew, so chop everything with this mind. Warm the olive oil in a large and heavy-based casserole and soften the onions in it, then add the celery, carrot and turnip, roughly chopped, and the peeled and thinly sliced garlic. Leave to soften and gently colour over a moderate heat. Stir from time to time, but not so often that it fails to colour.
Cut the larger mushrooms into wedges, the smaller ones in quarters. It is important that nothing is cut too small. Check the wild mushrooms for grit and insects, then add them to the pot. Mix and continue cooking until the mushrooms are shiny and starting to soften. Add the harrissa paste, herbs, orange peel and juniper berries, lightly crushed.
Stir the flour into the mushrooms, letting it cook through for a minute or so, then slip in the bay leaves and the reconstituted porcini. Pour in the porcini-soaking liquid, taking care not to include any grit that may have fallen to the bottom. Add the red wine, stock, pepper and salt, then bring to simmering point. As soon as the stew starts to bubble, turn the heat down to a steady simmer. Skim the froth from the surface, then leave the stew to simmer with the occasional stir for at least 40 minutes.
About 20 minutes before you are due to eat, pour 400ml of water over the couscous and leave it to swell. Bring half a saucepan of water to the boil, then put either a colander or steamer basket over it (I use a steamer basket lined with a new J cloth) or, if you have one, use a couscousier. Tip the grain into the steamer and steam it, lid off, for 10 minutes. Tip it into a shallow dish, drizzle very lightly with olive oil and, when it has cooled for 5 minutes, run your fingers through it to separate the grains. Return the couscous to the steamer and continue steaming for a further 10 minutes.
Spoon out the couscous and ladle the mushroom stew on top.
Couscous with fried onions, parsley and pine kernels
I have eaten this for supper with a spot of harissa sauce stirred in (let down with a spot of water), but that is not really the idea. It is meant as an accompaniment to grilled lamb or fish, or spicy meatballs. Instantly comforting, and as soothing as cashmere. Enough for 4 as an accompaniment
2 large onions
3 bay leaves
35g pine kernels
small bunch of flat-leaf parsley
Put the couscous in a bowl, sprinkle with a cupful of water and leave for 10 minutes.
Peel the onions and cut them into thin slices. They should be no thicker than your little finger. Warm a little olive oil in a heavy frying pan - just enough to cover the bottom - then add the bay leaves and onion rings, and cook till golden brown. Do this over a low heat, and expect it to take a good 15 minutes. That way they will soften without burning and caramelise to a sweet, deep golden colour. Cook them too quickly and they will take on a bitter note.
Put the couscous into a steamer basket lined with a new J cloth or into a couscousier suspended over a pan of boiling water. Steam for 10 minutes, remove, sprinkle with a little more water and a shake or two of olive oil. Let it swell for 5 minutes then return it to the steamer for 10 minutes.
Stir the pine kernels into the onion and let them colour lightly. Chop the parsley and stir it in with some salt and black pepper. As soon as it is tender and fluffy, tip the couscous into the onions and stir.