03 July 2009

How to Eat Couscous

The painter Annette Karnow, who passed away yesterday, will remain for me a lasting symbol of grace and talent, sophistication and wit. She also played a mean tennis game, though I was never good enough to get near her on a court; and among her greatest legacies is the sense of fun she instilled in her daughter, Catherine, one of my dearest friends. If there is any possibility of enjoying a moment, these ladies have always been able to find a way.

In tribute to Annette, there are many things I might write — and some things I have written already, here. Yet it seems fitting now to pass along a little wisdom that she and Cathy once shared with me on a summer evening in Maryland: how to eat couscous.

A staple of North African and French cuisines, couscous looks very much like (and basically, is) tiny pellets of pasta, and it’s made by rolling semolina in your hands, coating it in flour, drying it, and then, when you’re ready to eat it, steaming it — dropped pellet by pellet into the cooker. In truth, I don’t believe I’ve ever had the traditional variety. At any market in France, and many in the States, you can get perfectly good instant couscous that’s ready to serve in about five minutes: just pour it into a small amount of boiling water (or better, broth), turn off the heat, let it sit, and fluff it with a fork.

That’s the easy part, the foundation of the dish, also known (here in France, anyway) as couscous. For the rest, you will need a big bowl of vegetable broth, typically including chickpeas, zucchini, carrots, onion, and turnips, in a tomato-based stock. A few white raisins add welcome sweetness. If you’re not vegetarian, you will likely want grilled meat, too (lamb, chicken, beef, and in the best of all circumstances, spicy merguez sausages), which would make couscous fun for summertime cookouts.

Serve the couscous first, scooping it into a soup plate. Then ladle out the vegetables, arrange the meat, and pour some of the broth over it. Now you are ready for the harissa.

This is a paste made of oil and ground chili peppers, sold in little tubes in French groceries. In its raw state, harissa looks like drying ketchup, but it’s three-alarm hot, which is why restaurants serve it only in tiny little bowls. The uninitiated may be tempted to spoon the stuff directly into the dish — I’ve seen American tourists do so, and I’ve often had to rush to their aid. (For those of you sitting at a table too far from mine, I am providing this guide.)

However, against my warning objections, Rick Reidy ate his harissa straight, on a visit to Paris in April, and he declared it good. De gustibus non est disputandum, and all that.

For most of us, the better way is to take a small amount of harissa in a soup spoon, then pour vegetable broth over it. Mix these elements together in the bowl of the spoon, using a fork, and drizzle the sauce over your dish.

You aren’t required to use the harissa — but why wouldn’t you want to?

The genius of eating couscous is the constant quest for precisely the right balance of spice, broth, vegetables, meat, and couscous. I’m always happiest when the pellets have absorbed a good bit of broth (and spice), toward the end of the meal, and I don’t know whether to use a fork or a spoon, or both, or just walllow in it. It’s wonderfully satisfying.

Over the years, I’ve introduced several of my godchildren and other friends to couscous — though I’m sorry to say that my absolute favorite of all Parisian couscous restaurants, Chez Moustapha, a cramped, smoky dive decorated like something off the Warner Brothers’ backlot, closed ages ago.

On my early adventures in couscous, I preferred to accompany the dish with a chilled bottle of gris, a North African rosé, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a taste for the more robust reds from the same region.

Couscous can be served plain, with raisins and honey, as a dessert. It can be used much like pasta in a salad, too, and that’s how I first encountered it, in Annette Karnow’s kitchen. She and Cathy used cherry tomatoes, olives, onions or chives of some sort, olive oil, and fresh herbs to garnish the salad. It was, I announced without fear of contradiction, the best couscous salad I had ever eaten. It still is.

Prior to that evening, I was under the impression that Couscous was merely a character from Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World. For opening my eyes to other possibilities, I will always love Cathy and Annette.

Photograph by Catherine Karnow©
Used with permission


Amanda Dye said...

I have only made the instant variety as a side dish, and I will tell you, serving it that way to small children is a clean up DISASTER! :)

That was a nice tribute, thank you.

William V. Madison said...

You know, now that you mention it, there's probably a reason I've always taken my godkids to a couscous restaurant, instead of serving them in my own home!

Mikebench said...

Sweetie, I would now recommend patronizing "Chez Omar" on the Rue de Bretagne. I love their cousous, even though it is not as wonderfully delicious as my mother's..... By the way, the best part of a traditional, home-made cousous is to have it reheated the next day (Saturday lunch in our case, since it was always Friday night fare at my home...). Then, it becomes truly delicious! Sorry about your loss... I hope to see you in NYC soon, or else there will be hell to pay.

Big hugs,


William V. Madison said...

I've been to Chez Omar! Joshua White, the Londoner with whom I traveled to Marseille a year ago, favors it.

The couscous chez Omar is quite good, and the service downright jolly. (All the wait staff seem to be budding comedians.) However, their prices are quite a bit higher than those at my usual place, Salammbô, in rue Boutebrit near the Musée Cluny.

Salammbô doesn't have quite so delicate a touch as Omar, but it's good stuff. As for the service, it's sincere: they start out rather brusque, but after a few visits, they remember you and warm to you.

Both places are a bit touristy, but there's nothing wrong with that, and in the case of Salammbô, they've demonstrated genuine patience and care toward the godkids who were eating their first couscous: "Do you want me to explain it to them, or do you want to do it, Monsieur?"

Besides, how can I resist a restaurant named after a Flaubert novel?

Mikebench said...

For a minute, I was imagining a couscous restaurant named "Chez Bouvard et Pécuchet" or "Chez Mme Bovary"... Actually, I think "Salammbô" is my favorite Flaubert novel. Or it was when I was 19...

William V. Madison said...

Given the dubious success of the various endeavors of Bouvard and Pécuchet, I'd be especially cautious about dining in any restaurant that was named after them!

I still haven't read Salammbô or La Tentation de Saint Antoine: I am doling out my Flaubert bit by bit, in order to reserve for myself a few reading pleasures in later life.