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Couscous, its own fine self

Fine-grained couscous made directly from farina

When I’d just come back from a year in Israel after college, I read through Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco several times. Her descriptions of the market stalls, the kitchens of the aristocrats, and the very down-to-earth cooks making tricky components like warka leaves for bistilla or rolling and sieving different sizes of couscous from farina and flour fascinated me. They filled in parts of the culture I hadn’t understood in the Moroccan Jewish community I’d just left.

Two of the dishes in the book, two only, have I actually made in all the time since. But if you get the right two, two is enough.

I first ate couscous in Ma’alot, up in the north of Israel in the western Galilee. On my first night in the volunteer program, my new roommates brought me to a tiny 4-table restaurant in the town center after a very miserable and cold trudge up to the top of the hill in a January downpour. The restaurant would have been a real hole-in-the-wall anywhere else, and even here it seemed to cater to the few single men who had neither hope nor prospect of a girlfriend, and whose mothers had finally nudged them out the door. Israel’s amenities–grocery stores and the like–are still often a grade or so down in appearance from what we’re used to in the US, and I’d been there half a year already, so I was used to ignoring it and discovering what was good. Still, even 25 years ago, most restaurants in the larger towns were not this dowdy. This was card tables and folding chairs. My heart sank. Where had I come to?

Not 5 minutes after we’d been seated, however, the lady who ran the kitchen fetched us out a huge platter mounded with couscous and chicken legs and vegetables, steaming hot and smelling incredible. The chicken was delicious (everybody sing; I’ve just been subjected to another showing of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother at our in-laws’ over Thanksgiving weekend) but the couscous itself was so light and fine it was like eating hot curried snowflakes. What was it? How do you do that? And in half a year of eating at other people’s homes, I never ate a couscous that delicate again. You haven’t either, I’ll bet.

So when I returned home I devoured the zillion-page description in Wolfert’s book, bought some Cream of Wheat at the supermarket, rolled couscous grains, sieved them, wet them, raked them, set them in a lined colander over a stock pot of boiling water, wrapped a floured wet kitchen towel around the rim to seal, the whole works. Result–not great, given my lack of experience and my jury-rigged couscoussière. It took a lot longer to steam than it should have and was nowhere near as fine and delicate as I remembered from Ma’alot. I tried once more and decided that was earnest enough for me.

However…I eventually made up my own very easy and more satisfactory method for very fine-grained couscous, which I like better than the conventional boxed stuff. I used the farina (Cream of Wheat) just by itself as loose grains rather than rolling it into the more usual couscous granules with flour and water. With only a little fiddling, it came out pretty close to the magnificent couscous I first encountered in Ma’alot, took only the cooking time–about 20 minutes–and used only one easy-to-clean wok, not a huge 3-piece setup. And I didn’t have to wait for the water to boil.

This is different from standard couscous, which has bigger granules and is chewier. But that’s why I love this one. The effect when you eat should be delicate and ethereal, as though the couscous will melt away on your tongue, and that’s how you test for doneness as well. The grains should be swollen and translucent, double or so in size from the dry farina particles. Soft and light, without being gummy. When you pour the juices from a tagine or roast chicken or vegetable stew over the grains, they will swell and soften a bit more but stay separate.

For this method you need a big nonstick frying pan or better, wok, with a sturdy spatula and a  measuring cup of water at the ready to drizzle into the pan in a controlled way. This is kind of like the strategy for kasha or paella–the initial frying seals the starches so that it won’t go gummy when you add bits of water to steam it. DON’T dump the water in all at once the way couscous boxes tell you to or you’ll just get porridge. Not fun.

Sfaa (fine-grained couscous from scratch)

Makes enough for 4 medium (2/3 c) servings or 2-3 big full-plate servings–scale up if you want more, but be prepared to work out on your stirring arm for 15-20 minutes.

  • 1 c. farina or non-instant Cream of Wheat
  • olive oil
  • 1 medium chopped onion–half-moons, fine dice, whatever
  • 1/2-1 t. curry powder
  • water
Onions frying for couscous

Onions frying with curry powder

Farina toasting for couscous

Farina toasts in the frying pan a minute or so before adding water

Have a cup or so of water at the ready. Stir-fry the onion in a spoonful or so of oil and add a spoonful of curry powder. Don’t let it burn–about 30 seconds in, dump in the dry farina and stir well so that everything colors yellow and the onions continue to cook and brown a little. You may need a little more olive oil. You want to stir-fry the farina just enough to start toasting a little and turn golden but not enough to brown badly or burn.

Drizzling water into the pan for couscous

Drizzling water into the pan for couscous

Next, take the spatula and clear a bare spot in the center of the mound of farina and drizzle a spoonful or two of water–no more–onto the hot pan. As it sizzles, quickly stir it into the farina as thoroughly as possible, really working it through all the grains until they’re evenly moistened. They’ll clump up for a minute and then absorb it and become separate again. Then clear another space in the center and add another drizzle of water and work it through again.

Couscous about halfway done

Couscous about halfway done, with some translucent grains and some still dry

Keep going until all the grain starts to swell up into translucent little grains and the whole thing has more than doubled in bulk. Drizzle on a bit more water, stir like crazy, turn the heat way down so it won’t scorch and cover to steam for a minute or two. Check the texture to know when you’re done–you want the grains tender and separate, not sticky or mushy, and not chewy. When you pour a little of the broth from the tagine over the couscous on your plate, the grains should take it up and be even softer and more tender but still separate.

–  –  –  –  –

The other memorable thing I made, this one successfully the first time around, was pickled or “preserved” lemons, and it was one of the best and most unusual things in Wolfert’s book. I hadn’t run across it in Israel (though they did have pickled eggplants) and I didn’t get around to trying it until I’d actually sampled Indian food several times and gotten used to the shock of achaar (lime pickle, sometimes with underripe mango or beans and mustard in the paste) as a flavoring. Then I realized pickled lemons tasted pretty similar.

By the time I found Wolfert’s book, I was hooked, ready to risk a month of time on a sack of organic lemons from the more-incense-laden-than-thou health food store and a scary amount of salt. I even found one of those mason jars with the rubber ring seals and latch-down lids (hard to locate these days). I worried my way through the month of turning the jar upside down every day and wondering if some fungus or bacterium had, against all odds, fought its way to prominence inside one of the lemons. Had I boiled the water hard enough before sterilizing the jar? Had I handled the lemons too much? Was there enough juice? You can tell I was working in a biochem lab in those days (the hand washing was epic) and taking the stress home with me.

The jar lasted me a couple of years in the fridge, because I was too timid to use the pickled lemons often. I abandoned it when we moved to California (no toting jars of suspiciously rimey lemons on a plane when you need your hands free to fetch both cats off the luggage carousel at LAX). I made it again once we got here and it lasted me–I am not kidding–eight years in the jar in the fridge. In perfect condition. I was sensible enough to use it sparingly, only a quarter-lemon at a time, but to very good effect with dals and saag paneer.

My mason jar, now clean and empty and a little corroded from the years of salinity, has been staring at me accusingly from the kitchen cupboard to start again. If I can find a new rubber seal for it, I just might.

Moroccan Pickled Lemons

  • 10-12 organic lemons, scrubbed very well, plus a few more at the ready if you need more juice to cover everything in the jar
  • salt–table salt is fine, kosher salt is fine, figure you need half a cup or so
  • mason or screwtop canning jar that will just fit 8-10 squashed lemons, maybe a pint or pint and a half in size
  • olive oil

Boil water on the stove and pour it over and into a very, very clean, still hot, perfectly washed canning or mason jar, the lid and/or rubber seal ring, your cutting knife’s blade and a soup spoon. Let it all sit a few minutes while you scrub the lemons, then drain out the hot water and leave the jar and so on upside down in a colander or drainer to dry. Put about 1/2 inch of salt in the bottom of the mason jar. Cut the lemons lengthwise into quarters, leaving the quarters attached just at the bottom end. Spoon salt over the cut surfaces and close each lemon back up, then place it upright in the jar. Press down a little with the spoon as you go, squashing the lemons a bit to give off some juice. Sprinkle more spoonfuls of salt around the lemons between layers, and pack the lemons in as tightly as possible. Sprinkle more salt over the top, then squeeze a few spare lemons for juice and pour that over so that the juice covers all the lemons and comes up to the top. Put the ring seal and lid on tightly, tap gently on the counter to release any air bubbles, reopen and pour in more juice if needed and (if you want) a few spoonfuls of olive oil over the top. Reseal. Sit the jar on the counter. Turn it upside down for a few minutes to make sure the seal’s good and it’ll stay unleaking on upside down days. Leave the jar in a quiet spot on the counter at room temperature, but not in the sun, and turn it every day for a full month. After that, store it in the fridge.

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