Couscous countdown : FOOD & DRINK

It's ten to eight and the guests are about to arrive. The bread refuses to rise and the oven's playing up. What happens next? In the first of an occasional series on styles of entertaining, Michael Bateman joins a young hostess planning a kitchen supper
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THE MENU

BRUSCHETTA WITH AUBERGINE PICKLE

PORTUGUESE HAM

FISH CHERMOULA WITH COUSCOUS, HARISSA SAUCE, PRESERVED LEMON PICKLE

CELERY, FENNEL AND ENDIVE SALAD WITH LIME JUICE DRESSING

YOGHURT RELISH WITH WATERCRESS, OLIVE OIL AND BLACK PEPPER

FRESH FRUIT SESAME SEED HALVA

OPTIMISTS find it easy to extend an invitation to a dinner or a party. Only an optimist is able to blot from the mind the sacrifices, effort and expense that such invitations entail - say three weeks' anxiety, three days' shopping and three hours' cooking. All for a meal that will be consumed in no time at all. Is this a labour of love or labour of lunacy?

Natalia, Sarah and Malcolm are New Zealanders in their early twenties, seeing Europe and partly paying their way by working in restaurant kitchens. Natalia Schamroth has invited an English couple, Roger and Pat Mayhew, friends of her boyfriend's family in New Zealand, and the Mayhews' neighbours, who share her passionate interest in food. It's a young bunch preparing to entertain an older bunch.

So who's panicking? Sarah and Malcolm aren't. If their flatmate wants to show off, let her do the sweating. In any case, Natalia isn't panicking. The meal is a long way off. She'll work things out nearer the day.

Natalia gets her passion for cooking and entertaining from her father, a lawyer. "He thinks nothing of getting up at 5am if he's cooking for guests that night." At weekends her dad takes off to the country to buy fresh meat and vegetables.

It was in this spirit that Natalia first came to Europe, after starting with a three-month food pilgrimage to the Middle East plus travelling with her boyfriend, who's now back in New Zealand studying. Whatever she decides to cook is certain to have a Mediterranean flavour.

Cost will be a factor. But she knows from working various shifts in a restaurant what's cheap and good in the markets. Shopping shouldn't be too much of a problem, but she does not have a car, and it's a drag carrying heavy bags around.

One big plus is working close to Portobello Road in west London, where she has got to know some exciting Portuguese, Spanish and Asian shops. Close by is the Porto-bello vegetable and fruit market. This ought to be more of a blessing than it really is, she says. When you've travelled in Europe you realise how much better the market could be.

"The stall-holders here are rude and impatient if you are hesitant. Because I want to choose the best produce they have a go at me."

They also overcharge if they can get away with it, she says. "I was twopence short one day and the guy said, `That's OK, pay me next time.' `Oh, thanks,' I said. Then when I got home I found he hadn't given me my lychees, although I'd paid for them."

THE KITCHEN

Natalia, Sarah and Malcolm rent a house within cheering distance of Queens Park Rangers' football ground, with a tiny kitchen. She does not mind that - everything is to hand. and it's installed with a state-of-the-art halogen cooker.

The press-button controls of the cooker are no more demanding than those of a jumbo jet. Hit the right combination and panels glow a space-age ruby red. This semi-robotic quality gives a demonic sense of power, unfortunately not always dedicated to the service of mankind.

Natalia now regards it with suspicion. A few weeks ago she and her friends had devised a massive oven-cooked meal, with roast parsnips, roast potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, baked pizza. Suddenly the oven gave a halogenic ultimatum and switched itself off, refusing to cook the meal.

Necessity being the mother of invention, they adapted. Emptying the cupboards, they found rice, onions, herbs, cheese, and made a risotto. The parsnips and potatoes they boiled. The pizzas, and this was brilliant, they fried in oil for 10 minutes each side; they came up beautifully. So much for halogen ovens.

PLANNING THE MEAL

Natalia usually plans the meal around people's likes and dislikes, but on this occasion doesn't expect anyone to be difficult to please. "Roger likes meat, Pat doesn't like anything too spicy.

"I've decided the main course will be a North African fish couscous, although I have never been to North Africa. The inspiration is a book in my father's library, Robert Carrier's Taste of Morocco (Century, £16.95). I've cooked it lots of times, varying the recipe to my taste, adding an ingredient, subtracting one. It's not completely authentic."

Also, the dish is not unduly expensive. The couscous grain is the most sympathetic and forgiving of materials to work with. The stew is little more expensive than the cost of the fish. It's not difficult to make and it's open to ambitious and challenging spicing. Also, cooking a couscous will fit in to her unpredictable timetable. The first stage, the chermoula, can be prepared in advance. Chermoula is a spicy Moroccan seasoning used as a marinade, and then cooked with the meat, chicken or fish. Natalia has made her own version, which has gone some way from the original Robert Carrier version, given below.

Side dishes. With the main course will be bread. She hopes to have time to make her own; it puts a cook into the top league at a stroke. There will be a crunchy salad of celery, fennel and endive, and a yoghurt relish with watercress. There will also be a pickle of preserved lemons and a bowl of hot harissa sauce.

Starters? "It will be a question of what seems suitable nearer the day. I won't serve a sit-down first course, so appetisers with the drinks will take their place." Candidates are pures such as avocado dip or aubergine pure served on crispy, lightly toasted ciabatta bread, what the Italians call bruschetta. "If I have time, I'll make an aubergine pickle."

Desserts. Something simple, probably a bowl of fruit. And perhaps halva (a sticky sweet made from sesame seeds) from a Cypriot store.

FORWARD PLANNING

"I'm working most days so I'll do the shopping on the day itself. I've got a few basics in the house. I make my own preserved lemons and harissa paste, and they are in the fridge. I have all the dried spices I need.

ON THE DAY OF THE MEAL

The big shop. "As I'm working the day before, I have to leave shopping to the last minute, and also I'm at an exhibition in the morning. I don't get to the shops until one, and I'm in an awful mood. I buy good olives, almonds, chillies, packets of couscous at a good halal store, and cured ham from the Portuguese shop.

"Then I go to a fishmonger I've been getting friendly with. There's a long queue, and I stand there for ages in puddles of fishy water. I choose cod - working in a restaurant you get to know what's seasonal, cheap and good value."

Next, the drag down Portobello Road, growing irritated by the stall- holders. All the same, they do have good fresh produce at a good price. Soon Natalia is weighed down with bags. "My arms are aching, I'm tired and frustrated. I try to get a taxi but it's raining and I can't. Then I have to get to Safeway for some bits and pieces, such as coffee and tonic water. I get home at 5pm, exhausted."

THE COOKING COUNTDOWN

The halogen oven is behaving at present. It has its part to play today. But Natalia is fretting. "I haven't left myself enough time. I'm going mental. I wish I wasn't doing this. I've got to make the bread dough, a coriander bread (wholemeal, seasoned with toasted coriander seeds).Then I realise I have to put the heating on, or the dough won't rise. I fillet the fish, wash the salads, cut the vegetables."

6pm: "The bread has to be kneaded again. It needs a second rising. I wish I hadn't attempted the aubergine pickle. It's very time-consuming and I'm nearly an hour frying the aubergines then simmering them with vinegar and spices."

6.30-7pm: "Sarah arrives home, thank God, with wine and flowers. She sets the table. While I'm cooking she'll make sure people aren't sitting round a very ugly empty dish full of olive stones."

7.30pm: Chermoula goes into the oven. Salads finished off. Everything on course. Time for a shower.

8 pm: First guests arrive punctually. Forty minutes later, would you believe, the other guests. Usual excuses, the baby-sitter late, couldn't find the way, etc. Brought a bottle of champagne, though.

Nearly midnight: First guests are leaving. So, was it worth it then? Oh, yes, it's always worth it - when it's all over. The guests' verdict: a lovely evening, terrific meal.

FRIED FISH STEAKS WITH CHERMOULA

(Robert Carrier's version)

Serves 4-6

A whole fish is often marinated and fried in exactly the same way. Wash it thoroughly as below, then score it diagonally on each side and rub well with the chermoula.

About 212lb/1.25kg fish: 1 sea bream, or 2 sea bass or cod steaks

salt

flour, sifted

oil for frying

lemon quarters

For the chermoula

12 bunch fresh green coriander, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic. peeled and crushed

2 teaspoons coarse salt

112 teaspoon each powdered cumin and paprika

14 teaspoon hot red pepper

12 teaspoon powdered saffron

4-6 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

To prepare the chermoula, combine all the ingredients.

Scale, clean and wash the fish carefully in salted water, inside and out, then pat dry. Cut fish into steaks 112 ins/4cms thick and rub well with chermoula. Marinate fish in this mixture for at least 2 hours, or overnight.

When ready to cook, pat fish dry with paper towels and dredge well with sifted flour

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or shallow flameproof casserole large enough to hold fish comfortably. Fry the fish in hot oil until golden brown. Serve garnished with lemon quarters.

FISH COUSCOUS WITH CHERMOULA

(Natalia's variation)

Serves 6-8 2-3lbs/1-1 5kg cod

For the marinade

8fl ozs/225ml olive oil

lemons, juice of 2 and zest of 12

oranges, juice of 2 and zest of 12

limes, juice of 3 and zest of 1

4in/10cm fresh ginger, peeled, sliced

6 large cloves garlic

1 teaspoon each of black pepper, salt, turmeric, paprika

1 green chilli, chopped

1 tablespoon capers, chopped

6 large black olives, stoned, chopped

12 preserved lemon (if available), sliced

3 tablespoons each of chopped fresh coriander, parsley, mint

For the casserole stage

1 large red onion, chopped

2 sticks of celery chopped

5 ripe tomatoes

1 glass dry white wine

For the couscous

112lbs/700g couscous

112 pints/750 mls boiling water

1 tablespoon olive oil

peel of preserved lemon (if available)

bay leaf

1 teaspoon each of turmeric and paprika

salt

1 dozen almonds, freshly roasted (20 mins in low oven)

fresh, roughly-chopped herbs to taste

Fillet fish, and cut into pieces 112in by 1in (4cm by 3cm). Steep in the marinade ingredients for 30 minutes.

Drain off the oil from the marinade into an oven-proof casserole, and fry the onion and celery in it gently, to soften. Add the tomatoes and half of marinade ingredients (but not the fish). Leave to cook through with the lid on in a medium oven (325 F/170 C/Gas 3) for 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes before serving, add fish and rest of marinade, lower the oven, and let it cook gently till done.

Using a large bowl, pour boiling water on to couscous, stirring in all ingredients except the garnish. Cover bowl with cling film. After 10 minutes, when the grain has swollen, break up with a fork, cover again and keep warm, if necessary in a low oven.

Toss with almonds and sprinkle with herbs. Stack a large serving plate with a mound of couscous and heap the fish chermoula on top.

PRESERVED LEMONS

Scrub three or four lemons to get rid of the wax. Make a four-way slit in the top of each, in the shape of a cross. Fill this with salt. Stuff into sterilised jars, cover with boiling water and put lid on tight. When cool, keep in fridge. Ready to eat at four weeks, though they keep forever. !

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