MAGIC OF THE MAGHREB; MASTERCLASS 5: COUSCOUS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
This sweet, spicy North African lamb and vegetable stew is rarely

found on British menus. Michael Bateman seized the chance to

meet a visiting expert and discover the secrets of a perfect couscous

Before we come to our couscous masterclass, Happy New Year. Today marks the beginning of the year in the Islamic calendar (a late starter as religions go, with seven centuries still to go until their next millennium). All the same, the Moslem world can argue that it has had a serious food culture as long as, if not longer than, Europe. Certainly the food of the Arab world, emanating from the royal cuisine of ancient Persia, has been the chief influence on the delightful national cuisines of Turkey and the Lebanon.

Less renowned is the Islam cooking of the Maghreb, the stretch of North Africa embracing Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Colonial ties with France over the last century haven't greatly affected the content of their cooking, but they definitely improved the style.

This is especially true of Moroccan cuisine. One great French chef says it is the world's finest after French (naturellement) and Chinese. The chef in question is Paul Bocuse, literally France's most renowned chef, having been rewarded with the Legion d'Honneur after cooking a banquet for French president Giscard d'Estaing.

So it was, when friends of M Bocuse organised a party to celebrate the great man's 70th birthday, they took him to Morocco. They held their gala dinner at La Mamounia, in Marrakesh, the most distinguished and grandest hotel restaurant in the country. They have not one, but four kitchens - for French, Chinese, Italian and Moroccan cooking.

When I heard that its eminent chef des cuisines, Monsieur Boujeema Mars, was coming to London, I thought it would be great to persuade him to give me a lesson in cooking couscous. This is the most famous dish coming out of North Africa. In Paris I've enjoyed eating this sweet and spicy stew, with its eye-watering accompaniment of hot harissa sauce, for as long as I can remember. (Though its provenance, I have to say, was usually Algerian rather than Tunisian or Moroccan.)

Given the British fondness for spicy food (Indian, Thai, Chinese), I used to wonder why couscous never took root over here. I think only four restaurants in London serve North African food, and they are Algerian or Tunisian. Then the penny dropped: where is the workforce of North African cooks to provide the know-how, skills and labour? There isn't one here in Britain.

I encountered Boujeema Mars in the kitchens of the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, London, where he was guest chef. He had with him a small team of three lady chefs - small in the sense of numbers, but not girth. "In my kitchen in Marrakesh all my chefs except two are women," says Boujeema Mars. "Women are raised in the tradition of the grand bourgeois houses; their secrets are transmitted from mother to daughter, generation after generation. It is very unusual for males in Morocco to have any experience of cooking."

He is patient about my request for him to demonstrate a couscous, but anxious to point out that the horizons of Moroccan cooking extend infinitely farther than spicy lamb, fish or vegetable stews, however well-made.

Take tagines, for example. "Meat is cooked with spices and aromatics slowly, over low fires, in such a way that it becomes so tender you can almost eat it with a spoon," he explains. One lamb dish is cooked in a sealed pot for an entire 24 hours.

He takes me to see the display of salads set out for lunch. There must be some other word to describe these magnificent dishes other than salad - a harsh word in the British vocabulary, evoking outside leaves of lettuce, unpeeled cucumber and a halved, unripe tomato.

M Mars has made a dozen sweet treats of sliced, grilled, peeled vegetables; pungent peppers, ripe tomatoes, sweet onions, on their own and in combinations. He has seasoned them with dressings, herbs and spices.

The spices hold the key; it is in the spicing that the true art of Arab cooking lies. M Mars has brought his own ingredients for the purpose. The freshness and heady aroma of the little packets is stunning. I resolve to throw away everything in my kitchen, shocked to realise how stale I've let my own spices become. I need to get to one of those Middle Eastern shops in Bayswater and start again.

Most of M Mars's fresh spices were grown in Morocco: pungent red paprika ground from dry, sweet red peppers; clean-tasting, deep brick-red chilli powder (the constituent spices of their hot sauce, harissa); anise seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek. Only black peppercorns, cinnamon and cardamom are imported, rather than from Morocco.

Before we get to the couscous, M Mars wants to show me one of the true art forms of his country - b'stilla or pastilla, a sweet and savoury pigeon pie. It's not much seen outside his country, for reasons which soon become obvious.

B'stilla is a pie of braised pigeon pie, scrambled egg, sweet onion and toasted almonds, with a dusting of icing sugar and cinnamon.The mixture is wrapped in many layers of fine pastry which look like filo but are not. They are extremely fine layers of pancake, and M Mars prepares to show me the art of making them.

He calls one of his young ladies to him. She dips her hand into a container of thick batter, the consistency of dough. She wets a four-ounce lump in a pan of very hot water, and dabs it on a rounded hot plate, her hands impervious to the boiling water and the heated griddle. She makes five impressions, one after the other, with her palms. Almost immediately the thin film cooks solid, and she peels off a pancake about 8in across. She makes about four every minute, slowly and patiently, to a rhythm.

Other ladies skilfully assemble layers of pancake with the ingredients, slapping them into place with beaten egg to hold them. Finally they bake them for 10 minutes in a hot oven; this is to make sure they are warmed through, as all the ingredients are already cooked to tender, sweet perfection before being assembled.

Now to the couscous. The way M Mars explains it, it's too easy for words. There must be seven vegetables, never fewer - usually onion, carrot, green peppers, courgettes, turnip, white cabbage, aubergine. An eighth is essential, tomato.

The lamb, too, is crucial. He's using half-pound chunks of English lamb, with every bit of fat cut off. English lamb is best, eh? "No, no. Moroccan lamb is better." (English lamb is not best. I'm gobsmacked. I write it down.) He uses two-month-old lamb because "it is tender. It is skinny. It has no fat, but it has the flavour of the herbs it feeds on: thyme, rosemary, wild fennel."

Basically, everything cooks in the pot for an hour, but the hard vegetables go in first and the tender vegetables for the last 20 minutes. That's it. It cooks at a rolling boil, and there's the rub. For the last half hour, the couscous has to be cooked in a colander above it, where it steams.

We have problems trying to mimic this. For a start, we can't buy the quality of couscous he uses; one which readily takes on the flavours of the stew steaming underneath, and absorbs a certain amount of butter.

Most couscous sold in Britain, and France too, is precooked, so follow the instructions on the packet. (Note, if it is too robustly steamed it will cook to a mush suitable only for invalids.) But for interest, should you be able to obtain authentic grain, this is how he cooks it. (Middle Eastern shops should stock it. It has a gutsy, texture and character.)

This is what he does. There are three stages. He wets 350g/12oz of couscous with one cup of water only. He lines a colander (which fits over his stew pan) with muslin, and puts the couscous inside. Using the muslin, he ensures a tight seal between pan and colander. He places the lid loosely on top and steams the couscous for 10 minutes. He removes the colander, stirs in a knob of butter, adds another cup of water, and steams it a further ten minutes. He repeats the process a third time, making the cooking time 30 minutes in all.

It's pretty easy but I should add that, in this in unfamiliar kitchen, they inadvertently set fire to the muslin, creating quite a sensational conflagration. By their casual unconcern, one assumes it may be a common occurrence.

M Mars shows how the dish should be served. A mound of couscous is placed on a plate, raised to a cone. Then he flattens out a hollow in the centre with the back of a spoon. He lays a large chunk of meat in this. Skilfully he piles up vegetables, selecting them for variety of colour and appearance. He swishes a generous tablespoon or two of cooking liquid on top. Separately, he moistens paprika and chilli powder with more stock, and serves it to one side in a sauceboat - the harissa sauce.

LAMB COUSCOUS WITH SEVEN VEGETABLES

Use at least seven vegetables from those below, not excluding the tomato or the chick peas.

Serves 6

2kg/412lbs shoulder of lamb (off the bone)

500g/1lb tomatoes or carrots

250g/12lb turnips or white cabbage

200g/7oz fennel

200g/7oz onions

200g/7oz green peppers

200g/7oz courgettes

200g/7oz aubergines

200/7oz green beans

1 can cooked chick peas

1 dessertspoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

12 teaspoon ground white pepper

2 teaspoons powdered ginger

pinch of saffron

2 stems fresh coriander

1kg/2lbs couscous grain

30g/1oz butter

1 teaspoon salt

30g/1oz sultanas soaked in cooking liquids

Trim all external fat off meat. Cut into six chunks. Cut vegetables into largish pieces, about 112 inches long. Put all the veg except aubergine and courgettes in your largest saucepan. Cover with water, add the meat, spices and olive oil. Bring to boil and simmer, covered, for one hour. Add the courgettes and aubergines, simmer for another 20 minutes.

If you are buying the regular pre-cooked couscous, moisten according to instructions on packet, and steam over the stew for ten minutes only.

If you can obtain the better grade of couscous, cook it over the stew introducing it for the last 30 minutes of cooking time. Moisten it with a cup of water, a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of olive oil. Put the couscous in a tight-fitting colander over the stew and let it steam for 10 minutes. Remove, moisten with another cup of water, a knob of butter, and steam for another 10 minutes. Repeat a third time (a total of 30 minutes in all).

Serve as described above, with a sauceboat of harissa - some cooking liquid into which you have stirred two teaspoons of best chilli pepper and one teaspoon paprika powder. !

Comments