The Big Ingredient: couscous

Couscous is a sociable dish. Its essence lies in its simplicity and emphasis on generosity.Terry Durack explains that it is infinitely flexible and can be adapted to feed a cast of thousands
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The first time I ever had couscous was at the home of some French-Moroccan friends of my parents. I was only 15 at the time, and I don't think I'd ever seen anything quite as exotic as the food mounded onto the large platters that were being set out along the length of the dining table.

The first time I ever had couscous was at the home of some French-Moroccan friends of my parents. I was only 15 at the time, and I don't think I'd ever seen anything quite as exotic as the food mounded onto the large platters that were being set out along the length of the dining table.

The buzz of conversation from the 20 or so guests who'd assembled for lunch stopped as we turned to admire our hostess's handiwork: great dunes of sand-like grains of couscous had been topped with an aromatic stew that contained chunks of meat, rust-coloured merguez sausages, carrots and courgettes, along with chickpeas, broad beans and sultanas. Alongside the platters were small dishes of what I soon discovered was a fiery paste made of pounded chillies and garlic, flavoured with caraway and coriander - it was my first taste of harissa.

Although the meal I ate that day was, I later discovered, a fairly standard Moroccan interpretation of couscous, the dish has as many identities as it has cooks. Each country along the North African coast - and each family - has its own version.

One thing remains true for all of couscous's many incarnations: it is a sociable dish, one that is meant to be eaten at a gathering of friends or family or, preferably, both. It fits in perfectly with the Arabic ideal of hospitality. It also makes it a perfect dish for busy Westerners who like to entertain, for it is infinitely flexible. It can be adapted not only to the contents of your cupboard and your shopping basket, but also to the number of guests you end up feeding.

The key to this adaptability lies not only in the stew that is served alongside the couscous, but in the grains themselves, as the amount served can be expanded or contracted to suit the number of guests at the table. In North Africa making an authentic couscous involves time-consuming steaming of the grains (a blend of wheat semolina, flour and water traditionally rolled by hand) over a vat of bubbling stock, stopping every now and then to massage the grains with oil and break up any lumps. But here in the UK, most couscous comes pre-cooked. All that needs to be done to prepare it is to add boiling water or, even better, steam it until the grains absorb the water and swell up. The couscous should then be gently heated in a saucepan with a dollop of butter or a splash of oil.

Couscous grains can be used in other dishes too. A classic is tabbouleh, a Middle Eastern/North African salad that is traditionally made with burghul, but often contains couscous instead. A refreshing, light summer dish, tabbouleh mixes the grains with vast quantities of chopped parsley, flavoured with mint, tomatoes, cucumber and spring onions, dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

Less traditionally, couscous can form the basis of a delicious salad of nuts - a mixture of chopped almonds, walnuts and pine nuts - leavened with a handful of cooked wild rice, which, in itself, has a wonderfully nutty flavour, and lightened with a good scattering of freshly chopped herbs, including dill, mint and parsley.

Couscous can also form the basis of a great stuffing. Soak some saffron strands in boiling water until they release their colour, then use the water to cook some couscous. Fry some onion rings until lightly golden. Toast pine nuts and roughly chopped almonds, then mix into the couscous along with some orange or lemon zest, chopped dried apricots, sultanas or dates, the onions and a handful of freshly chopped herbs - parsley or coriander, for preference, or a mixture of the two. Stir in some melted butter and season well before using the mixture to stuff a chicken. Should you wish, you can omit the onions, herbs and saffron and stir in some orange blossom water and a spoonful of honey for a more authentically North African flavour.

You can even use couscous to form the basis of a dessert. The Jewish communities of North Africa serve couscous seffa during the festival of Chanukah. Once the couscous has been steamed, it is mixed with butter and studded with raisins, then mounded into a conical shape before being sprinkled with lines of powdered cinnamon and icing sugar and served warm. You can ring the changes by stirring in some orange blossom water and chopped nuts - the true essence of this dish lies in its simplicity. But then the same could be said of all North Africa's couscous dishes, where the emphasis lies not in culinary pyrotechnics but in simple, generous hospitality.

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