The secret of the Jewish grain
The flavors, colors and aromas of couscous, an ancient and traditional dish, will make a New Year's feast - or any meal - a festive occasion.
The many years during which Jews of the Maghreb region led flourishing lives there left a substantial mark on various areas of life. It may well be that the most significant mark, whose presence is still felt to this day, is the contribution that Jewish cooking made to the tradition of local cuisine. Many Jews with change in their pockets would customarily, in keeping with Eastern culture, eat to their heart's content at amazingly lavish feasts. A great wealth of fine ingredients flowed daily into their pots, an abundance that gave rise to many colorful dishes.
The tradition of making couscous for Rosh Hashanah has been around since Roman times. "Jewish couscous" - that is what the locals call the dish, a synonym for labor-intensive food that is brimming with flavors, colors and aromas. The previous name of the dish was "couscous aux sept legumes" (seven-vegetable couscous ): It contains seven vegetables that represent the seven Rosh Hashanah blessings. Therefore the soup for the couscous will generally contain pumpkin, zucchini, leeks, Swiss chard, cabbage, fennel and carrots. Some add celery, chickpeas, saffron and herbs.
Couscous is made from granules of hard, ground semolina that are hand-rolled with water. After the rolling, the grains undergo steaming in a unique technique that was learned from ancient African tribes.
The meaning of the word in Arabic comes from the word kaskasa, "to pound small." Moroccan and Tunisian Jews prefer their couscous grains medium-sized, whereas Algerians consider such couscous to be inferior. Only fine and delicate grains (seffa ) are allowed onto their holiday table.
Traditionally, Jewish couscous is served at the center of the holiday table in a large ceramic platter with coarse edges. The grain is piled in a pyramid, the work of an artist, and charmingly topped with a host of vegetables from the rich, accompanying soup. Among the chunks of pumpkin, carrots and zucchini on the serving dish peek out bits of beef or chicken that were cooked in a separate pot - usually in a sweet sauce that contains at least one of the ingredients symbolic of the holiday: honey, silan, pomegranates, dates or quince. Pomegranate seeds and roasted almond slivers are sprinkled over the whole glorious dish for decoration.
The soup is strained and served separately, so diners can help themselves to the rich liquid. A spicy and powerful-tasting harissa paste is also served with the dish, and indeed, many feel that no couscous dish, however good it may be, is complete without it.
Vegetable soup for couscous
This soup will serve 8 to 10.
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
3/4 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
1 onion, grated
1 tomato, grated
5 Swiss chard leaves, chopped
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
5 saffron threads
bunch of parsley
bunch of cilantro
1 kilo chicken wings
1 large celery root, including leaves, peeled
5 carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 leek, sliced into 15-cm. rounds
1 fennel, quartered lengthwise
2 potatoes, quartered lengthwise
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 head of white cabbage, quartered lengthwise
5 zucchini, halved lengthwise
500 grams pumpkin
2 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
For garnish: almond slivers, pomegranate seeds
Heat oil in a large pot; add onion, tomato, Swiss chard, chickpeas, turmeric, white pepper and saffron, and saute for 2 minutes. Add herbs and chicken wings, mix; pour in 2 liters of cold water. Bring to a boil and skim off the foam and fat on the surface with a big spoon.
Add the vegetables in the following order, at 10-minute intervals: celery root; carrot + leek; fennel + potato + salt; cabbage; zucchini; pumpkin. After you add the pumpkin continue cooking for 10 minutes (total cooking time is 1 hour ), then turn off the heat.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Pull out whole carrots, zucchini, fennel, potatoes, pumpkin and cabbage, and arrange in an oven pan. Add 2 tablespoons of the broth, cinnamon, sugar and sunflower oil, and bake for 10 minutes.
Place the roasted vegetables on top of the couscous alongside the chicken tagine or patties cooked in hot sauce. The soup is served in a separate bowl. Garnish the couscous with chickpeas from the soup, roasted blanched almond slivers and pomegranate seeds.
Lemon honey chicken tagine
This dish is best made the day before because it absorbs the flavors of the sauce overnight and becomes tender. Serves 8 to 10.
16 chicken drumsticks, with the ankle chopped off (the little round bit at the bottom of the bone )
4 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground white pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
100 milliliters honey or silan
4 tablespoons lemon juice
15 garlic cloves in their skins
Wash the chicken drumsticks and dry them thoroughly. Combine all the ingredients in a deep dish and coat the drumsticks with the seasonings. Heat oil in a wide flat pot. Saute the drumsticks for 4 minutes on each side. Mix honey and lemon juice together; pour over the chicken. Arrange garlic cloves between the drumsticks, cover and bring to a boil. Lower the fire and cook for 1 hour. Turn the drumsticks over after 30 minutes of cooking. Place on top of the couscous with all of the gravy left in the pot.
Making traditional couscous requires a special steaming vessel called a couscoussiere. This is a double boiler made of aluminum or clay; the soup cooks in the bottom part and the couscous is placed on top in a special strainer that absorbs the steam from the soup. Preparation takes a long time and requires a manual dexterity that is the province of a vanishing generation.
Instant couscous offers a good alternative and is prepared in a similar way, with the steaming of the grains taking place at a factory in a high-pressure steaming machine. The grains are dried and packaged and all that remains is to infuse them with a little moisture. So long as you make sure to prepare it the same way as handmade couscous rather than according to the instructions on the package, your couscous will come out great. Have no fear, it’s easy and the instructions are simple and quick:
Empty two bags (700 grams) of fine or medium couscous into a bowl (you can also use whole couscous), together with 2 tablespoons oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Mix and add 1 cup of boiling water. Lightly stir and lay a sheet of aluminum foil directly on the couscous. After 10 minutes mix with a fork and break up the large lumps (we’ll deal with the small ones at the end); add another 1/2 cup of boiling water, mix with a fork and leave covered for 3 minutes. Repeat these actions twice more until the couscous is al dente.
Crumble the remaining lumps by rubbing them between your hands. Couscous can be prepared in advance and reheated in a food steamer or microwave oven. Instant couscous keeps fresh for two days in the fridge. Seven hundred grams of couscous will yield 8 to 10 servings.