Everyone has their “guilty pleasures” when it comes to food…and for many chefs it can be something really out there, think steamed cheeseburgers, Hostess Cakes, greasy poutine. I guess it’s something that usually hearkens back to childhood and a time before any culinary careers and regular contact with luxury ingredients took off. In any case, I was surprised when I first met Franck and we were living together in London to find that his passionate craving, his deep-seated desire on his night off wasn’t to eat buffalo wings or Taco Bell, but to enjoy a nice couscous from a can: Unfortunately, this isn’t really easy to find in the UK (guess we can’t stay here), and we don’t really have this product in the US (he was despondent). As pre-made foods go, it’s not as bad as Twinkies or some such, but it’s really really salty and really really cooked. I was concerned…he really missed the stuff…but I love a challenge. How would I recreate this beloved couscous and win his heart at the same time?
Now I love a good Moroccan dinner as much as the next person, and for vegetarians it’s always a real treat. In France, they sell the boxes (pictured above) with pre-made couscous “stew” or “tagine” in them, and the dried grains in a separate box on top to steam as you heat up the stew. The stew comes with chicken, merguez, vegetarian, whatever you fancy. For the more adventurous, those who want to work with fresh ingredients and make their own “tagine,” most French grocery stores sell a pre-mix “Epices Couscous” “Couscous Spices,” which are usually delicious and perfectly balanced when you want to make your couscous from scratch.
Since I also love to cook Indian food, I have up my sleeve a proportion for “the trinity” of Indian spices: dried Coriander, Cumin, and Turmeric, which is a never-fail (passed to me by an Indian gentleman who was briefly my landlord in England). I started here when I wanted to create my own “epices couscous” to make my delicious “tastes-just-like-you-got-it-out-of-a-box” couscous for my beloved. The balance between the spices is perfect, and with the addition of a pinch of cinnamon and a good dash of paprika, I actually started to approach the desired flavor, miraculously.
Enjoy this recipe as a base, and add whatever protein you like. At our house, we cook the stew in a saucepan and brown any meat in another pan on the side. A few ladles of the vegetable & chickpea stew go into the pan to finish cooking with the meat/chicken/merguez sausages for the last 15 mins or so, and the rest can stay on the side for the vegetarians. We also now prepare millet on the side, as tastes and nutrition have evolved since when we first met. It might not be quite as salty or overcooked as the one in the can, but on a cold winter night, with a pot of spicy harissa on the table, this dish is satisfying and delicious.
Vegetable & Chickpea Couscous
3 T olive oil
2 onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
3 celery branches, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 purple-topped turnips, peeled and cut into 1 inch chunks
1/2 rutabaga, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1 small eggplant, cut into 1 inch chunks
1 zucchini, cut into 2 inch chunks
1/2 green cabbage, cut into 1 inch dice
1 small can whole peeled tomatoes
2 c cooked chickpeas
1 T ground coriander
1 1/2 t ground cumin
1/2 t turmeric
1 T sweet paprika
1/2 t cinnamon
1 bunch cilantro
In a large saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium high heat and add the onions. When they are golden, add the rest of the vegetables and saute until beginning to soften. Add all of the dried spices and let cook together, stirring, for 1 minute, to cook out the spices. Add the can of tomatoes, broken up, and the chickpeas, salt and pepper. Add enough water (or stock, if you prefer), to cover all of the vegetables, bring up to simmer, then cover and lower heat. Let cook slowly for about 30 mins, until all of the vegetables are cooked through. Meanwhile, prepare the couscous (or millet, or cracked wheat, rice or whatever grain you like to soak up the juices) and brown the meat that you would like to use, if desired. We love to serve this with plain yogurt and harissa on the side, and we always finish it with a bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped and added at the last minute. (Keep in mind that the list of vegetables can be adapted based on season or availability! Why not put butternut squash or sweet potato in the winter and eliminate the eggplant and zucchini? Add some frozen peas? Use this as your guide and enjoy.)