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Couscous with zucchini, pumpkin, and squash

Couscous with zucchini, pumpkin, and squash

Ask a French person what his or her favorite food is and you might be surprised by the answer. Just as tikka masala is a national dish in England (and Indian cuisine a veritable sub-cuisine), couscous is an unofficial dish of France, thanks to the country's long and complicated relationship with North Africa. According to a French magazine survey, couscous ranked third among favorite dishes, just after magret de canard and moules frites. George Sand, Chopin's mistress, is credited with publishing the first couscous recipe in French in the 19th century (when France began its colonization in Algeria). The dish didn't become popular, however, until the early 1960s, when Algeria won independence and many North Africans moved to France.

Couscous is the national dish of Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco and is to North Africa what rice is to much of the rest of the world--a staple. While rice is eaten in the Middle East, couscous is an important dish that speaks to North Africa's Berber roots, as it predates the Arab invasion. It is also eaten in Libya and Egypt, but to a lesser extent, as well as in parts of western Sicily, home to the international Cous Cous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo, which we hope to attend one year.

Couscous is made from semolina flour and water and then mixed together in small pellets and processed through different sized sieves to achieve the right size and texture. Some say the word “couscous” originates from a Berber dialect, others theorize that it comes from the sound the semolina makes while sliding back and forth across the mesh of the sieves. Whatever the truth is, most North Africans can agree that it is a special dish.

Couscous can be prepared in countless ways and each country (and even each family!) has its own variation. In Morocco, it is often made with prunes, raisins, and more cinnamon, giving it a sweeter flavor profile. In Algeria, the sauce is usually a light mild broth (sauce blanche). In Tunisia, it is red and spicy! Couscous is typically made with lamb, chicken, fish, or another protein, and the combinations of vegetables that can be used are endless and usually reflect the season during which the dish is being made.

Unlike makrouna, couscous isn’t eaten on a daily basis but rather reserved for more special occasions like holidays, a big family dinner, or Sundays, for example. In the spirit of the season and the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, we’ve got a pumpkin couscous to share with you today. It has all the elements of a good comfort food: a warm, carb-centric bowl topped with tender squash, sweet pearl onions, and hearty lamb.

Happy Thanksgiving to all those celebrating,

Munya and Rim


Ingredients (Serves 6-8):

5 cups couscous

1-2 lbs lamb stew pieces

3-4 tbsp olive or vegetable oil

Simmering water (Have a smaller pot on the side with several cups of water kept hot to add as needed)

2 tbsp Ras el hanout spice mix (If you do not have access to this spice mix and would like to make your own: mix 1 tbs coriander with ½ tsp each of cumin, caraway, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric. Alternatively, if these are not available you can just use 2 tbsp of ground coriander although the taste will be slightly different)

1 ½  tsp salt

2 tbsp paprika

1 tsp black pepper

½ tsp cayenne pepper (More or less can be used depending on heat level desired)

½ tsp crushed pepper flakes (Optional- adjust amount to taste.)

5-6 garlic cloves, peeled

1 6-oz can tomato paste

1 medium onion, chopped

2-3 large carrots, washed, peeled and cut into 2 inch pieces

½ of one cabbage, cut into wedges with the core intact

4 cups pumpkin or squash, peeled, de-seeded, and cut into 2-3 inch chunks

2-3 zucchini- washed (peeling is optional) and cut into 2 inch pieces

5-6 medium white potatoes, washed, peeled, and cut in half

One package pearl onions, peeled

One 15-oz can of chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1 jalapeno pepper (optional)


*Note: There are several ways to cook couscous. Traditionally, it is cooked in a special pot called a "couscoussière" which has a large bottom pot to cook the sauce and a separate steamer portion at the top for steaming the couscous. To make it easy for those of us who do not own this type of pot, it's best to cook/steam couscous according to your package instructions.

Cook couscous according to package instructions and set aside if making it before the sauce.

In a mortar and pestle, mash garlic and ras el hanout spice mixture into a paste.

In a large pot over medium heat, add your cooking oil. The amount will depend on the size of your pot; it will need to fully cover the bottom of the pot.

To the oil, add the garlic and spice mixture, chopped onion, salt, black pepper, paprika, cayenne, pepper flakes, and tomato paste and saute for a few minutes until fragrant and onions cook down a bit. If it starts to stick to the bottom of the pot at any point, add a little bit of water and stir.

Add your lamb and saute until the outside sears and changes in color, and it is not leaking any of its juices. Then add enough water to fully cover the lamb. (If using fresh chickpeas that have been soaked rather than canned, add at the same time as the lamb).

Cover the pot, turn heat to low, and let the lamb cook, stirring occasionally. (Depending on the sizes and cut of lamb pieces, it may take one hour to an hour and a half to fully cook).

When the lamb has about 15 minutes until being fully cooked, start adding your vegetables. Start with the tougher vegetables that take longer to cook first: carrots and cabbage. *Add enough water to cover vegetables. Once the sauce comes back to a boil after adding the vegetables, cook for 10-15 minutes. (Vegetable cooking time will depend on sizes and amounts used; check tenderness with fingers or a fork or knife to know when ready).

*Note: Once the lamb is cooked, it can be removed from the pot and set aside to make room to cook the vegetables and to keep it from over cooking.

Add zucchini, potatoes, and squash/pumpkin and again add enough water to keep everything covered if needed. Let simmer until tender (another 15 or so minutes).

If using pearl onions, add for just the last few minutes of cooking. If using a jalapeno pepper, add at this time as well. When everything is cooked, add chickpeas, cook just long enough to bring to temperature (about a minute or two). Taste for salt and add if needed.

Put cooked couscous in large serving dish and start to spoon the sauce over it. Mix to coat all of the couscous. (Use just enough sauce to coat the couscous and give it the red color, and reserve the rest to serve on the side for those who would like to add more).

Arrange vegetables and lamb on top of the couscous and serve. Enjoy.

Cornes de gazelle/Tcharek cookies

Cornes de gazelle/Tcharek cookies

Tunisian mint tea

Tunisian mint tea