It was one of the dumpiest little restaurants I ever went to, with a bare cement floor, plastic tent walls and the backroom cook who would often be seen stirring the soup with a cigarette dangling precariously from her mouth. Located at the back of the central bus station, the eatery was often visited by solitary bus drivers on lunch break who would talk loudly on their cell phones while eating enormous amounts of couscous. Baraka, meaning blessing, happened to have the best tasting couscous in town, far surpassing any I have eaten in upscale establishments. Sadly the place closed down, not surprising as I couldn’t figure out how they made any money as in addition to the bus drivers, the owner’s large extended family would visit every afternoon, taking up half the space and eating all the food. They built a makeshift tent in back of their kitchen to accommodate the dinners but municipality law was put into action after multiple complaints from their neighbors and the tent and the restaurant went down (my guess is the neighbors did not taste the couscous). The first time I went there I asked the owner, who was in the backroom with her mother peeling carrots, if I could see how they made couscous. She said yes to be polite but perhaps she thought I wanted to open a rival couscous joint across from her, as she never did find the time to teach me, postponing every request.
So I decided to try it on my own without ever seeing how it is properly made and without the right equipment. Hand raked couscous is one of those recipes which make perfect sense only after you actually know how to make it, at least for me and my first attempt proved this. I wasn’t sure how much water should be added, how long or even in which direction I should rake (and if it is possible to change directions in the middle) and how the couscous grains should look and feel like before steaming. It was pretty clear on the onset of this endeavor that making hand raked couscous is very messy task, especially my clumsy effort and I was still finding couscous grains on the floor a week afterwards. Eventually I found someone else to teach me, the Turkish wife of the Moroccan taxi driver and it is her recipe which I have been using until now.
A few weeks ago Paula Wolfert introduced me to her version which I remembered reading a few years ago but never did try. Now with at least some knowledge of how couscous should be made I attempted to make it again and now it is my favorite recipe. Moroccan couscous grains are much fluffier and larger than the Tunisian or Libyan versions I have eaten and it is the kind I prefer.
Vegetable Soup for Couscous
This is the most common couscous soup made by the Moroccans in Israel. This stew exemplifies the integration of new world crops such potatoes, zucchinis and pumpkin with old world favorites, such as carrots, celery, cabbage and coriander. It is traditionally made on Tuesdays and Fridays and is always accompanied with a big bowl of couscous. Although Moroccan Jewish cuisine is rich and varied, this recipe has become the most popular in Israel and the most well preserved throughout the country. It is most similar to the recipe Paula Wolfert calls couscous with seven vegetables in the Fez manner, as seven is considered a lucky number in Fez (hmm, I wonder if I should omit a few vegetables in my stew).
I add the vegetable at different times during cooking depending on how fast they soften.
3 carrots, cut into 5 cm pieces
½ white cabbage, cut into thick wedges
1 onion, cut into quarters
500 grams of pumpkin
2 zucchinis cut into 5 cm pieces
2 potatoes cut into large cubes
1 turnip, cut into large cubes
4 celery stalks, cut into 5 cm pieces
1 cup chickpeas, soaked overnight or a can of chickpeas
10 cups chicken stock or water, enough to cover the vegetables
5 chicken thighs or 700 grams beef, cut into cubes
1 bunch coriander (cilantro) or parsley, chopped
½ teaspoon turmeric
Small pinch saffron (6 threads) soaked in a 2 tablespoons boiling water
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
A pinch of nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
Olive or vegetable oil
1/4 cup almonds
1/4 raisons, soaked in water
***Some cooks cook the potatoes and pumpkin separately to keep the soup clear. Some turnips can have a bitter taste out of season and it is better to omit them. If time permits, dry marinate the chicken with the spices for a more flavorful stew (tip from Paula Wolfert)
Drain the chickpeas and cook them in water until soft, drain. I don’t usually peel the chickpeas but some prefer them like that.
Preferably in a Dutch oven, brown the chicken in olive oil, add about half the spices and fry for a few moments to release flavor. If cooking beef, brown with spices like chicken and cover it with water or stock and cook until tender, removing the foam from the top. Add all the vegetables except the coriander, pumpkin and zucchini and cover with chicken stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and then simmer for 35 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Add the pumpkin, zucchini and remainder of the spices and cook for 20 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Add chickpeas and the chopped coriander or parsley and mix well. For topping fry almonds and raisons with a bit of olive oil until almonds are golden. In a deep dish, add a few spoons of couscous, the stew and top with raisons and almonds.
Couscous and other good food from Morocco, Paula Wolfert