Last week I found myself in Marseille for a day (grad school perk #4591: spring break), so I decided to take advantage of that city's history as a point of entry for North Africans coming to France and find some good couscous. The reviews all said La Kahena; the reviews were all right. There is a lot of couscous in Marseille, a lot of it cheaper than what La Kahena has to offer, and a lot of it, I'm sure, very good, but this stuff was worth the trip. I couldn't decide what kind to get - veggies? lamb? merguez? - so for 16 euro I ordered a complet, which had all sorts of things in it, and if I spoke any French I could tell you what they were. What I do know is that they were delicious. There was merguez - I adore good sausage, and this was awfully good sausage - and chicken; a shish kebab and some sort of chop, both of which I suspect were lamb, though I wouldn't swear to it; a big, fluffy, heavily-cumined meatball (nope, I have no idea what the meat was, but it sure tasted good); a hard-boiled egg; and all sorts of veggies, including chickpeas, zucchini, carrots, celery, turnip (I think?), and some others I'm sure I'm forgetting. The toppings came heaped over a mound of couscous, accompanied by a bowl of the deeply spiced, dark red liquid they'd cooked in, for spooning over top. The whole thing was enough for at least three meals, and I left wishing I had an extra stomach to put it in, or at least somewhere other than my carry-on to keep a doggy bag. (Do they even do doggy bags in France?) I don't really recommend Marseille as a place to visit - busy, dirty, supposedly dangerous, reminiscent of Palermo but with less interesting stuff to see - but if you do find yourself there I would urge you to find La Kahena, and bring your tupperware.
Five days later, back in New Haven, and desperately missing the south of France. My Nicoise cookbook is still in the mail, so first up on the "recreate amazing things I ate over break" agenda is couscous. Nica's doesn't have merguez, so I got chorizo instead. I really don't feel like grilling five kinds of meat, so that'll have to do in the protein department. I picked up all the veggies I could remember, plus some potatoes, just because. Claudia Roden's "Book of Middle Eastern Food" has a wonderful couscous recipe, and she encourages you to improvise around it, so I did, based on memory and preferences. She also included instructions for steaming the couscous over the simmering stew i the traditional way, which I did with a jerry-rigged vegetable steamer, a couscousier being one of the rare kitchen gadgets I don't actually own (though my birthday is coming up, you know...). Glad I tried it, but steaming's totally not worth the work - next time I'm just boiling it in stock, the old-fashioned way (see Mark Bittman for more detailed instructions on that). The stew, however, was absurdly easy (chop, simmer, eat) and entirely delicious, and now my apartment smells wonderful. Instructions are below. As always, adjust to taste, and based on what's on hand at the moment. I put a lot of things in; you don't have to, though I should mention that even though I usually don't like hardboiled eggs or turnips, they're delicious in here.
Moroccan-ish Couscous (adapted from Claudia Roden)
1/2 lb chorizo (or merguez, or other appropriately-spiced sausage)
1 can chickpeas
2 cloves garlic, chopped
A few carrots
A few small potatoes
A few small turnips
1 or 2 stalks celery
1 medium tomato
1 thick-ish coin of ginger
Half of a small cinnamon stick
A generous amount of cumin
Cayenne pepper to taste
Salt & pepper to taste
Couscous (or, for the gluten-free, quinoa or millet)
1) Chop the veggies and sausage into the kind of chunks you'd want to find on your spoon, not too small but still bite-sized.
2) Put everything but the couscous, egg, tomato, and zucchini into a pot. Add a drizzle of olive oil. Cover with water and simmer for an hour.
3) Add the zucchini and tomato, taste for spices, simmer for half an hour more.
4) While all that is simmering, cook the couscous and hard-boil the egg.
5) Serve the stew over the couscous, with the hard-boiled egg on top. salt to taste. Devour. Makes great leftovers.