As a boy growing up in my native city of Sala in Morocco, I lived for couscous. And I always knew when someone in the neighborhood was making it. A familiar aroma would fill the air around the house and beyond. It would come and go, each time with a different blend of alluring smells: cinnamon and saffron, ginger and coriander, simmering lamb, squash and peppers, all carried in the steam of the couscous. It was too much to take. I would run straight home and ask, “When are we making couscous?”
In Moroccan homes, making couscous is an expression of love, generosity, and hospitality. The process feels both celebratory and communal; it’s a good dish around which to build a cooking party. I tend to approach a couscous-making day sort of as I do Thanksgiving. Yes, the preparations and cooking will occupy a chunk of my time, but the work isn’t especially intricate, and I know that anyone who happens to be around the house will want to be part of the action. The most group-oriented step, and the one that’s the most fun (kids will love it), occurs when the pellets are steamed over simmering water or broth and then separated and fluffed by hand—not once, not twice, but three times.
In my opinion, there’s no substitute for steaming the couscous. I can imagine what you’re thinking: “But the directions on the couscous box say to pour boiling water over the granules and let them sit for a mere five minutes.” I don’t deny that such “soaked” grains are edible, but to me, they are dead grains, grains that never had a chance to grow. By steaming and aerating the couscous the traditional way, the granules absorb a lot more moisture. This takes some time, but you’ll be rewarded with plumper, more tender grains.
The best way to see this difference is to do a side-by-side test. Steam the couscous the way I do (see my couscous recipe for the details) and then cook up a small amount the five-minute way. You’ll quickly notice that the steamed couscous has more volume and fragrance, and that it’s dramatically softer, fluffier, and lighter. The steamed couscous granules seem to be multidimensional, too, like tiny individual jewels rather than lumpy, wet grains of sand.
Any couscous you find in the store can be steamed, even if it’s packaged as instant. Commercial couscous is made by mixing ground semolina with water to form a crumbly dough, which is then rolled into granules. The granules are steamed, and the couscous is then dried and sifted. (It’s possible to make couscous granules from other types of grains, too, such as corn, millet, or barley, but these are less common.) Back in the old days, my mother would make her couscous granules from scratch, rolling the semolina flour by hand, pushing and sifting the mixture through a woven colander, and then letting the pellets dry in the sun. The sifting sounded something like “skss, skss,” which may explain how the granules (and the dish itself) got their name.
You’ll need a colander that sits snugly above a stockpot
To steam the couscous, Moroccans use a two-part vessel called a couscoussière. It consists of a deep pot (a bourma) and a flat-based colander (a kesskess) that sits snugly above the pot. The pot holds the simmering broth, meat, and vegetables, while the couscous steams in the colander upstairs. If you have a couscoussière in your closet, this is your big chance. Otherwise, it’s easy to rig one up using a stockpot and a colander. Choose a colander with holes on the bottom only (not the sides), if possible. A Chinese bamboo steamer works well, too, as long as it’s the right size (just slightly wider than the pot so there’s almost no overhang).
It’s also important that the colander fits tightly inside the pot; there shouldn’t be much of a gap between the rims. The idea is to minimize any spaces or holes where steam can escape; you want to force the steam to rise through the couscous. To help accomplish this, I like to seal the seam between the colander and the pot with cheesecloth or a strip of old towel that has been dipped into a flour and water glue.
The only other piece of equipment you’ll need is a very large shallow bowl or a roasting pan in which to fluff the couscous between steamings.
Moisten and aerate the couscous by sprinkling with liquid and rubbing
It’s traditional to steam the couscous over the simmering broth, but it’s fine (and probably easier the first few times), to steam it over boiling water and to deal with the broth and vegetables separately.
To start, cover the granules with cold water, swish them around, and then immediately pour off the water. This initial soak releases some starch so the granules won’t be as sticky. Then dribble the couscous into the colander set over the pot of boiling water, letting the granules mound gently. Some people line the colander with cheesecloth, but unless the holes are very large (like in a Chinese steamer), I find that it usually isn’t necessary, even when the holes are larger than the couscous granules. Try to sprinkle the granules so they cover all the holes in the colander, but don’t press on them. Seal the seam with the cloth dipped in the flour and water paste.
The first steaming is finished when vapor rises through the couscous. At that point, dump out the couscous into a very large shallow bowl or a roasting pan, breaking up clumps with a spoon to release heat.
When the couscous is cool enough to handle, rub the granules to aerate and separate them. Scoop up a handful of couscous and rub the granules against one another lightly, letting them dribble back into the bowl. The granules, not your hands, should touch each other. Gradually sprinkle on some water seasoned with saffron and cumin and continue rubbing, being careful not to drown the couscous by adding too much liquid at once. You don’t want any liquid to pool in the bowl, and the grains should feel just barely moist, never wet or clumpy. If they feel wet, stop adding liquid. Rake your hands through the granules occasionally to check for any lumps that you may have missed.
The couscous then goes back into the colander and gets steamed and fluffed two more times. After the last round, the once-shriveled pellets will have swollen to three times their size.
A full-flavored broth cooks the vegetables
The couscous itself, while tender and light, doesn’t have too much flavor, so it’s customary to serve it with seasonal vegetables and a rich meat broth. I like using lamb shanks for the broth because they contain a lot of flavor and gelatin, which produce a full-bodied broth. If you can’t find shanks, use lamb shoulder; its tough collagen fibers will break down and become tender during the long cooking.
The broth needs to simmer for a good long time. When the lamb pulls off the bone easily, remove it from the broth and then continue simmering the liquid until it reduces by about half. The reduction intensifies and thickens the broth. There’s no need to strain out the aromatic vegetables; they contribute flavor and texture. You’ll use this rich broth to moisten the couscous after the final round of steaming, to cook the vegetables, and to serve in individual bowls alongside the couscous at the table.With one exception, any root vegetable is a good choice for cooking in the broth: sweet potato, turnip, parsnip, and carrots are all excellent. The exception is ordinary potato, which is too bland. I might also hesitate before serving couscous with beets; they taste great, but you’ll end up with crimson couscous.
Boil the vegetables until they’re extremely tender. In my mother’s house, we would throw all the vegetables into the broth at the same time and boil them until they were so soft they could be mashed into a purée. Don’t scoff. These super-tender vegetables actually have a lot of flavor and blend well with the couscous. At my restaurant, I take a little more care with the timing. I add the sturdiest vegetables first (here it’s the carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squash) and the fastest-cooking last.
As a final garnish, I’ll serve a bowl of spicy harissa, a creamy blend of chiles and roasted red peppers. It’s a cinch to make in the blender. And to highlight the sweeter side of the dish, I might also caramelize some thinly sliced onions in a skillet with cinnamon, sugar, and raisins, and then arrange the mixture around the ring of couscous on the serving platter.