Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Coucous Primer

"A handful of couscous is better
than Mecca and all its dust."

- Moroccan Proverb

This May, Lori had an opportunity to teach in western Sicily. For a little over a week we lived in a rustically-refurbished villa just a few kilometers north of Marsala, a three-minute walk from the Tyrrhenian Sea.
[Just to paint a more colorful picture, let me be specific. You can skip this part if all you care about is couscous. The villa was a very large farmhouse from the 18th century back when there were landowners (the 1%) and peasants (you and me). A young couple, Adriano and his wife Yumi, have restored the property with modern conveniences but kept much of the antique feel by using original materials and local construction products such as ceramics. Today the farmhouse is six self-contained apartments in one complex; perfect for hosting weddings, family vacations, or artist workshops. Visit for more information. The photos on their website are not re-touched.
It really looks like that. The area is truly tourist-free except for the buses full of Europeans who come to see the ancient salt production in the protected Stagnone lagoon. The villa is somewhat isolated, but only a short drive to Marsala or Trapani.
When I mention "Marsala" you probably think of the wine sauce prepared for a boring chicken dish in so many American-Italian restaurants. Well, that's NOT Marsala. True Marsala wine is remarkable! Its production is carefully regulated, and there are many types and styles of real Marsala wine. Think sherry, but lighter and perfumed with sea air instead of barrels. I mention the wine because the apartment Lori and I stayed in at Villa Salinara used to be the "Wine Chapel." That is, it was the landowner's private chapel, but also a storage room for the estate's barreled Marsala wine. Makes sense. If you need something to pray about, it might as well be wine.
One last thing. To an American all of the sea surrounding Italy is the Mediteranean, but to locals there are many different seas. Each is defined by the nature of the currents, the temperature and salinity of the water, and the kind of life an area sustains. Sicily is surrounded by four or five different seas.]
When we mentioned to friends that we were going to the Marsala region, they all encouraged us to eat Couscous di Pesce... Fish Couscous. We ate a few meals at various trattorie (smaller family restaurants) in Marsala and could not resist the beautiful grilled fish. Then one afternoon we took lunch at a little place tucked away just off the piazza inside L'Arco di Garibaldi (where Giuseppi Garibaldi and "The Thousand" began the campaign to unify modern Italy). The place was filling up with locals, so we ordered the Couscous di Pesce. We were served a steaming bowl of golden couscous in fish broth with a few deboned pieces of fish (perhaps cefalo?) on top. They also brought another bowl of broth to add by spoonfuls because the couscous continues to absorb liquid as you eat (well, so does the ever-present piece of local bread in your spare hand). It was delicious. Simple, with individual flavors throughout the broth. The couscous itself is mildly nutty, but really more like the earthy flavor you expect from fresh semolina flour.
So, (I asked several people) "What is couscous?" I got many different answers probably because to a Sicilian there really are many different ways to make and prepare couscous. I was assured in every case that real couscous takes many hours to prepare. Unfortunately, I didn't get to witness a real cook making couscous, so most of what I have discovered is thanks to Google.
It seems real couscous is a staple dish in most of northern Africa. The name derives from a Berber-Arabic word kuskus meaning "well-rolled." It is made from durum wheat (semolina) rubbed between moistened hands until the flour combines with just enough water to form hundreds of tiny grains. Obviously the process takes a light touch. It is then sprinkled with dry flour to keep the grains separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve are again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. Traditionally, groups of women came together to make large batches over several days, which were then dried in the sun and used for several months. Couscous was usually made from the hard part of the durum, the part of the grain that resisted the grinding of the millstone. Today, couscous production is mechanized.
Properly-cooked couscous is steamed over a broth in a special pot. Meat and vegetables are cooked as a stew in the base of the pot (metal in Africa, ceramic in Sicily). On top of the base, a steamer sits where the couscous is cooked, absorbing the flavors from the stew. I have read that a "flour paste" is sometimes used to seal the two parts of the pot while steaming the couscous. Some instructions call for the steaming process to be interrupted occasionally to rub the softening couscous again to keep the granules separate.
There is an easier way; instant couscous. This product has already been steamed and then dried again before it is packaged. It needs only to be soaked in boiling water until it swells, a process that takes about 10 minutes. When Lori went shopping for couscous at our local supermarket here in Tennessee, this was the only kind of couscous available although the word instant is nowhere to be found on the label.
Here's her super-easy recipe for Couscous di Gamberetti (Couscous with Shrimp, photo above): 20 minutes. Serves 2.
Peel a pound of shrimp. Place the shells in a small sauce pan. Add some chopped veggies such as onion, celery, or carrot to the pan. add 1/2 cup dry white wine and simmer 10 minutes. Add 1 cup water (or veggie stock) and bring just to a boil.
In a skillet, sauté a whole shallot chopped very fine in 2 Tbl. of butter over medium heat. Try not to brown the shallots. Add 1 cup instant couscous, a generous pinch of salt, and stir until the grains begin to toast. You can smell it. Strain about 3/4 of the shell/veggie stock into the couscous. Stir. Cover and set aside about 10 minutes.
In another skillet, sauté the peeled shrimp in a little butter until firm; about 3 minutes for medium-sized shrimp. Throw in some chopped flat parsley near the end.
Serve heaps of couscous topped with the shrimp and a side of the reserved broth.
We had a soft (full malo) California chardonnay from Patland Estate Winery. I might also recommend a white from Sicily made from Zibibbo grape if you want something a bit more crisp and understated.
Buon appetito!