The redbuds were blooming in Asheville when I was there last week to teach, their snaky branches covered with fuscia blossoms, simply gorgeous. I love Asheville for its redbuds, but also for the dear friends I’ve made over the course of teaching classes there for nearly a decade. Asheville is special, one of those esthetic “hot pot” cities like Portland (Oregon) or Austin, filled with a sense of history and entrepreneurial energy where artists, food geniuses, brainy folks of all stripes live and thrive.
I’ve got a cousin near Asheville whose in laws are farmers so I send my list of ingredients before I arrive, and she checks off what they can supply. Then, I check with my host, Barbra Love, who overturns the earth to find things like lardo, rabbit, home-cured bacon, lamb neck. We spend two days hunting and gathering, and then the fun begins as students arrive.
I’d planned an ambitious menu for these classes because half the students were returnees and I knew they’d be up for challenges. Included was couscous made the traditional way, where the grain is repeatedly rolled and steamed until it is fluffy, a perfect accompaniment to its traditional lamb and vegetable soup. There were Happy Toasts, lardo and chicken livers set on toasted bread with a gorgeous caper sauce poured overall, a recipe from Miss Lunch in Paris, that is destined for my new book Plat du Jour. And there were simple dishes like Chocolate Mousse (not just ANY chocolate mousse of course), and Impressionist Vegetables, direct from the pages ofFrench Grill.
As everyone cooks, I supervise, adjusting fingers on knife handles, urging good posture, correcting a cut that is too large or too small, prodding and poking to check textures and cooking times. We do tastings and sippings, a short field trip, a lot of discussion. In short, I try to pack as much as I can into three days.
This time we had a little accident, one I will recount time and time again I’m sure, in response to the inevitable question “What is the worst/funniest thing that has ever happened in a class?”
This was both. We were steaming couscous in a bamboo steamer after it had been carefully rubbed with butter and salted water two separate times. When the timer rang to remove it I stepped in, because the operation is delicate, involving steam and towels. I made sure everyone was standing back so I could pivot and set the steamer on the work surface behind me. Hands on the edges of the steamer, I pulled up, and the steamer bottom separated from the edges and fell down, down, down into the boiling water. Along with the couscous.
I am embarrassed to say that I let out an expletive, something I try not to do in a cooking class. But there it was, all that gorgeous couscous, in the water. Then we sprang into action and scooped as much of the couscous out of the water as we could. Some we decided to re-steam; the rest we kept hot. I was dying inside. I’d been so excited to teach the traditional way to prepare couscous, so thrilled to have them taste its fluffy buttery-ness.
The class proceeded, everyone laughing and chopping, sautéing and stirring. Only I was crumpled, hoping that the couscous would at least be edible.
The appetizers of grilled guacamole and melted red pepper tart were perfect. Then, there was the couscous moment of truth. The re-steamed couscous was a gloppy mess; that which had fallen in the water looked fine. So, we rubbed more butter into it and served it with the soup. Everyone loved it, and they weren’t just being polite.
The moral of the story? Don’t use a bamboo steamer for couscous, and if you do have to improvise, don’t re-steam anything. Just proceed as if all is normal, serve it all up, and you’ll have a great story to tell!
COUSCOUS SOUP - LA SOUPE DE COUSCOUS
ASTUCE: The best meat for couscous soup is lamb neck, which is wonderfully gelatinous, rather like oxtail or beef eye of round. You can use a mix of meats too, however, without adding any pork. Baking soda added to beans as they cook tenderizes them. Finally, you will notice that the carrots and the zucchini cook until they are soft, which is how they are meant to be. If you want your vegetables a bit more “al dente,” simply add them later on in the cooking time.
2-1/2kg;1250gpounds lean lamb or cow’s shoulder or neck
in; 2.25cmcutabout 3/4-inch pieces
5 6 oz.;180g eachmedium onions, diced,
1tablespoonscoarse sea salt
2tablespoons; 30gtomato paste
2 -1/4quarts (10 cups;2-1/4 liters)hot water
2poundscarrotscut in 1-inch (2.5cm) lengths, cut on a slight diagonal, 1 kg
1-1/2pounds; 750gturnipspeeled, trimmed and cut in quarters or 1-inch (2.5cm) pieces
inif the turnips are large
1-1/2pounds 750gzucchinirinsed, trimmed, and cut in 1-1/2 inch (4cm) lengths,,
cut on a slight diagonal
1-1/2pounds; 750gpotatoespeeled and cut in 1-1/2 inch (4cm) pieces,
Place the chickpeas in a pan and cover by 2 inches (5cm) with water. Add ½ teaspoon baking soda, stir, and bring the water to a boil. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let sit for 1 hour. Drain the chickpeas and cover them with fresh water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat so the water is boiling gently and cook until the chickpeas are nearly tender through, about 1 hour.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy kettle or saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the meat and brown it well on all sides, which will take about 9 minutes. Add the onions, stir so they are coated with oil, and cook until they are deep golden, about 10 minutes, then crumble the saffron over the mixture. Season it with the salt, stir, and 1 cup (250ml) of the hot water. Stir and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, to blend the ingredients and allow the saffron to soften. Add the tomato paste and the 2 quarts (2 liters) of hot water, bring to a boil, cover, and reduce the heat so the liquid is simmering merrily. Cook until the meat begins to turn tender, about 30 minutes.
Add the carrots and the chickpeas, bring to a boil covered, reduce the heat so the liquid is boiling gently and cook until the carrots resist slightly when tested with a sharp knife, about 15 minutes. Add all the remaining vegetables and cook until they are tender, about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning and remove from the heat. The soup is ready to serve, but will benefit from sitting for an hour or two and being reheated.
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STEAMING THE COUSCOUS GRAIN - LE FAÇON DE FAIRE LE COUSCOUS A LA VAPEUR
ASTUCE: Pay careful attention to these pearls of wisdom, as they will ensure perfect couscous:
*The directions urge you to proceed gently, so please do. As you use your fingers and palms, urge rather than rub the liquids and fats into the couscous, very lightly, very gently.
*It is very important that the couscous steams uncovered. If it steams covered, condensation falls from the cover onto the grain causing lumps and making it soggy.
*Wrap a towel around the seam of the steamer to make sure steam doesn’t escape into the atmosphere.
*If you do not have a couscous steamer, you may use a traditional, two-part steamer.
Pour the couscous into a large, shallow bowl or onto a work surface. Drizzle the olive oil over the couscous. Thoroughly blend the oil into the grain with your fingers and between your palms, gently rubbing and working until the oil is completely blended into the couscous.
Place 1-1/4 cups (310ml) of the water in a small bowl, add the salt and stir until it is dissolved. Sprinkle the salted water over the couscous 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, then work the water into the couscous with your fingers and palms as you did with the oil only even more gently, until the water disappears into and slightly softens the grain. Let the couscous sit for 10 minutes.
Prepare the couscous steamer by wrapping a wet cotton tea towel around the seam where the top and the bottom come together, to prevent steam from escaping. Bring the water in the bottom to a rolling boil, and place the couscous in the top of the couscous steamer. Steam, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Turn the steamed couscous out into a large shallow bowl or on a work surface and, using a wooden spoon, a plastic dough scraper, or your fingers (the couscous is very hot, so be careful) gently break up any clumps in the couscous without mashing it. At this point, if you do not plan to serve the couscous immediately, you may let it sit for several hours. If you plan to serve it soon, spread out the couscous slightly on the work surface, then sprinkle over it an additional 1-1/2 cups (375ml) hot water, 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time. Work it in using a wooden spoon and your fingers by lifting up the couscous and letting it fall through your fingers or from the bowl of the spoon. As soon as the couscous is cool enough for you to handle, work only with your fingers, handling the couscous very lightly until all the water is absorbed. The couscous should be inflated and feel slightly tender, though it will still be quite firm. Let it rest for 10 minutes. Check the cloth tied around the steamer - if it needs moistening, remove and moisten it, then re-tie it around the steamer. Return the couscous to the top of the steamer, bring the water in the steamer to a boil over medium high heat and steam the couscous for 30 minutes. Turn out the couscous into a shallow bowl or a work surface, add the remaining 1 cup (250ml) hot water 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, working it as before, and let it sit for 10 minutes. Return to the steamer to steam until the couscous is fluffy and tender, about 15 additional minutes.
Turn out the couscous into a large, shallow bowl or onto a work surface. Cut the butter into tablespoon-sized pieces atop the couscous. Gently work the butter into the couscous with your fingers and a wooden spoon, breaking up any lumps and urging the butter into the grain the same way you urged the oil and the water into it. When all the butter has been absorbed, transfer the couscous grain to a warmed shallow bowl and serve. If you have also prepared the Couscous Soup (see page xx), then transfer the meat and the vegetables, with the broth, to a large warmed serving bowl. Serve the couscous, then top it with meat, vegetables, and broth. Serve with harissa alongside.