Sunday, March 23, 2008

Couscous with Lamb (Kaskasu bi'l-Lahm)

In Algeria, there are a wealth of terms for a variety of hard wheat products or prepared dishes, in the form of couscous or not. Fine semolina is also used for making baghrir and ghrayf, a crêpe made with yeast, butter, and sugar and one made with melted butter and eggs, respectively. Algerians also have different names for different couscous dishes such as bufawar or burkukis, a little semolina ball that’s actually a large couscous and which is identical to muhammas, maghribiyya, and the so-called Israeli couscous (which is not Israeli, but a marketing name made up by an Israeli firm). Among black Africans of southern Algeria, these large couscous grains are called barbusha. Bazin is a dough made from fine hard wheat semolina or barley, similar to the Tunisian dish except it is not leavened. Diyul, trid, and rishta are various terms for a variety of semolina pastry doughs or pasta secca. Shakhshukha al-Bisakra is the name of a lasagne dough made from fine semolina, water, and salt. Dashisha farik is a soup made of semolina of hard wheat and farik (also freekeh in the Levant) a green wheat. There are several preparations known as dashisha, usually a kind of soup. The famous harira, a semolina soup eaten during Ramadan is also found in Algeria. Dishes that carry the descriptive shatitha are preparations highly spiced with hot red pepper.

The Algerian style of couscous, in its simplest form, is made of fine and medium semolina steamed over water and mixed with melted butter or samna (clarified butter). Algerians make couscous a little bit differently from Tunisians. Tunisians like medium-size grains of couscous and Algerians prefer them fine. The Algerians mix butter and cinnamon into the couscous while Tunisians, especially Jewish cooks, might use olive oil. The couscous is steamed two or three times and butter and cinnamon are rolled into it each time.

There are also big differences between the prepared couscous of northern Algeria and among the peoples of the Ahaggar in southern Algeria. In the Ahaggar, they often make couscous with a mixture of soft wheat, rye, and barley, while in the north it is strictly semolina of hard wheat. The couscous of northern Algeria is often called ta’am (literally meaning “food,” showing the importance of couscous in daily life), a term rarely used in southern Algeria.

This recipe for couscous came about in a somewhat strange way. In the early 1990s, I was forced to cancel my research trip to Algeria previously organized by my friend Nacim Zeghlache, owing to political turmoil. In its place Nacim had the idea of concocting an Algerian gastronomic feast with authentic dishes to be cooked at my house. In my kitchen, Nacim, who is from Sétif, got together with another Algerian, Abdou Ouahab, who is from Tlemcen. Both men are very good cooks, which at first glance might seem strange for Muslim men. But it is easily and amusingly explained. Many Muslim men came to America originally for university studies, and they so missed their mothers’ cooking that they learned to cook by telephone--one hand on the frying pan and the other long-distance to mom. Little did I realize how different and contested the making of couscous is even within Algeria

When he was growing up, Nacim’s family kept three rooms for the making of couscous grains. The family’s favorite kind of wheat for couscous was white wheat formed into minuscule grains of couscous, although Nacim’s father, and the older generation in general, prefer the whole wheat couscous. Nacim and Abdou made the couscous with my writing notes and refereeing as the two cooks constantly fought over the right way to make it. So, is this couscous from Sétif or Tlemcen? It’s a compromise that will make you very happy, if the same cannot be said for my Algerian friends.

Before proceeding, read about preparing couscous.

Yield: Makes 12 servings
Preparation Time: 5 hours in all


9 cups raw couscous (about 4 1/2 pounds)
2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups lightly salted warm water
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium-large onions (about 1 pound), peeled and grated
4 pounds lamb with bone in from the shoulder, ribs, and shank, trimmed of fat and cut into large chunks
3 large garlic cloves, grated or very finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and crushed
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 quarts cold water
2 cups dried chickpeas (about 1 pound), picked over, soaked in water to cover overnight, and drained
1 pound turnip, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
4 large carrots, quartered lengthwise and sliced 1 inch thick
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed and sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 medium-size zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced 1 inch thick
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon harisa (optional) per diner


1. Place half the couscous on a platter or earthenware dish with shallow sides. (You could also use a large aluminum roasting pan, the kind you would use to roast a turkey.) Spread the couscous around and begin moistening with the warm salted water a little at a time until all of the water is used. Do not pour the water in all at once. Every time you add water rub it into the grains, breaking up any lumps. You may or may not need all of the salted water. Use up to 1 cup at first, working the grains with your fingers to separate and moisten them evenly. Work in a circular, rotating motion, constantly raking and forming them into small marble shapes of soft dough. Rake with one hand and, with the other rub them into smaller pellets about 3 millimeters in diameter. If the mixture becomes too wet, add a little dry couscous and start again. Continue in this manner, adding more couscous and water, until all the grains are moistened. The couscous should be evenly wet, not soggy, and even-sized. If necessary, shake the couscous through a large-holed, flat, and high-sided sieve, breaking up large pellets with one hand. You may want to sieve two or three times to make sure that each pellet is individual, although the same can be achieved by properly raking and rubbing with your fingers.

2. Arrange the couscous on a large white dish towel or a section of a sheet and dry for 1 to 2 hours (depending on the humidity in the air). Using your fingers, brush the little pellets of semolina with some olive oil so they are all coated. Cut a piece of cheesecloth and with it cover the holes on the bottom of the couscoussière and up the sides. The cheesecloth is not used to keep the couscous from falling through--it won’t--but to facilitate transferring it during the several drying processes. Transfer the couscous to the top portion of the couscoussière. Set aside until needed.

3. In the bottom of the couscoussière, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook the onions until soft and golden, 10 to 12 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the lamb and brown on all sides for 15 minutes. Add the garlic, tomatoes, cayenne, salt, and pepper and mix well. Pour in the cold water and drained chickpeas, bring to a boil over high heat, and add the turnip. Reduce the heat a little to medium-high, so that the top of the bubbling broth is about 1 inch below the rim of the pot. After 20 minutes, add the carrots and keep at a boil. Add the green beans and zucchini 20 minutes after you put the carrots in.

4. Place the top part of the couscoussière on top of the bottom vessel. You do not need to cover it. Seal the two together with a rope made of flour and water (called the qufila in Arabic). Mix 1/2 cup flour together with enough water to roll it out as you would play dough. (Some couscoussière fit tight enough so that you need not make a seal. If you have improvised a couscoussière with a pot and a colander, then you should make the seal.) You may have to steam the couscous in two batches. Steam for 50 minutes and then remove to an aluminum roasting pan and rub together with your hands, breaking up lumps, so all the grains are separate.

5. Return the couscous to the couscoussière to cook until the couscous is tender, another 50 minutes, adding water to the broth if you feel it is too thick and evaporated. Repeat the rubbing process again and for every batch you need to cook. At this point the lamb should be tender, almost falling off the bone. Turn the heat off, check the seasoning, and leave the broth in the pot.

6. Transfer the couscous to the aluminum pan and fold the butter into the couscous. Once the butter is melted, rub all the couscous together between the palms of your hands until everything is glistening. Mound the couscous attractively in a large serving bowl or platter. When diners serve themselves, have each person place three ladlefuls of couscous into a bowl. Top with meat and vegetables and two to three ladlefuls of broth. Add a teaspoon of harisa if desired and let the bowl sit to absorb some broth before eating. In Tlemcen they like their couscous to be swimming in broth.

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