Saturday, November 04, 2006

Couscous Cool Down

Over the past two months, Northern Hemisphere food bloggers have been cooking and baking in time with the changing seasons, matching their menus to lingering balmy nights, the new chill in the air, and the first flakes of snow. They have artfully invoked the imagery, scents and flavours of fall, with their vanilla-scented cakes and nuts, warming soups, seasonal fresh produce and Thanksgiving preparations. While pretending there was a crisp fall breeze wafting in my window, I have vicariously joined in the autumnal festivities with my pumpkin fritters, and a soup or two. But today I must succumb to the reality of the weather in my little corner of the Southern Hemisphere.

It is hot, bloody hot. The sun is doing its best to suck away my last bit of energy and the afternoon humidity has induced a permanent state of sweat. It is well past lunchtime, and I refuse to cook. Or move very much.

My only option, and a welcome one it is, is to prepare my favorite couscous salad. This dish has only one heat-inducing step – boiling the water to pour over the dry couscous. After that, all you are required to do is whisk together a Mexican-spiced dressing spiked with lime, chop up some nectarines and a handful of spinach, and open up a can of chickpeas. The nectarine cools you off, the citrus wakes you up and the whole ensemble is light and invigorating.

Couscous is a staple food in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia – an area of the world where it likely has been eaten for more than 1,000 years. The dish may have been invented by Muslim Berbers in North Africa, or by people in West Africa who did, and still do, prepare couscous using millet. Typically, however, the tiny couscous granules are made from mixing, rolling and sieving a combination of semolina flour, salt, and water. They are then dried in the sun, cooked in a special steamer called a couscoussière, and served with meat, vegetables, or fish as a main or side dish, or with nuts, cinnamon and sugar as a dessert. The couscous we buy in boxes at the store is pre-steamed, which is why all we need to do is add hot water and let it re-hydrate for a few minutes. One day, one day, I will eat authentic couscous prepared in a couscoussière, even though I hear that you can never go back to the box variety again.

This couscous recipe has very little "African" about it, other than the African origin of the couscous itself. My friend Molly adapted this recipe from an unknown cookbook, and shared it with me exactly four years, two months and 10 days ago, according to the printed-out e-mail from her that I have carried with me to two countries. I have been making this couscous salad for picnics and brunches – and on sweltering hot days – ever since.

Couscous Salad with Nectarines and Chickpeas
Serves 6 as a side dish or light lunch

1 cup uncooked (dried) couscous
1¼ cups water
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1½ cups nectarines, coarsely chopped (about 3 medium)
¾ cup coarsely chopped spinach (I used Swiss chard this time)
1 can (15½ ounces) chickpeas, rinsed and drained
Lettuce leaves, for serving

Pour the couscous into a small bowl. Bring the water to a boil and pour it over the couscous. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a plate, and let it sit for at least five minutes. Fluff the couscous with a fork and let cool.

Whisk together the lime juice, olive oil, honey, salt, cumin and coriander in a large bowl. Add the couscous, nectarines, spinach and chickpeas. Toss well, and serve mounded on lettuce leaves.

1 comment:

Alanna said...

One of the things I really love about food blogs is that they give me such a sense of seasonality: and how much it varies, not just northern to southern hemispheres though of course that too, but even places in the US maybe a day's drive apart. Is there a 'Thanksgiving' in Zimbabwe?