My first discovery of Moroccan food was in a small and colorful restaurant in my hometown in the South of France back in the seventies. It had such exotic colors and decorations! Fabric draped on the ceiling, lanterns, rugs… It was also the first time I tasted the fire of chilis! I remember it as if it was yesterday. There was a small shallow bowl of red paste on the table that was so bright and inviting that I had to taste it. That is before anyone could warn me of the impending danger that would ensue eating a whole spoonful! Turns out, harissa (Moroccan chili paste) is the ketchup or sriracha of North Africa and the Middle East! In my defense, it looked just like tomato paste, how was I supposed to know? It turns out that this unplanned initiation got me started on my journey of discovery into the world of spices!
It was also the first time I tasted authentic couscous. It was served in a special ceramic dish which I later learned is called a couscousière. It was so colorful and exotic! Couscous is a staple in the Northwest or Maghreb region of Africa which comprises Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mauritania. It is said to have been invented by Berbers, nomadic tribes as early as the 13 or 14th century.
Seven vegetable couscous is said to have originated in Casablanca. It is also called couscous Bidaoui, which is the Arabic name for Casablanca. It usually is served with an assortment of 7 vegetables but no worry, no one is counting so you have lots of flexibility in terms of what you can use! In Moroccan restaurants, you usually sit close to the floor on leather bean bags, there is a round table also low to the ground and everyone eats with their fingers (only use the right hand). You can use your left hand to pass dishes or pick up bread. You gather some couscous (it is fairly dry) and form a small ball and dip it in the stew. Obviously, with COVID, this may not be the safest way to eat!
What is couscous?
Couscous is both a stew and the “grain” that accompanies it. It looks like a grain but it is actually more like granular pasta because it is made with semolina flour (from durum wheat) mixed with water.
There are several types of couscous:
1. Moroccan (smallest)
2. Israeli or Pearl couscous (extruded pasta that has been toasted)
3. Lebanese (largest)
And if you can’t make up your mind, there is a fourth type called tri-colored couscous that is a mix of plain, spinach- and tomato-flavored couscous. It combines small and medium-size couscous! How about that! Look for it in the bulk section of grocery stores.
Instant couscous is often found in regular grocery stores. It has been precooked (steamed) and dried, so it only needs to be rehydrated with boiling water before eating it. It is very practical because it only takes a few minutes to be ready. However, if you have time and can find regular couscous, you will notice the difference in texture and flavor. Instant couscous yields somewhat dryer grains while steaming couscous takes longer but produces real fluffy grains.
How to cook couscous
If you use instant couscous, you just need to boil water or vegetable broth, add a little olive oil, some turmeric, the couscous, stir, cover, and remove from heat. Set aside for 10 minutes. No peeking! Uncover, fluff with a fork and it is ready.
If you are using regular couscous and want to make it really light and fluffy you need to steam it a few times. First, you drizzle some olive oil on it, then a little cold water, then you mix it with your fingers to make sure there are no lumps. Incorporate a cup of broth and mix again, then steam it. Remove from the steamer let it cool a little, then once again, using a spoon or your fingers, loosen the grain, then steam it again to get that amazing fluffy texture that will absorb the broth.
In terms of ratio, it is usually a 1:1, 1 cup of liquid to 1 cup of couscous. The liquid can be water or vegetable broth with a little olive oil.
There is a third way to cook couscous I call it the 1-pot approach. You panfry the vegetables with some oil and spices for a few minutes, then add the couscous and broth and simmer until everything is cooked. This is by far the simplest way to make couscous.
In Morocco, they use a couscousiere. It looks like a large double boiler. You simmer your stew in the bottom part and you steam the couscous on top. It is perfect as it infuses the couscous with the stew while it steams.
Traditional spices for couscous
A mix of freshly grated ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, sweet paprika (not smoked). You can also use caraway seeds, coriander, and chili pepper. It is nice to add some fresh herbs like parsley and cilantro right before serving. You will make a broth with these spices and that is what makes the couscous come together.
What vegetables should be used
As a minimum, you should have onions, carrots, zucchini, and chickpeas. But you could also add peppers, sweet potatoes, squash, turnips, cabbage, or pumpkin. You can roast them first or panfry them.
If you are interested in other Moroccan dishes, check our Chakchouka. It makes the best breakfast or lunch!
Traditional Seven Vegetable Couscous
- A glass or plastic container with a tight lid
- 2 cups couscous (instant or regular)
- 1 Tbsp vegetable oil (avocado or olive oil)
- 2.5 cups vegetable broth
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 large yellow or white onion
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 large carrot diced
- 1 large sweet potato peeled and diced
- 1 zucchini sliced
- 1 red pepper cut in strips
- 1 medium eggplant diced
- 2 celery stalks diced
- 2 cups cooked chickpeas
The seasoned broth
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 tsp cumin powder
- 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
- 1 tsp cinnamon powder
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 1 tbsp chili paste (optional)
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
- 1/2 cup slivered almonds (optional)
- olive oil
Prepare the vegetable stew
- Dice the onion, carrots, celery, eggplant and, sweet potato.
- Slice the zucchini, make red pepper strips.
- Add 1 tbsp of vegetable oil (avocado or olive) to a pan on medium heat, add the diced onion and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Pour 1 cup of seasoned broth over the onions to deglaze them and add the diced celery, carrots, sweet potatoes, and stir. Cook for 5 minutes covered.
- Add the eggplant, zucchini, mix and simmer for 20-30 minutes covered.
- Add the cooked chickpeas and mix them in the stew.
- Taste and adjust salt and spices as needed.
Prepare the broth
- Mix 1/2 cup of tomato sauce, 1 tsp cumin, 1tsp black pepper, 1 tsp freshly grated ginger, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tbsp chili paste, 2 cup vegetable broth.
Prepare the couscous
- Dry roast the 2 cups of couscous in a wide frying pan for 1-2 minutes on medium heat. Keep shaking the pan until the couscous gets a golden color. Turn off the heat.
- Bring the 2.5 cups of vegetable broth with 1 tbsp of olive oil and 1 tsp of turmeric powder to a boil.
- Add the couscous into the glass container and pour the boiled broth over it. Quickly mix the liquid and cover with the lid.
- Set aside for 10 minutes.
- Uncover, add a few tablespoons of vegan butter and fluff with a fork.
- Keep covered until you are ready to serve.
- Create a bed of couscous and add the stew on top.
- Garnish with some raisins, chopped cilantro and parsley, and extra broth if you have some.