Couscous, in the summer, is a perfect match for tomatoes, feta, lemon juice and coriander. But in the winter I want what I think of as ‘French’ couscous: some lamb or chicken, cooked slowly in a spicy broth full of hearty vegetables. and served with the steamed grain. It is rare, if not impossible, to find the equivalent in Britain (please tell me if you know of anywhere!) where couscous tends to mean a thick, sauce-heavy stew, with maybe a few vegetables or dried fruits on the side. Some of my friends think it’s a bit weird that I always have it when I go to France: in a country full of much more exciting food it’s a bit like eating the ethnic equivalent of chicken tikka masala. But to me this is a dish that is central to France, just as that masala is central to Britain.
I have never made it properly, with the broth, at home until this week when I discovered that my current favourite book, Around My French Table, had a recipe for it. Cleverly I planned to cook it at my friend’s house; not so cleverly I took the ingredients but not the recipe. The rather made-up result, however, was just as authentic as I’d hoped. If you want a creamy and thick meaty stew, this isn’t for you; if you want a spicy and fragrant taste of the 10th arrondissement, or the streets of Marseille, then try this. It looks long but, in reality, it takes about an hour and it will beat all thoughts of cold December nights from your bones. And, if you’re me, teach you how to cook your first turnip…
Proper Chicken Couscous (adapted from Around My French Table)
For 2-3 portions you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have):
sea salt and black pepper
garlic, 2 cloves
unsalted butter, 1-2 tablespoons
onions, 2 medium
chicken stock/stock cube, made up to 500ml
ground ginger, ½ teaspoon
ground cumin, ½ teaspoon
ground turmeric, ½ teaspoon
ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon
saffron threads, a pinch
bone-in chicken pieces, 4-6 (depending on size and appetite) or half a small chicken (small to me is 1.4kg or so, so half would be about 700g)
celery, 2 sticks
half a can of chickpeas, drained
raisins and almonds, a handful of each (optional, to serve)
harissa, to serve (definitely not optional though!)
1. If you are using half a chicken, rather than chicken pieces, then cut it up first. You can find great instructions for this on the internet but, really, just look for the joints and cut through them (so legs become a couple of pieces, wings too) and cut the breast in half or three pieces.
2. Prep the vegetables: peel and finely chop the garlic; peel and top and tail the onions then quarter them; top and tail the leek, trim the celery (if necessary), top and tail and peel the carrot then cut all the long vegetables into chunks. Finally, peel the turnip and chop into big chunks.
3. Make up the stock (if necessary) then add the pinch of saffron to the liquid. Mix the ginger, cumin, turmeric and cinnamon together in a small bowl.
4. Put a large lidded casserole over a moderate heat and add the butter. Once it has melted, season the chicken pieces and cook them in the butter until they are just coloured all over.
5. Once coloured, remove from the pan then add the garlic and the spices (ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon) and stir to mix them into all the buttery juices at the bottom of the pan.
6. When the spices and juices are mixed together, pour in the chicken stock and saffron, return the chicken pieces to the casserole and bring to the boil.
7. Lower the heat to leave the liquid and chicken simmering gently then add the chopped onion, leek, celery, carrot and turnip. Cook for about 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are tender (this is not a dish for fashionable al dente) then add the courgette and chickpeas and cook for another five minutes or so until the courgette is tender too.
8. The chicken should now be done but, if not, and you don’t want your veg to turn to mush, just lift the vegetables out with a slotted spoon and leave to one side for a few more minutes whilst the chicken cooks.
9. At this point, make your couscous grain. My preferred method is to tip it into a large bowl, sprinkle over salt and olive oil and then add a good splash of boiling water to just cover it. I then leave it for about five minutes so that it can soak up the water, then fluff it with a fork. If it is still a bit crunchy, I then add a tad more water and keep repeating the process until it’s done. Just before serving I stir in a handful of flaked almonds and raisins.
10. Once the chicken is done, remove it from the broth and put it in separate bowls. Return the vegetables to the broth and reheat if necessary (shouldn’t be but you never know).
11. Serve everyone a bowl with pieces of chicken and hand round the grain, vegetables in broth and harissa separately. Just writing that makes me hungry for it all over again…