Foods like couscous, vanilla pods or Nutella might seem pretty mainstream to most people now, but there was a time when these food items were not so easy to find in my part of the world and one had to go very far to be introduced to them.
This is the story of how I discovered couscous.
My first close encounter with it occurred –like many other gastronomic discoveries, come to think of it– in Paris, almost 6 years ago.
At that moment in my life, I essentially felt I could and should try anything I wanted. My days were filled with activity. I spent my time attending daily intensive French courses at the Alliance Française. In the afternoon, I reserved sacred time for blatant Parisian flânerie and in the late evenings, I took Italian (Lessons were taught by a very handsome Giovanni, and a sophisticated Roman anthropologist, Anna, with whom I secretly wanted to be best friends). But I digress.
The cherry on the cake -and the point of telling you all this- is that by the end of my stay, I also decided to sign up for informal cooking classes chez madame françoise meunier… where the happy encounter took place.
There is a big chance nostalgia and time is making me idealize this, but bear with me, this is how I remember it: It was a crisp, beautiful April morning in Paris, and five very different people from all paths of life and continents gathered to get busy in Françoise’s sunny atelier to prepare together a luscious chicken tajine with buttery couscous.
Later that day, when we sat down around Mme Meunier’s rustic, rectangular table to taste the fruits of our labor, we took our first bites silently, closing our eyes as we savored a sample of maghrébine cuisine in a mouthful. Françoise had secretly (and wisely) dropped a silky, shiny lemon into the tajine. The lemon had been preserved in salt and lemon juice for over a month and, after a few minutes of simmering along the chicken and rich spices, it fell apart and impregnated our stew with an amazing and unexpected flavor.
But the real highlight for me was the couscous, as simple as it was. The tiny semolina pearls glistened with fresh farm butter and were perfectly seasoned –this is pretty much my idea of the perfect dish: very few ingredients, stupendous results.
Since then, I have made several incursions into the world of couscous. Although, to this day, my favorite way to prepare it is how i learned to do it with Françoise. Recently I spotted heaping bags of Israeli couscous alongside the “regular” couscous in my favorite natural foods store, and I couldn’t resist bringing home both and experimenting with them.
I dressed the fatter, Israeli couscous with a simple dressing and added cranberries, toasted almonds, chifonnades of mint and basil and fruity extra-virgin olive oil.
For the smaller-sized couscous, I spiced things up wtih minced ginger, garlic, lemon zest, smoked pimentón de la vera, cumin and coriander seeds to make a tasty crust for a lovely salmon filet. This was the result: