With North African origins of about 2000 years ago, couscous has spread around the world – not so much in many forms but in many dishes. In Berber, the word couscous means well-formed or well rolled and it is an ingredient that has religious and spiritual significance. It is cooked at family celebrations such as weddings and is also eaten at the end of Ramadan. Its nutritional profile is minimal in protein and fibre, like pasta.
Couscous is made from the product of wheat milling known as semolina (not flour) that is crushed into small granules. It is an ingredient that is extremely versatile, quick and easy to cook and used in both sweet and savoury dishes. Although couscous is made most commonly from wheat, it is also found using millet, corn, sorghum and barley.
Traditionally, couscous would be handmade on a large flat plate where semolina is sprinkled lightly with salted water and plain flour. The mixture is rolled until the granules appear and is then sieved with dry flour to separate and obtain pellets of a similar size. This laborious process is repeated, and the couscous is then dried in the sun, stored or cooked.
Couscous in Morocco is usually steamed to be cooked in special pots known as a couscoussiers where stock or stews can be made in the bottom vessel while the couscous is steamed on top, allowing it to maintain a light and fluffy texture. It can also be mixed with water and oil prior to steaming and then intermittedly stirred over a period of time adding butter until the grains are fluffy and cooked. These days, instant couscous is conveniently available, and all is needed to cook it is right parts stock to granule, and an 8 – 10-minute wait.
Although it is not known exactly how and when it made its way to Tunisia, there is evidence around the 15th Century in the writings of Tunisian pilgrims, documenting a dish comprising of couscous, butter, beef and cabbage. From Tunisia, it journeyed to Spain by the Moors and also travelled to Sicily where it is commonly found as part of dishes on the west coast. It was either introduced to Sicily in the late 800’s or possibly in the latter part of the 15th Century.
Couscous dishes vary around the world. In Morocco, couscous is usually served with vegetables and a small amount of meat, in Tunisia they enjoy a spiced dish with fish, lamb or beef seasoned with harissa. Couscous is commonly prepared with chicken and chickpeas in Jordan and Syria. In Sicily, their couscous is a mixture of tomatoes, herbs and fresh seafood. They have embraced couscous wholeheartedly by celebrating a festival for it in San Vito Lo Capo every year.
I have journeyed back to Sicily again to create this wonderfully full flavoured seafood dish using all local seafood and vegetables. Trapani is known for their seafood couscous dishes and this is a little variation of it. The leftover broth can be added when serving this dish or you can simply freeze it and save it for another day. It is a fabulous communal dish that should be shared with friends and a delicious bottle of wine.
Serves 4 people
Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 1hr 30 minutes
150 mls extra virgin olive oil
10g flat leaf parsley leaves
1 tsp salt
10g/2-3 cloves garlic
Blend all ingredients together and season to taste. I like to keep the pesto a little bit chunky but you can blend until smooth if your hear desires. Set aside
FISH STOCK BROTH
4tblsp good olive oil
120g/1 small onion, roughly chopped
80g/1 stick celery, roughly chopped
100g/1 small carrot, roughly chopped
2-4 stalks of parsley (reserve the leaves)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp chilli flakes
100mls white wine
Seabass head and bones
Half of the prawn heads and shells
Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan
Cook onions until soft, add in parsley stalks, chopped celery, carrot, fish scraps and prawn shells
Add in bay leaves, salt, white wine, passata, chilli flakes and water
Bring this mixture to the boil and then allow it to simmer for a good 45mins – 1 hour, covered. Half way through the simmer, add half of the pesto. When the broth is done, check and taste for seasoning. Add a little cracked pepper.
Finely strain the stock and keep warm
300g fish stock broth
¼ tsp cinnamon powder
Mix the cinnamon powder through the couscous. Add it to the warm stock and cover for 8-10 minutes then fluff up nicely with a fork
400g seabass, whole
Chopped parsley leaves
Heat up 2 tablespoons of oil in a medium fry pan
Add in clams, fish and prawns with a dash of white wine, chopped parsley leaves and 150 mls of the stock. Toss and cover and allow to steam until clams have opened and the fish is cooked through.
Mix fish, shelled prawns and clams through the couscous and spoon onto a large serving plate.
Top the couscous off with the whole cooked prawns and the remaining pesto.