Monday, 22 July 2013

Couscous royale

When I lived in Paris, every Wednesday night without fail Parisian Boy and I went to a nearby Tunisian restaurant to eat couscous with friends. We were often a large group of 10-12 in total and there would be good-natured arguments over what type of couscous to order. Invariably, because couscous is a communal way to eat, we'd settle on couscous royale because the platter of mixed meats offers something for everyone.

When the food arrived, there would be one huge platter of steamed couscous laced with chickpeas, another huge platter of grilled merguez, lamb chops, skewers of grilled beef and chicken pieces, and perhaps other meats, and a huge tureen of vegetable broth. These would be passed round the table, along with the pots of harissa to add some fire to the mix.

Despite having three distinct components, it's fairly quick and easy to make for one. It takes about 30 minutes in total. The couscous grain itself is the most filling component (it can swell up in the stomach!) so start with a small amount on the plate and top up if you're still hungry.

What you need:
2-3 merguez sausages
1-2 small, boned chicken thighs, skin off
Olive oil
1 onion
1 large carrot
1 courgette
2-3 baby aubergines
1 baby turnip
1 small pepper
1.5 tsp ras el hanout
1/2 litre boiling water
Harissa paste
Portion of couscous, about 75g dry weight

What to do:
First make the broth. Peel and quarter the onion, leaving the root intact. Peel the carrot and slice into thick 2cm rounds. Trim the stalks off the baby aubergines. Trim and quarter the baby turnip. Quarter and deseed the pepper. Cut the courgette into very thick 3-4cm rounds. Heat the oil in a deep pan on a medium hob. Add all the vegetables except the courgette and pepper and fry gently for a few minutes. Don't let the veg brown. Add the ras el hanout, stir through and fry for a minute then pour in the boiling water. Bring it just to the boil then turn down the heat and leave it to simmer for 30 minutes. Add the courgette and pepper halfway through.

Cook the meat. Rub the chicken thighs with a little oil and either grill them on the hob in a cast-iron grill pan or cook them under the grill of your oven. They need about 15 minutes. Turn halfway through. Grill the merguez for 10 minutes in the same pan, turning halfway through. Turn off the heat when cooked and keep warm.

Make the couscous. Boil the kettle again. Tip the dry couscous into a heatproof bowl and pour over just enough boiling water to cover it. Cover the bowl with a plate and leave it for 5 minutes to swell then fluff it up with a fork.

To dish up, pile the couscous into one side of a deep soup plate. Use a slotted spoon to take out the vegetables and pile them on the other side of the plate. Fill a ladle with the broth and stir in about 1/2 tsp of the harissa, then pour it over the veg. Pile the meat on top.
Cook's tips:
Harissa and ras el hanout are widely available in supermarkets. Finding merguez - a fresh, lamb-based, long and skinny sausage flavoured with paprika and harissa - is a little trickier. They sometimes turn up in the meat section in supermarkets, mainly in the summer barbecue season. I always buy them when I spot them, freezing the spare packs for later. You can buy them online too. If you can't get hold of any, grill a couple of small lamb chops instead.

Be flexible with the vegetables. It's traditional to use what's in season, so that could include chunks of squash, broad beans or green beans (haricots verts). If you are very hungry, you can add a spoonful of cooked chickpeas to the couscous grains (use the rest of the tin to make hummus).

If you have leftover couscous, you can use it up as the basis of a tabbouleh salad. I like to whiz any leftover vegetable broth in a blender to make a spicy and filling soup.