Monday, 29 October 2012

downton supper: pearl couscous casserole with preserved lemon & harissa

autumn in london has found itself suspended by a cold snap. outside the window of our flat a tree with yellow leaves sways gracefully in the wind. its grace is surprising as the winds are fairly strong and very cold, but it appears to be taking a stand for autumn saying it will not be hurried along. for me this is time to make casseroles or stews. such gentle cooking with spices and aromatics is good for the soul. it was only when i had finished cooking that i realised that the spectrum of yellow echoed the yellowing leaves outside. a garnish of roughly chopped parsley breathes freshness and is a reminder that the natural course of seasons will bring re-growth, even if it takes a while. 

this ‘kuskus’ casserole was thrown together at a whim and is inspired by a recipe for a tagine called ‘djej besla’ on saveur. since our return from paris i haven’t had the chance to do a proper grocery run but kitchen and freezer staples allowed me to make this. i always have a tube of harissa and some manner of pickles and preserves in the fridge. this is the time to use them to strengthen the base of a casserole. the addition of grains like couscous, spelt or rice are the comforting carbohydrate element because lets face it, there is nothing more pleasing in winter than that. you could use rice or even pasta like orzo. i used pearl couscous because its larger and rotund grain adds more interest than fine grain couscous. it also compliments the tagine-esque profile of this casserole. there are many incarnations of this grain – the italians have a version called fregula, the israeli’s ptitim or the lebanese, jordanian and palestinian matfoul or moghrabia. i bought mine from a local store that stocks the turkish kind known as kuskus. the common thread for all of these is that they are made with semolina and are shaped like tiny globes. i would have much preferred to use chicken on the bone but o’s insistence on bowl-food for downton abbey necessitates the compromise. 

{m’s kuskus casserole with preserved lemons and harissa} 

four tablespoons olive oil 
two large onions cut into medium wedges 
a pinch of saffron 
three fat cloves of garlic, thinly sliced 
two teaspoons cumin seeds 
one teaspoon paprika 
one teaspoon salt 
half a teaspoon turmeric 
four hundred grams diced boneless chicken 
two and half cups water 
two preserved lemons, cut into strips 
a drizzle of honey 
two tablespoons tomato paste 
quarter cup harissa paste 
three quarter cup pearl couscous 
quarter cup raisins 
flat leaf parsley to garnish 

use a large casserole or heavy bottomed pan to cook. put the olive oil, onions and saffron in the casserole and place on medium heat. give them a swirl with a wooden spoon making sure that they are coated with the oil. the onions should soften but not catch any colour (around fifteen minutes). when they start to soften add the garlic. continue to cook on low heat until the garlic softens as well (around five minutes). 

in the meantime roughly crush the cumin seeds using a pestle and mortar. add these along with the paprika, salt and turmeric to the onions. now turn up the heat and add the chicken. fry the chicken until its seared on the outside. add the water, along with the preserved lemon, tomato and harissa paste. bring the contents of the pan to a boil before adding the couscous and raisins. 

stir through before lowering the heat to the lowest setting. cover the pan with a tight fitting lid. the beads of couscous will plump up with the liquid giving the casserole a creamy consistency, quite similar to risotto. 

garnish with chopped flat leaf parsley before serving in bowls. 

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