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Couscous Me, It's Summer

June 24, 1993|MICHAEL ROBERTS

I love cooking out of doors in the summer and am always looking for alternatives to the traditional grilled steaks or barbecued chickens that we most often prepare. For this reason, the Moroccan dish couscous is a summer favorite of mine.

Couscous refers to both the dish and the grain product that is at its core. The basic components are a rich, somewhat spicy broth full of vegetables; steamed couscous; accompaniments of garbanzos and golden raisins, the fiery condiment called harissa and a platter of either grilled lamb, chicken, merguez sausages or a melange of the three.

In Morocco, couscous with broth and vegetables is the core of the diet--in some dialects, the word for couscous is simply the word that means food--and couscous appears at nearly every meal. The addition of meats or poultry makes the dish special.

The couscous we buy in this country is a grain-shaped semolina product with a nutty flavor and a light, fluffy texture when cooked. It's actually a sort of small soup pasta. In North Africa, though, they make couscous grains from the flour of any grain they happen to have, such as barley or corn--even ground chestnuts.

Although many shops, mostly health food emporiums, carry both fine- and coarse-grain couscous, you'll most likely find the quick-cooking variety in the market. I prefer the more finely textured one.

Traditionally, couscous is prepared in a special pot called, appropriately enough, a couscoussiere --basically a large steamer. The broth and vegetables simmer in the larger bottom pot and the couscous itself steams in the upper chamber. The meat is either cooked with the vegetables or marinated overnight and grilled. Garbanzos and raisins may be cooked separately and served, along with the harissa paste, separately.

This is a wonderful way to add variety to a summer meal cooked outside over coals. Everything but the meat can be prepared before the heat of the day chases us out of our kitchens, and the meat is grilled out of doors when it's time to get dinner on the table.

All the elements of the dinner are presented separately. However exotic the dish may seem to the uninitiated, the effect is one of an unorganized, friendly feast. This truly is a perfect summer evening dinner for either family or entertaining.

MOROCCAN MIXED GRILL 2 pounds chicken pieces 2 pounds lamb stew meat, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces 4 to 6 merguez (North African-style spicy lamb sausages) or Mexican chorizo sausages 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 cup white wine 2 tablespoons olive oil Moroccan Broth and Vegetables Harissa

One day before serving, place chicken, lamb and sausages in large bowl or glass baking dish. Sprinkle with cumin, cinnamon and cayenne. Add wine and oil and mix to cover meat. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Start grill. When gas or charcoal is hot, remove meat from marinade and place chicken and lamb on grill. Grill 15 to 20 minutes, turning meat once. (If chicken pieces have bones, cooking time may be longer.) Add sausages to grill 7 minutes before chicken and lamb are completely cooked. Place grilled meats on platter.

Place Moroccan Broth and Vegetables in serving dishes. Place grilled meats on platter.

To serve, place couscous in individual soup bowls, top with meat and vegetables and moisten with broth. Serve Harissa, golden raisins and garbanzos on side. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Moroccan Broth and Vegetables 1 tablespoon olive oil 2 medium onions, coarsely chopped 3 celery stalks, sliced 2 medium carrots, sliced 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1 to 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin 2 chicken feet, optional 2 quarts cold water 2 bay leaves 2 cloves 1 1/2 to 2 cups couscous 2 medium potatoes, peeled and quartered 2 medium turnips, peeled and quartered 2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch-thick slices 2 medium zucchini, cut into 1-inch-thick slices 1/4 cup golden raisins 1 can garbanzos 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Heat oil in pan over medium-high heat. Add onions, celery, carrots, tomato paste, salt, cayenne, cumin and optional chicken feet. Cook, stirring, until onions are tender, about 6 minutes. Add water, bay leaves and cloves. Cover pan and bring to boil.

Meanwhile, line colander with damp kitchen cloth and add couscous. When liquid begins to boil, place colander over liquid. Cover and cook 30 minutes. Remove colander of couscous. Strain broth. Discard vegetables and chicken feet. Reserve 1/4 cup broth and replace remainder in pan. Place pan over medium heat and add potatoes, turnips and carrots. Replace colander with couscous and cook 10 minutes. Add zucchini to vegetable mixture and cook until vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile combine raisins with reserved 1/4 cup broth in small pan. Place over low heat and cook until raisins are plump, about 10 minutes. Transfer to small serving dish.

Heat garbanzos with liquid in small pan. Drain and transfer to separate small serving dish.

Place vegetables in bowl. Pour broth into soup tureen. Place couscous in separate serving dish and sprinkle lightly with ground cinnamon.

Harissa 1/4 cup red pepper flakes 2 tablespoons minced garlic 1 teaspoon ground cumin 1/4 cup water 1/4 cup olive oil Salt

Place red pepper flakes, garlic, cumin, water, olive oil and salt to taste in small pan and set over medium heat. Cook until most of water evaporates, about 6 to 7 minutes. Cool.

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