Some years ago, I spent a few hours in a restaurant kitchen with a young chef called Omar Houmani who was a recent immigrant to Canada from Algeria. The purpose of that evening’s venture: To learn from him how to make couscous.
Standing at the stove in front of an improvised couscoussier – a cheap large saucepan bought in Chinatown in which he had pierced holes and placed tightly on top of a large stockpot – Omar explained how he was going to prepare the couscous. By boiling water in the stockpot, he would steam our couscous in the improvised steamer on top.
In a nutshell, he told me: “The quick couscous people make from the instructions on the package is nothing like couscous,” adding softly but firmly, “That is the wrong way.”
He then proceeded to cook the couscous the right way – twice. The result was absolutely delicious: tender but still al dente mouthfuls – not at all grainy as is the all too ubiquitous once-cooked couscous.
Here’s the recipe.
Couscous The Right Way
Serve with tagine, curry, stew or any dish that has lots of sauce. I spoon raisins or currants on top of couscous during second steaming and serve it garnished with toasted slivered almonds and chopped parsley.
3 cups couscous
1½ tsp kosher or sea salt
1½ tbsp olive oil
1½ cups warm water
Using hands, combine all ingredients in large bowl. Let sit about 15 minutes. Rub mixture gently but thoroughly with hands to separate grains. Transfer to top (steamer) section of couscoussier. Steam 30 minutes over boiling water or stock. Do not cover.
Return to bowl. Add 1 cup cold water. Stir well. Let sit 5 to 10 min. Break up any lumps with spoon. (Couscous can be made ahead up to this point.) Return to steamer; cook about 15 min. or until tender and fluffy.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
It’s not only couscous that’s an issue here. This is one of my big beefs about standard recipes and the ways most of us have learned to cook. The wrong way seems far too common.
And talking of beef, here is my version of pot roast – few ingredients, braised in the oven, so easy I know the recipe off by heart. And yes, done the right way.
Perfect Pot Roast
Use this as a guide – pot roast is a forgiving dish. Chuck is the ideal beef for this. I like to use parsnips; their sweetness counteracts the acidity of tomatoes. Using a hand blender to puree some of the sauce eliminates the need for a thickener. This is even better the next day.
About 1 tbsp vegetable oil
4 to 5-lb (2 kilo) pot roast, preferably chuck
2 onions, halved, sliced
2 to 3 parsnips or carrots, peeled, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 cup canned tomatoes, with juice
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup beef stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325F.
Heat oil in dutch oven or large heavy saucepan with lid over medium-heat. Add pot roast; cook until browned on top and bottom. Transfer to plate.
Reduce heat to medium; add onions and parsnips. Cook until nicely browned and beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Return pot roast to dutch oven. Add thyme, tomatoes, wine and stock. Bring to boil, cover and place in oven. Cook about 3 hours or until pot roast is tender. Taste sauce; add salt and pepper.
Transfer pot roast to cutting board; cut in thick slices. When sauce is cool, skim off fat. Using hand blender, puree about half of it. Serve at once or place pot roast and sauce in container with lid and chill. Reheat and serve with mashed potatoes, noodles, rice or couscous.
Makes about 6 servings.
Then there’s applesauce.
For years, I prepared this sweet and simple dish in a saucepan on top of the stove by adding water, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon. That’s the way prescribed by most recipes.
Read my lips: That is the wrong way. Apples are such a delicious, flavourful fruit, why in the world would you add water to them?
As famous Louisiana chef Paul Prud’homme once said on a visit to Toronto: “Water’s mission is to dilute.”
Here’s the way I make applesauce.
I like to use a combo of apples for variety in taste and texture, e.g. Macs, Ida Red, Cortland and Northern Spy work well. It’s best if some are sweet and others tart. Feel free to use whatever apples are on hand. They can be overripe and not in the best of shape. I bake them in an earthenware pot with a tight-fitting lid.
I taste the apples first and, if they seem a bit bland (fall is the best time to make this as apples tend to lose flavour when stored), I add the sugar and lemon juice. Mostly, I just add cinnamon. I taste it once cooled and add maple syrup and/or lemon juice if necessary.
Baked in the oven – without water – this sauce is basically pure apples.
About 10 apples (depending on size), peeled, cored, sliced
About 2 tsp cinnamon
About 2 rounded tbsp brown sugar (optional)
About 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice (optional)
Preheat oven to 400F.
In large bowl, toss apples with other ingredients. Place in ovenproof saucepan with lid, dutch oven or casserole with lid placed on a baking sheet to catch any juice. Bake about 1 hour or until apples are tender – I like them so some chunks are still al dente. Mash lightly with fork.
Serve with pork or as dessert with ice cream, chocolate sauce or chocolate chips, rice pudding etc.
Makes about 8 to 10 dessert servings.