With couscous, a chef’s patience pays off
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NEW YORK, April 5 — Coaxing dry, coarse semolina into soft, fluffy couscous is a marathon, not a sprint. This explains why so many cooks use the instant variety; making fresh couscous from scratch requires a patience for repetition — hand-rolling, sifting, steaming — and attention to the minute changes in the flour’s temperament.
As in any race, the start is crucial. Too much water, introduced too quickly, and the grains will stick together, turning to mush instead of tender clusters. Some cooks spritz the flour as they would a rare and delicate orchid, but chef Einat Admony, who owns several restaurants in New York, doesn’t bother with all that.
“I like to have the feel of it in my hands,” she said in the kitchen of her NoLIta restaurant, Balaboosta.
Admony poured a cup of water over her fist and let it run into a large bowl of flour. She spread her fingers apart and expertly combed through the damp semolina, rubbing the flour in her hands to encourage gritty clumps, spinning her palms around the sides of the bowl and winding her way to the center.
In September, Admony plans to open Kish-Kash, a West Village restaurant that will specialize in fresh couscous.
There will be a communal table and counter service at lunchtime. The couscous will be served with a variety of dishes inspired by the foods of Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. “I want it to feel like Shabbat at my house,” said Admony, 45, who grew up just outside Tel Aviv with her Iranian mother and Yemeni father.
For now, every Tuesday is couscous night at Balaboosta, one of the few places in New York serving couscous made from scratch.
It comes in a pile, pale and airy, with pickles and condiments, next to Tripoli-style fish shimmering with preserved lemon and harissa, or tender mafroum. Admony makes mafroum, a North African specialty, by stuffing potatoes with beef and herbs, frying the packages and braising them in a rich tomato sauce, tingling with cinnamon.
“Mafroum is very old-school,” she said, “and couscous with mafroum is my favorite food in the world. It’s my craving.”
Unlike both Israeli couscous, a small pasta that Admony does not consider to be couscous at all, and Moroccan couscous, which is traditionally steamed over a meaty broth, Admony’s couscous is steamed with plain water.
“When it’s perfect, it’s so delicious you can even eat it plain,” she said.
When Admony was 8, she helped with kitchen tasks at home: picking small stones from an aluminum tray of nigella seeds, or white pith from pomegranate seeds. And she learned the basics of making fresh couscous from a Moroccan neighbor in her three-story apartment building.
Even in homes where couscous is hand-rolled, the dish is still considered a rare treat, Admony said, and because of the labor-intensive process, it is hardly ever made from scratch in restaurants.
In the tiny kitchen at Balaboosta, Admony took up more handfuls of wet semolina. She slid her palms together as if she were washing them under running water, letting the flour fall back into the bowl in clumps. Working in batches, she pushed these clumps through a wide-meshed sieve. (Any large, doughy pieces left behind would be fried for a family meal.)
What she packed into the steamer did look like couscous, but it was not there yet. The grains were still small and they needed to swell with more moisture. She steamed her first round for a half-hour, before tipping the hot semolina back into a large bowl so the starch could cool and rest.
Then she mixed in more water, passed the mass through the sieve and steamed it a second time. Couscous-making techniques vary from home to home, and while some cooks may pass the semolina through the strainer only once, others repeat the process three times for an airy, even grain.
But after two rounds of steaming, Admony ran her hands through the warm, tender couscous and declared it ready.
She leaned over the bowl to breathe in the rising steam. “I love it exactly like this.”
Yield: 6 Servings
Time: 75 Minutes
2 ¾ cups Bob’s Red Mill or other semolina flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
1/3 cup canola, soybean or vegetable oil
2 cups water, beef or chicken broth
1. Put the semolina in a large mixing bowl. Place ½ cup water in a sprayer and use it to moisten the semolina. Begin by spraying the surface, stirring the mixture with your hand, pressing down and moving the palm in a circular motion. It is better to have too little moisture than too much because you don’t want to create a dough. Continue to spray and mix until water is evenly incorporated into the semolina; it should form tiny granules without clumping, and not all the water may be needed.
2. At this point, depending on the texture of the mixture, you may want to sift it for uniformity and to remove any small clumps. To sift it, shake the moistened semolina through a strainer or colander with holes about 1/8 inch in diameter (better slightly larger than smaller) and into another bowl. After most of it has passed through, stir to continue to pass it through, then press to pass as much as possible. There may be a small amount of doughy mixture that won’t go through the strainer — as much as 1/3 cup — and this may be discarded.
3. Prepare a couscoussiere or steamer by adding 4 to 5 inches of water to the bottom, and bring it to a boil. Add the semolina and steam uncovered for 10 minutes, mixing about every 30 seconds to prevent clumping; after 10 minutes, the mixture won’t clump any more. Cover, and continue to steam for another 30 minutes, stirring about every 10 minutes.
4. Transfer the couscous to a bowl, sprinkle with salt, and drizzle with oil. Stir gently with a fork. The couscous may be covered and refrigerated at this point for up to three days.
5. To serve, bring 2 cups of water or broth to a boil, and set aside. Steam the couscous one more time, covered, over boiling water, for another 15 to 20 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and add 1 to 2 cups of the liquid so it is moist but not wet. Fluff, and serve immediately, or if desired, pass once more through a large-holed sieve or colander. It may be cooled and refrigerated for up to three days; reheat by steaming. — The New York Times