An invitation for dinner in Marrakech, where hospitality is king, is a coveted one so dare I miss the chance. When I arrived, a tall, slender man with dark features wearing a djallabah, the traditional long cream-colored robe, meet my car. He guides me, with a gas lantern, down a long dark alley leading to Mohammed's home, tucked into the labyrinth of the old medina or historical center of town.
As the door opens, exotic music of flute and drum and the warm light of a thousand candles poured into the alley. The central courtyard opens to the clear night sky and gentle breeze stirred the date, palm and olive trees that grew towards the night stars and a million stars. And the fountain, the centerpiece of the courtyard, splash with the sound of water. Bouquets of roses, dwarf lemon trees dripping with fruit, and incense scent the air. Brightly painted iron work frame the windows, while the walls, floors and ceilings are ablaze with vibrant colored mosaic tiles. Arches open onto adjoining rooms filled with low, luxuriously colored bolsters, and ottomans covered with woven tapestries are scattered around, highly burnished brass trays balanced on carved wooden tripods.
It's here, that for the next several hours Mohammed and I share a traditional Moroccan feast including the most wonderful couscous I've ever eaten in my life.
COUSCOUS WITH SIX VEGETABLES AND SPICED HARISSA
1 cup dry chick-peas
4 cups couscous
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 chicken thighs, excess fat trimmed, about 3 to 3 1/2 lb.
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 large pinches saffron threads
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon ground cumin
4 large yellow onions, peeled and quartered
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
15 sprigs cilantro, tied together with kitchen string
4 cinnamon sticks
5 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, quartered
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1 to 2-inch lengths
1 pound turnip, scrubbed, cut into 1 to 2-inch pieces
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded removed and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 small zucchini, ends trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, halved
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sort through the chick-peas and discard any stones or debris. Place in a bowl, cover with plenty of water and soak overnight. The next day, drain, place the chick-peas in a large saucepan, cover with water and cook over medium heat uncovered until tender, 1 hour. Drain.
COUSCOUS STEP # 1 Place the couscous in a strainer and wash thoroughly with cold water. Spread the couscous in a large shallow roasting pan and let dry 10 minutes. With your fingertips, break up any lumps.
In the bottom of a couscousiere, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium high heat. Add the chicken thighs, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon pepper, 2 pinches of the saffron, turmeric, cumin, onions, garlic, cilantro, cinnamon sticks and tomatoes. Stir to mix. Cover and cook 5 minutes. Add the chick-peas and 6 cups water. Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer 30 minutes. Add the carrots and turnip and continue to simmer 30 minutes.
COUSCOUS STEP # 2 Place 2 pieces of cheesecloth on top of the couscousiere so that it comes up over sides. Place the couscous in the steamer and steam 20 minutes partially covered.
COUSCOUS STEP # 3 After 20 minutes, dump the couscous into a large shallow roasting pan and spread it out. Mix 3/4 cup cold water and 1 1/2 teaspoon salt together until the salt melts. Sprinkle this mixture over the couscous. Break up the lumps and allow it to dry 10 minutes.
COUSCOUS STEP # 4 Twenty-five minutes before serving, bring the broth to a gentle boil over medium heat. Add the butternut squash and jalapeno and simmer 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and stir gently. Add the couscous back into steamer and steam the couscous 20 minutes.
Mash 3 tablespoons of the remaining butter and the remaining 2 pinches saffron together. To serve, spread couscous on a large platter. Dot with butter and fluff with a fork to mix. Make a well in center and place vegetables and chicken in the center. Moisten the couscous with a few ladles of broth and garnish with chopped herbs. Serve immediately with the remaining broth and harissa sauce.
2 cups broth from the couscous pot
1 to 2 teaspoons prepared harissa
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Salt and freshly ground pepper
In a small saucepan combine all of the above ingredients. Over high heat, heat until the mixture is hot.
Makes about 2 cups