Couscous Tunisian style!
Tunisia is the home of couscous and harissa. The earliest form of couscous was actually millet grain. Wheat flour pasta that was formed into tiny millet grain shapes became more popular than millet for couscous in the last 400 years. The reason that pasta style couscous retained its millet shape or ball shape was in part by tradition. Couscous is scooped with fingers with the other ingredients and eaten without utensils.
Part of the reason that the pasta style couscous retained a small millet or small bead shape was due in part to the lifestyle of North African people. Beduin nomadic people travel by horseback and camel. That is not a smooth way to travel by. Long delicate pasta carried on the back of an animal would break apart and end up looking like couscous by the end of the day.
Another reason pasta style couscous has a small shape is because water is scarce in desert regions. An average Italian pasta takes over 8 minutes of cooking time in an excess of boiling water. Pasta style couscous can be cooked with just enough water to reconstitute the couscous in about 4 minutes. No water is wasted, when making couscous!
Tunisian couscous can be accompanied by a wide variety of vegetables and meats. Some are more traditional than others. Some tunisian couscous are only flavored with broth or spices. Most Tunisian couscous entrees do have varying amounts of harissa in the recipe. Some Tunisian couscous recipes feature the harissa and it becomes the main flavor of the couscous.
Harissa is a key ingredient in all North African cuisine. Traditional harissa paste is only made with varieties of paprika peppers and red bell peppers. Dried spicy peppers are usually added to an entree's recipe that already has harissa as an ingredient, only if a spicier flavor is desired. Spicy chile peppers are not usually added to the paprika peppers when making harissa.
By western standards, harissa tastes very mild, because those of us in the west have a high tolerance to hot chile peppers. In Arabic countries, a hot variety of paprika is considered to be very spicy.
Keep in mind that anybody that lives in a vast desert region does become more sensitive to the environment and they do develop a keener sense of smell. I have noticed this while spending days camping out in the Mojave desert. The sense of smell is directly related to the sense of taste.
Many Arabs take pride in being able to detect the odor of a wisp of smoke from several miles away, so you can imagine how keen a desert Arab's sense of taste must be. That is why varieties of paprika peppers are considered to be spicy in North Africa. Besides, water is precious and and those who travel by camel do not carry enough water to put out the fire from the ultra spicy flavor of a habanero chile pepper!
My Lebanese Syrian step grandfather sure had a big honker of a nose! When we were kids, we used to tease him about the size of his nose. He used to respond by saying "It is all the better for smelling what kind of trouble that you kids got into" and then stick his tongue out at us while making a silly face! Ha ha ha! The scary thing was, he was not kidding. He used to be able to tell where we had been and what we were up to, just by smelling the odors that we carried with us back into the house! We got in trouble many times, because of his keen Arabic sense of smell.
This recipe is a traditional Tunisian couscous entree. Potatoes are traditionally used. Fava, chickpea, lentil and several other beans are popular in Tunisian cuisine. They are all a healthy source of protein. I chose an easy to find sustainable fish for this recipe. Tilapia tastes nice in couscous and it is a whitefish.
If you are out in the middle of a desert with a limited water supply, then cook the potatoes in the same broth that the couscous will later be cooked in. That way no water is wasted!
Tunisian Harissa Couscous with Tilapia Recipe:
This couscous entree makes 1 large portion or 2 small portions!
Par boil 1 russet potato that is cut into 8 large wedges.
Cook the potato, till it is about 3/4 fully cooked.
Remove the potato from the hot water and set them aside.
Heat a saute pan over medium heat.
Add 1 small splash of blended olive oil.
Cut 4 to 6 ounces of tilapia filet into long wide strips.
Sear the tilapia strips on bot sides, till they become fully cooked and till light brown highlights appear.
Season with sea salt and black pepper.
Sprinkle 1 pinch of oregano over the tilapia.
Place the seared tilapia strips on a dish and keep them warm on a stove top.
Heat a sauce pot over medium heat.
Add 1 splash of olive oil.
Add 1 handful of thin sliced onion.
Saute till the onions turn clear in color.
Add 1 clove of minced garlic.
Add 1/2 teaspoon of minced ginger.
Add 1 jalapeno that is cut in half lengthwise.
Add 4 thick carrot sticks.
Saute till the vegetables start to cook.
Add 2 pinches of cumin.
Add 3 pinches of coriander.
Add 1 small pinch of saffron.
Add 3 pinches of turmeric.
Add 1 pinch of dried mint.
Add 1 pinch of oregano.
Add sea salt and black pepper.
Add 3 cups of chicken broth.
Add 1/2 cup of red lentils.
Gently boil, till the lentils start to become tender.
Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of tomato paste.
Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of harissa.
Stir the ingredients.
When the broth returns to a gentle simmer, add 1 1/2 cups of small traditional couscous.
Place the blanched potato wedges on top of the couscous.
Cover the pot with a lid.
Allow the couscous to boil and steam for 4 to 5 minutes. The couscous will absorb all the liquid in the pot quickly.
Remove the lid after the couscous is finished, so the steam escapes. (The aroma of couscous steam is like ringing the dinner bell in Arabic countries!)
Mound the couscous high on the center of a plate, but try to leave the vegetables in the pot.
Arrange the vegetables and reserved strips of warm seared tilapia around the mound of couscous, so the vegetables and fish point vertically from top to bottom.
Garnish the top of the mound of couscous with slices of Arabic pickled lemon and cilantro leaves.
Place cilantro leaves around the base of the couscous mound.
It is important to make a couscous entree look nice and to place the featured ingredients on the surface where they can be seen. Tunisian couscous is a special traditional social entree that brings smiles to hungry faces! Yum! ... Shawna