by Leslie Brenner | photographs by Manny Rodriguez
The first hint of autumn’s chill sends me straight to the kitchen — a sort of paradise for a restaurant critic who loves to cook and doesn’t often get the chance. For entertaining friends, a Moroccan couscous is just the thing — exotic, aromatic, relaxed, just right for the season. I get to spend a long, lazy afternoon cooking: making harissa (the fiery chile paste that will get stirred into the simmering stew and drizzled on finished plates), steaming the couscous grains and working them through fingers again and again (tactile, therapeutic), poaching pears and prunes for a laid-back dessert. The kitchen is gorgeously scented with spices.
At 5 or 6, things start going into the stockpot: lamb shanks, chicken, chickpeas, water; then there’s careful skimming. Next onions, carrots, a spoonful of harissa, a big pinch of saffron, a dose of cinnamon. Later I’ll add big chunks of turnip, more carrots, zucchini, tomatoes, roasted red peppers, a bunch of cilantro. After the couscous gets steamed a last time, there’s not much to do last-minute but sip glasses of sparkling Vouvray with arriving pals, nibble olives and almonds and grill some merguez, the lamb sausages that will be the dish’s crowning touch. Now I moisten the couscous grains with broth and rake them through fingers as my friends flip through Paula Wolfert’s dreamy cookbook, The Food of Morocco. That’s where I’ve found the dessert and a couple of simple salads to start: cucumbers with fresh oregano and cured black olives; sliced oranges with radishes, orange-flower water and mint.
Candles flicker, wineglasses are filled with red. The platter of couscous — meats and vegetables arranged atop the mountain of fluffy grains — is passed around, followed by harissa, served in the mortar
used to grind the caraway and coriander that give it its lovely scent. Then a saucier filled with the savory broth. Take some harissa in your soup spoon, stir in some broth, drizzle it all over the couscous heaped in your plate. A toast to friends — and to autumn, my favorite season.
And then we all dive in.
LESLIE BRENNER is the restaurant critic and dining editor for The Dallas Morning News. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/lesbren or facebook.com/leslie.brenner.