I am pleased to announce that I am now a couscous maker! What a feeling, something I had been striving to accomplish since the first time I tasted fresh couscous and realized what an incredible food it is.
Like many things that have been made for so many generations and across so many countries; couscous is best when made-by-hand, using simple techniques and with love – of course. It was great learning this craft from Udi’s Aunt Toni. The icing on the cake was that it became a whole day of learning traditional Egyptian dishes that were passed down to her from her mother, Udi’s grandmother Klemi, who left Egypt with her husband and children in 1949 for a better life in Israel.
As Udi’s father describes it, they arrived to a camp set up for immigrants that had virtually no amenities. Crowded, without even the barest of conveniences, they ate basic food for many years, waiting on long lines for a couple of eggs and chicken once in a blue moon. A real treat for Udi’s father would often be a piece of bread slathered with American butter (they weren’t yet producing local butter, so American butter was imported to Israel instead) and white sugar. Today he describes this simple snack as if it were the fanciest pastry money could buy.
After many years like this, moving from camps into cramped apartments, the family was able to get back on their feet. Klemi, or Nona, as Udi and the rest of the grandkids referred to her, was, I am told an incredible cook. Her ability to put food on the table was seen as a feat of sorts. Considering how much food Udi’s mother churns out every Friday I’m amazed that they would consider Nona’s dinners to be even more over the top. This woman must have been something else in the kitchen.
This past Saturday we gathered at Udi’s parent’s house with Aunt Toni to embark on a history lesson. While learning handmade couscous was my main interest of the day, we were fortunate enough to also be given the secrets to the soup that pairs with it, full of soft chunks of meat and gigantic root vegetables. Not to mention the artichoke hearts stuffed with meatballs and Udi’s favorite, Egyptian potato salad.
In the end, it was more than just a lesson in cooking. As more members of Ud’s family arrived, Aunts, Uncles, nephews, they looked at what was being made in the kitchen as a treat for them, too. Remembering Nona’s food and the pleasure they took in eating it brought a bit of something to everyone there, even those of us who had never met her.
This is Udi’s Father, “pretending” to cook for a -. While he is a big supporter of eating this food, the lessons of Nona were not passed down to him. His claim to fame in the kitchen : Campari and soda, and fruit salad.
In order to create the individual grains of couscous, you must run it through a sieve twice.
By running your hand across the surface of the sieve you are able to force any clumps of couscous to break down into tiny feather light grains.
This traditional Egyptian soup has curative powers, I’m sure of it. It’s richness comes from the fact that the meat cooks for two hours over a slow fire before any of the remaining ingredients get added. Thus, allowing the meat to become tender and soft while the root vegetables remain whole. The broth is hit with ample amounts of tomato paste for tang and flavor as well as turmeric for color and taste.
Udi’s mother was off the hook for the day. While she is usually cooking to feed the many mouths that come to her every friday, this was a day for her to enjoy us doing the cooking!
We enjoyed our late lunch at one big table – sharing family history, and reaffirming the fact that sharing food, especially the food we grew up eating, is one of the most personal ways to offer a piece of yourself. It creates conversation, an opportunity to ask questions; about their childhood, their family heritage, the country where they came from, the people who taught them how to cook, those who taught them how to eat. It is an exercise of the utmost importance. That is, to sit around the table over home-cooked food and get to know each other a little better.
After dinner, and after photographing food all day, Udi’s nephews became especially interested in my camera and tripod. We showed them the basics of how to take photos on DSLR and what follows is a great example of how kids are the best artists in the world. Fact.
Couscous – taught by Aunt Tony
1 kilo semolina flour
1 tablespoon sea salt
5 cups of room temperature water (distributed over a few steps)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (just not olive oil)
double boiler pot with steamer bottom
Start by placing your semolina in a large bowl with salt. Stir with your hands. Add to the bowl 1 cup of water and distribute it with your fingers. Add your oil, and mix in using your hands. You want the water and oil to coat the semolina causing it to clump in places. This is good.
Run the mixture through a couscous sieve (as seen in photos) and collect contents in a large bowl below. The best method seems to be to place a couple of spoonfuls on your sieve and then run your hand flat over it forcing the clumps to push through the holes creating granules in the bowl below. At this first stage it will already look like couscous.
Now place the contents into the pot of your double boiler. Make sure your bottom pot is filled halfway with water and is at a high boil. Cover your couscous pot with a dish towel and cover with a tight-fitting lid if possible. Allow this to steam for 1/2 an hour untouched.
After 1/2 an hour, carefully remove the lid (steam hurts!). Fluff up the couscous with a spoon and then add 2 more cups of water. Stir to combine and place back on the double boiler with a cloth and lid for an additional 1/2 an hour.
Remove from the fire and fluff up the couscous with a spoon. Then, stir in 2 more cups of water. It will clump up again while it is absorbing the water. Allow the couscous to sit for a few minutes in order to cool down.
Then run the entire batch through the sieve again.
Once you pushed all of the couscous through the sieve it is ready to be eaten! It should be light, nutty in flavor, a tiny bit salty and if you did everything right it should pair perfectly with stew or in this case, the traditional Egyptian soup full of meat and carrots.