Couscous with Chickpeas, Mint & Harissa

September 26, 2012

Just because you do not take an interest in politics does not mean politics will not take an interest in you.

Ancient, mystical lands ever praised for mesmerizing skies, colorful souks (markets) and seductively rugged landscapes, just became critically strategic. Morocco is seen in the West as a bulwark against the threat of instability from the terrorism and violent fundamentalism spreading throughout North Africa. Faced with the challenges posed by the Arab Spring, King Mohammed VI adroitly negotiated and then held a constitutional referendum on political reforms which was soon followed by multiparty elections. One of Washington’s closest allies in the region, the State Department has now been working feverishly to cement relationships with this land of contrast since the recent appalling deaths of four members of the embassy staff in Libya. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has even praised Morocco as a “leader and a model” in the region.

Threats from Mali after the northern half of the nearby central African state fell under the control of militant, radical concerns have now been coupled with the perceived peril posed by Al-Qaeda affiliates in the Maghreb. The assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Libya, the almost sudden revolutions that toppled leaders elsewhere (including Hosni Mubarak, the former leader of Egypt who was a long-time U.S. ally), the seemingly unending strife in Syria, and the profound uncertainties in Tunisia, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, the region just seems ablaze. The kingdom of Morocco seems a haven of sorts from intolerance and could emerge as a crucial partner there. This makes some sense given recent events and because historically Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence in 1777.

So, on to a memorable Moroccan staple, past and present. Praiseworthy stuff. Couscous should be light and fluffy, not gummy. So, allow the grains to absorb the liquid.


1 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1/2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t caraway seeds, toasted and ground

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
Sea salt, to taste
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 T turmeric
1 T pimenton agridulce
Pinch of cayenne pepper

2 C chickpeas, soaked in water overnight and drained
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt water, warmed
Bouquet garni of parsley and cilantro, tied with twine

1 T tomato paste
2 T harissa, plus more for serving

2 C couscous
1 T extra virgin olive oil
1 C stock (reserved)
1 1/2 C water
1/4 C dried currants, plumped in warm water, then drained
1 t finely grated orange zest
3 T fresh mint leaves, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a heavy medium dry pan lightly toast the coriander, cumin and carraway until fragrant. Grind in a spice grinder and set aside.

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it is tender, about 5 minutes, and stir in a generous pinch of salt, the garlic, coriander, caraway, turmeric, pimenton and cayenne. Stir together for about a minute, until the garlic is fragrant, then add the drained chickpeas, stock, water and the bouquet garni. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 1 hour. Add the tomato paste, the harissa and salt to taste. Bring back to a simmer and simmer another 45 minutes, until the chickpeas are tender. Strain but reserve and keep warm 1 cup of the broth and set aside for the couscous.

Add the couscous to a heavy large saucepan with olive oil over medium heat and stir. Then add the warmed stock and water. Gently stir with a fork to combine and cover. Remove from heat and let stand for 10 minutes. Add the currants and orange zest and fluff again with a fork. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in the mint, tossing gently to combine.

Pass harissa in a bowl at the table.


2 T cumin, toasted and ground
1 t coriander, toasted and ground
1 t carraway, toasted and ground

1 lb small hot red chilies, roasted and peeled
2 large red bell peppers, roasted and peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled

1/4 C cilantro, roughly chopped
1 T sea salt
Extra virgin olive oil

Lightly toast and grind the cumin, coriander and carraway. Finely mince the chilies, roasted peppers, lemon and garlic with a knife or food processor. Combine with the cilantro and salt. Transfer to an airtight jar and cover with a light splash of olive oil and place in the refrigerator until needed.


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