One of Morocco’s most celebrated dishes is ‘couscous aux sept légumes’. Seven is a lucky number in Morocco, and each region and city has its own variant version of this wonderful dish. Some say it should be made with not only seven different vegetables, but also seven spices and seven-year-old aged butter, called ‘smen’, for maximum good fortune. By these standards this recipe is pretty charmed. (I’m counting the chickpeas and the chillies.)
Having greatly enjoyed eating and helping make this dish several times during our time in Morocco, I couldn’t wait to try it at home. Normally, you’d expect to see fresh tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes and the like, but I couldn’t wait for summer. So here is my winter version, employing all the usual suspect British root vegetables from our organic box. We’re lucky enough to have a small pot of delicious homemade smen given to us by a kind woman we encountered in the mountains near Taliouine (of saffron fame). It smells like blue cheese and adds a unique rich savoury note to the couscous. If you don’t happen to have any aged butter, use regular butter or Indian ghee instead. If you like, you can mash blue cheese into some butter to mimic the smen flavour.
I’ve simplified the recipe by using tinned chickpeas, quick-cook couscous and water or stock. For the real deal, you should really cook the chickpeas from scratch (soaking them in advance and then peeling them), roll and steam your own couscous (steaming it three times over the simmering vegetables), and use a hunk or two of meat to make the broth. It is also sometimes served with a delicious sweet relish of caramelised onions and raisins. But this simple way works just fine, and there’s no need for any meat. The vegetables come out most delicately tender and exquisitely flavoured; you may be surprised how delicious turnip and swede can be.
For a traditional Moroccan banquet such magnificent couscous dishes would be served following the meat course and before the desserts. But they are really meals in themselves. To eat, people cluster around the giant communal dish, usually sitting on cushions or benches around a low table, and eat with their hands. As we found, the knack of shaking handfuls of couscous into neat balls and then popping them into your mouth, using just your right hand and without smearing food all over your face, is one that requires considerable dexterity. After embarrassing ourselves on numerous occasions, we slowly learnt that it’s all in the wrist action, and the use of the soft, moist vegetables as glue to bind the couscous. This is great party food!