Couscous Royale: the Easy Way or the Elaborate Way

This dish – one of my favorite things to eat in the world – is a chicken, lamb and vegetable stew that’s served over a bed of North African semolina couscous.

You have a lot of choices when making this dish, depending on how much of a project you're looking for. The best possible iteration involves soaking dried chickpeas overnight, making homemade harissa and steaming the couscous grains two or three times for maximum fluffiness.

But even if you use shortcuts – buying a tube or jar of harissa, using canned chickpeas and roasted red peppers from a jar and following the directions for instant couscous on the box, the minimum effort involved in making the lamb, chicken and vegetable stew affords maximum payoff: The dish is fabulous.

For the meat, you can use lamb shanks or cuts from the shoulder, or a combination. Recently I bought lamb shoulder chops (about an inch and a quarter thick) and cut them into three pieces each. When I use lamb shanks, I ask the butcher to cut them into three pieces each for me. Merguez – the North African-style lamb sausage that really makes the dish royal – is sometimes available at select Whole Foods Markets and Central Markets. As for the roasted red peppers, I don't think the dish suffers at all if you use the ones from a jar or olive bar. 

If you do plan on steaming the couscous in the traditional fashion, you can do the first one or two steamings hours in advance, leaving a final steaming for just before you serve the couscous. To steam the couscous, you need a colander that fits snugly over a pot of boiling water (no lid is necessary), along with a shallow pan for moistening, cooking and raking the grains. I use a large paella pan, but a sheet pan with sides works, too. Of course, if you happen to own a couscousier, that works great. If you’re skipping the steaming and making the couscous the instant way, just ignore the grain-related instructions in the recipe, and make the instant couscous according to package instructions five minutes before serving.

I'm giving the easiest version of the recipe first, then the more complicated. Choose the elements from either that suit you.

Serves 8-12.


Couscous Royale the Easy Way

Ingredients

About 3 pounds lamb shanks or lamb shoulder, cut into manageable pieces (each shank should be cut into 3 pieces)

4 whole chicken legs, separated into drumsticks and thighs

1 large onion, diced

6 carrots, 2 diced and 4 cut into 4-inch lengths

1 14.5-ounce can of diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon harissa (either homemade or purchased), plus more for serving

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

A big pinch of saffron, crumbled

A large handful of cilantro, including the stems

3 large or 4 medium turnips, pared and cut into 2-inch chunks

1 15.5-ounce cans garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

4 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, with their liquid

1 1/2 roasted red peppers (from a jar or olive bar), cut into 1/2-inch strips

Sea salt or kosher salt

2 boxes instant couscous

Instructions

1. Place the lamb and chicken in a large stockpot, cover them with cold water by about two inches, and slowly bring to a simmer, uncovered, skimming any scum that rises to the surface every few minutes. Continue skimming until there’s no scum on the surface, then add the onion, diced carrot, tomatoes, harissa, cinnamon, saffron and cilantro, and stir to combine. Continue simmering uncovered over low heat, with the liquid just at a bare bubble for one hour and 15 minutes. If necessary, add more water so the ingredients are all submerged.

2. Add the turnips and carrot lengths, and continue to simmer for 20 minutes, again, adding a little more water if necessary to keep everything covered.

3. Add the garbanzo beans, zucchini, tomatoes and red pepper strips to the stockpot, along with salt to taste (start with 3 teaspoons, adding more as necessary). Stir to combine. Simmer 20-30 minutes, or until the zucchini is tender. 

4. About 10 minutes before you're ready to eat, prepare the instant couscous according to the directions on the box. 

5. To serve family-style, mound the couscous grains on a large platter, then spoon some of the meats, vegetables and chickpeas over them (use a slotted spoon or tongs).  Or, more informally, you can mound some couscous on each soup plate or shallow bowl, arranging the meats and vegetables over them, directly from the pot. Either way, fill a sauceboat or small pitcher with some of the broth, and pass it around, along with a small bowl of harissa. That way each diner can put some harissa in a soup spoon, dilute it with a little broth, and pour it over his or her plate, then add broth to the plate as desired. 

Couscous Royale the Elaborate Way

You can steam the couscous two or three times; thrice makes the fluffliest grains.

Ingredients

1 pound (2 1/2 cups) instant couscous

Sea salt or kosher salt

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 pound dried chick peas, soaked overnight then drained

About 3 pounds lamb shanks or lamb shoulder, cut into manageable pieces (each shank should be cut into 3 pieces)

4 whole chicken legs, separated into drumsticks and thighs

1 large onion, diced

6 carrots, 2 diced and 4 cut into 4-inch lengths

3 medium or 2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced, or 1 14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes, with their liquid

1 teaspoon harissa (either homemade or purchased), plus more for serving

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

A big pinch of saffron, crumbled

A large handful of cilantro, including the stems

2 red bell peppers

3 large or 4 medium turnips, pared and cut into 2-inch chunks

2 tablespoons butter

4 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut into 11/2 inch lengths

8 merguez (lamb sausage, optional)

Instructions

1. Fill the bottom of your improvised steamer (or couscousier) with enough water to hit just below the bottom of the colander; bring the water to a rapid boil. Spread the couscous in a sheet pan or other large, shallow pan and pour two cups of water over it, toss the couscous to completely moisten and spread it out again. Let stand about a minute, and if there’s any excess water in the bottom, pour it off. Now use your hands to toss the couscous, rubbing the grains gently with your fingers and raking your fingers through the grains to eliminate lumps. Continue until there are no lumps.

2. Put the couscous in the colander — don’t worry; the grains won’t fall through — set it over the rapidly boiling water and steam it, uncovered, for 20 minutes.

3. Put the couscous back in the shallow pan, spread it out, and sprinkle one teaspoon salt, one teaspoon olive oil and one cup cold water over it. Rake your fingers through it to distribute the salt and oil — but carefully, as the couscous will be hot. Then continue raking and breaking up lumps again. When there are no more lumps, spread the couscous evenly again and let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes.

4. If you are steaming thrice, refill the pot with water and steam the couscous again for 20 minutes. Repeat step 3, but without adding more salt or oil. If you want to finish making the couscous later in the day, let it cool, cover with plastic wrap and set aside.

5. To make the stew, place the lamb, chicken and chick peas in a large stockpot. Cover with cold water by a couple of inches, and slowly bring to a simmer, skimming any scum that rises to the surface every few minutes. Continue skimming until there’s no scum on the surface, then add the onion, diced carrot, tomatoes, harissa, cinnamon, saffron and cilantro, and stir to combine. Continue simmering over low heat, with the liquid just at a bare bubble. If necessary, add more water so the ingredients are all submerged.

6. While the stew is simmering, heat the broiler. Cut the bell peppers in half, place them cut-side down on a baking sheet and broil until the skins are mostly blackened and blistered. Watch them closely — it will probably take less than 5 minutes. When they’re done, remove them from the oven and put them in a paper bag to cool. (The steam in the bag helps loosen their skins.) Once they’re cool, stem, seed and peel them. Reserve half a pepper for another use, and cut the other three into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Set aside.

7. After the stew has been simmering about an hour and 15 minutes, add the turnips and carrot lengths, and continue to simmer. Again, add a little water as necessary so everything's submerged.

8. Ten minutes after the turnips and carrots have been added, steam the couscous for a third time. Rake the couscous through your fingers to remove any lumps, refill the steamer pot with water and bring to a rapid boil. Put the couscous in the colander and steam for 10 minutes. Spread it in the pan, add the butter, toss with spoons or fingers, breaking up lumps, and spread it out again.

9. Twenty minutes after you added the turnips and carrot lengths, add the zucchini, tomatoes and red pepper strips to the stockpot, along with salt to taste (start with three teaspoons, adding more as necessary). Stir to combine.

10. If you’re using merguez, heat a stovetop grill and brush it with oil. Place the merguez on the grill, turning the sausages now and then, to grill on all sides. While they’re grilling, use a ladle to measure one cup of the broth from the stew into a measuring cup. Pour it over the couscous, then let it rest for 10 minutes.

11. Rake your fingers through the couscous a final time, breaking up any lumps. Transfer the couscous to a serving platter and shape it into a mound. Use a slotted spoon and tongs to transfer the lamb, chicken and vegetables from the stew. Be sure to reach the bottom of the pot with the slotted spoon to get the chickpeas. Arrange stew over the couscous, then add the grilled merguez. Ladle some of the remaining broth into a sauceboat, and bring everything to the table.

12. To serve, place couscous, meats, vegetables and chickpeas in large soup plates or pasta plates, and pass the harissa, along with the sauceboat. Each guest can put some harissa in a soup spoon, dilute it with a little broth, and pour it over his or her plate, then add broth to the plate as desired.