Siksu bi'l-Dajaj wa'l-Hummus
Category: Rice, Couscous, and Other Grains
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Although it is
thought that the process of couscous cookery might have a sub-Saharan origin,
and that the origin of the word may be Berber, the first reference to couscous
being cooked with chicken comes from the anonymous thirteenth-century
Hispano-Muslim cookbook Kitāb al-tabīkh fī al-Maghrib wa'l-Āndalus (Cookbook of the Maghrib and Andalusia).
This couscous, with its rich taste of caramelized onions, melting chicken, and fragrant spices with golden raisins and almonds, is made in homes ranging from Fez to Meknes to Casablanca. It is a sumptuous meal. I learned how to make this particular couscous in Sefrou, at the home of Mr. Gragui Houcine, where one of my dinner companions, Allal Chibane, an agronomist specializing in market gardening with the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, told me some of the secret intricacies of making couscous.
I have no idea if the practice still continues, but traditionally Berber women in Morocco, for whom both themselves and their menfolk physical beauty was measured by plumpness, would add tesserint, the root of a plant (Telephium imperati L.) to their couscous, and that root would contribute to their Rubenesque figures, so it was thought. Before proceeding, read about preparing couscous.
Yield: Makes 8 servings
Preparation Time: 7 hours
4 cups (about 2 pounds) raw (dried, not precooked) couscous
1 1/2 to 2 cups lightly salted warm water
4 pounds onions, sliced
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 teaspoons salt
1 recipe Moroccan spice mix
1/ 3 cup sugar
1 cup drained cooked chickpeas
1 cup golden raisins, soaked in tepid water for 15 minutes and drained
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
5 tablespoons clarified butter
1 cup blanched whole almonds
1 chicken (about 5 pounds), cut into eight pieces
6 cups water
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
1 cinnamon stick
1. Place half the couscous on a platter or earthenware dish with shallow sides. (You could also use a large aluminum roasting pan, the kind you would use to roast a turkey.) Spread the couscous around and begin moistening with the warm salted water a little at a time until all of the water is used. Do not pour the water in all at once. Every time you add water, rub it into the grains, breaking up any lumps. You may or may not need all of the salted water. Use up to 1 cup at first, working the grains with your fingers to separate and moisten them evenly. Work in a circular, rotating motion constantly raking and forming them into small marble shapes of soft dough. Rake with one hand and with the other rub them into smaller pellets about 3 millimeters in diameter. If the mixture becomes too wet, add a little dry couscous and start again. Continue in this manner, adding more couscous and water, until all the grains are moistened. The couscous should be evenly wet, not soggy, and even-sized. If necessary, shake the couscous through a large-holed, flat, and high-sided sieve, breaking up large pellets with one hand. You may want to sieve two or three times to make sure that each pellet is individual, although the same can be achieved by properly raking and rubbing with your fingers.
2. Arrange the couscous on a large white dish towel or a section of a sheet and dry for 1 to 2 hours (depending on the humidity in the air). Using your fingers, brush the little pellets of semolina with some olive oil so they are all coated. Cut a piece of cheesecloth and with it cover the holes on the bottom of the couscousière and up the sides. The cheesecloth is not used to keep the couscous from falling through--it won't--but to facilitate transferring it during the several drying processes. Transfer the couscous to the top portion of the couscousière. Set aside until needed.
3. Put the onions in a large casserole with 1/2 cup of the olive oil and 2 teaspoons of the salt. Cook the onions over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir the spice mix and sugar into the onions. Cook for 30 minutes over medium-low to medium heat, adjusting the heat as necessary so the onions at no time are burning. Add the chickpeas and drained raisins and cook 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Correct the salt and stir in 1/4 teaspoon of the black pepper.
4. In a small skillet, melt 1 tablespoon clarified butter and cook the almonds over medium heat, stirring, until light brown. Remove and set the almonds aside.
5. Meanwhile, put the chicken, 5 1/2 cups of the water, the remaining 1/2 cup olive oil, saffron, cinnamon stick, the remaining 3 teaspoons salt, and the remaining 1 1/4 teaspoons black pepper in the bottom part of the couscousiere. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, place the top part (with the couscous) on the couscousiere. Seal the two together with a rope made of flour and water (called the qufila in Arabic). Mix 1/2 cup flour together with enough water to roll it out as you would play dough. (Some couscousieres fit tight enough so that you need not make a seal. If you have improvised a couscousiere with a pot and a colander, then you should make the seal.) Cover the top part, and simmer for 1 hour, fluffing the couscous occasionally.
6. Remove the top part and spread the couscous on a large baking tray or aluminum roasting pan. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup salted water, with a little extra salt added to it, and the remaining 4 tablespoons clarified butter, and leave to dry for 15 minutes. Turn the heat off under the chicken. Taste the chicken broth and correct the salt and pepper.
7. Replace the cheesecloth over the holes of the bottom of the kiskis (the top portion). Return the couscous to the kiskis, turn the heat to medium, reform the flour-and-water seal if desired, cover the top, and cook until the couscous is tender, about another 1 1/4 hours, fluffing the couscous with a fork occasionally.
8. When the couscous is done, remove to a platter and sprinkle 1 cup of the chicken broth into the couscous, stirring so it is distributed. Cover with a sheet of aluminum foil and leave for 10 minutes. Arrange the couscous on the platter with a slight well in the middle. Place the chicken in the center, cover with the caramelized onions, chickpeas, ladle some sauce on top, and sprinkle the almonds on top.