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Tunisian Couscous with Fennel, Red Peppers and Garlic

    Of the numerous North African couscous recipes I've come across since writing "Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco," this red and green Tunisian specialty is one of my favorites. The melange of dill and fennel, celery leaves, red pepper flakes, and spices makes for a light and delicious couscous.

    In winter, in Tunisia, large fennel bulbs produce 18-inch stalks bearing bushy bunches of thin fernlike greens. You may have tried fennel tops and found they have little taste, but when you use a hefty amount of these greens you will discover that they have flavor and can contribute real earthiness to a dish.

    There are numerous variations on this recipe. In the city of Sfax, they make it with malthouth, or grilled and cracked barley grits, instead of couscous grains. I have also tasted it when made with whole wheat couscous. But the best version is this recipe using ordinary store-bought couscous. The recipe was given to me by Aziza ben Tanfous, curator of the Sidi Zitouni Museum on the island of Jerba, who learned it from her grandmother.

    Since this type of couscous tends to be slightly dry, you may want to serve it with glasses of buttermilk, the traditional way.

Serves 6
1/2 cup dill and fennel (anise) leaves
1/2 cup parsley
  Handful of celery leaves
  Handful of carrot tops
1/2 cup scallions and leeks
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
3 tablespoon tomato paste
2 tablespoons crushed garlic
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
2 teaspoons ground coriander or tabil
1 teaspoon ground caraway
1 1/2-2 teaspoons dried red pepper flakes, preferably Aleppo, Turkish or Near East pepper for best flavor
2 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) medium grain couscous
1 fresh green chili, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 6 parts
6 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

1. Wash the greens under running water. Drain and roughly chop. Wash and chop the scallions and leeks. Fill the bottom of a couscous cooker with water and bring to a boil. Fasten on the perforated top; add greens, scallions, and leeks and steam, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool, uncovered. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess moisture and set aside.

2. Heat the olive oil in a 10- or 12-inch skillet and add the onion. Cook 2 to 3 minutes to soften, then add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until the paste glistens. Add the crushed garlic, paprika, salt, coriander or tabil, caraway and red pepper flakes and cook slowley until the mixture is well blended. Add 1 cup water, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.

3. Remove the skillet from the heat. Stir the dry couscous into the contents of the skillet and stir until well blended. Stri in the steamed greens, leeks and scallions and mix well. Fold in the green chili, red pepper and garlic cloves. Fill the bottom of the couscous cooker with water and bring to a boil. Fasten on the perforated top, add the contents of the skillet, and steam, covered, for 30 minutes.

4. Turn out the couscous onto a large, warm serving dish. Use a long fork to break up lumps; fish out the whole garlic cloves and red pepper slices, reserving them. Stir 1 cup water into the couscous, taste for seasoning, and cover with foil. Set it in a warm place for 10 minutes before serving.

5. Decorate the couscous with the red pepper slices in a star pattern and place the whole garlic cloves on top. Serve with glasses of buttermilk.


©1994 by Paula Wolfert. Adapted from. Mediterranean Cooking, Revised Version. HarperPerennial

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