Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Couscous with castelvetrano olives, toasted almonds, lemon and harissa

We had the most amazing dinner at oh-so-romantic Aziza a couple months ago (or was it last month? I can't keep track of time these days). I had heard a lot about Aziza's creative approach to cocktails, so to start, I ordered a wild arugula/turmeric root/bitters/tequila cocktail. The earthy turmeric root was very intriguing and the muddled wild arugula added peppery, grassy notes. Although I appreciate the use of fresh ingredients and exotic herbs in cocktails, I think I am rather spoiled by the amazing mixologists at places like Beretta and Rickhouse (and my absolute favorite one at home).

We shared a tasty trio of spreads consisting of eggplant, yogurt-dill, piquillo-almond and another appetizer of cucumber/mustard/onion with lavash. Then came the star of the meal: for my main course, I enjoyed roasted cauliflower with castelvetrano olives, toasted almonds, a delicious lemony foam and fiery hot harissa served with couscous with goat butter and preserved lemon. It was so incredible that I have been dreaming about the wonderful flavors ever since the dinner.

Inspired by the flavors of the dish at Aziza, I made a pearl couscous with castelvetrano olives, toasted almonds, lemon zest and an absolutely incredible spicy and aromatic harissa. I love the salty briny flavors from the olives, the nuttiness of the almonds, brightness of lemon zest and most of all the spicy earthiness of harissa.

Since making this dish, I have been adding harissa to almost everything! It is wonderful spread on crackers, served with poached eggs, or with olives. This harissa packs a punch, so you may want to use less chili if you don't someone you love doesn't tolerate spice well.

Until our next dinner at Aziza, I will somehow have to be satisfied by this wonderful variation at home!

Couscous with castelvetrano olives, toasted almonds, lemon and harissa
1 cup pearl couscous, whole wheat
1 1/4 cup vegetable broth
1 shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup castelvetrano olives, pitted and cracked
1 tsp lemon zest
a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice
sea salt
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted in the oven until golden brown *
harissa (see below)

In a medium saucepan, preferably nonstick, combine pearl couscous with vegetable broth. Bring to a boil and cover, stirring occasionally to avoid clumps. Reduce heat and simmer until water is absorbed and couscous is just tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir to keep couscous from sticking.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add shallot and garlic, saute until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add olives, stirring to coat. Add cooked pearl couscous, tossing to combine. Add lemon zest, season with sea salt and pepper to taste. Finish with a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice. Remove from heat. Top with toasted almonds and serve with harissa.

*Note: Preheat oven to 250. Add almonds in a single layer in a baking sheet. Toast for about 5 minutes and then shake pan. Continue to toast until golden brown, watching closely to avoid burning. Remove from oven and let cool.

1 medium red pepper
2 dried red chilis, stemmed but not seeded
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
2 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 tbsp olive oil

Char peppers over open flame if using a gas stove or on a rack set over an electric stove, turning until skins are blackened. Or broil peppers under broiler about 2 inches from eat, turning every 5 minutes until skins are blistered and charred. Transfer peppers to bowl, cover and let stand until cool enough to handle. Remove pepper tops and discard seeds and ribs. Peel peppers and coarsely chop.

In a clean coffee grinder, grind cumin, coriander and caraway seeds until fine. Transfer to small food processor add chilis, garlic and salt. Grind to a paste. Add roasted pepper and olive oil and puree to a paste. Store covered in refrigerator, up to a week.

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