31 August 2016

That was great

I turn the oven switch on, a white round ribbed knob with my fingerprints of harissa and olive oil, from yesterday, on it. Alright. It's going to get hot, I holler to Anthony who is in the bathroom, under the water. Slowly the temperature inside the apartment rises to a hundred degrees, possibly more. A million of sticky, sultry, sexy centigrades that will loop the apartment to penetrate every surface, from the cotton blanket to the metal sink, and then fall out on the skin in the form of sweat. This last week it finally started to feel like real summer to me but everyone you ask is grumpy and inconvenienced. Too hot, they'll say, and wipe their heated foreheads with the back of their wrists. Some will point to the skin peeling off their pink shoulders, as if to say, See? 

– Even the coldest shower setting has felt like it's at room temperature. Do you really have to do this now? Anthony asks, out of the shower.

– Yes, I do. I really want to cook dinner for you now. It's our first free day together like, what, in a month? I say and extend a can of chilled beer. Besides it'll be quick, I just want to soften these apricots, no more, in fact they are ready. See?

I pull a tray with them out of the oven, a little juice oozes from each half. The room is filling with the smell of sauteing onions.

– Alright, alright, but whatchya making? Anthony asks and opens the beer can. Click.

– You'll love this – giant couscous with apricots and harissa. I made it for myself a few times before, a great dish.

– I love tiny couscous, and not in the least for its fluffiness. Is this one going to be fluffy?

– No, it's going to be chewy and soft and spicy and flavourful, I say. Then add, You'll smack your lips, trust me.

Anthony walks around the kitchen table, turns on the ceiling fan and picks up the big glass jar with giant couscous for inspection. Mo-gra-bia, he reads out load the name on the label, breaks it up in syllables. Never heard of it. Where did you get it?

– A Middle Eastern store in town.

I pour the cooked couscous into the prepared sieve over the sink, run cold water through it.

– If you could just mix these two together, the dinner will be ready in a minute, I say and point at the harissa and olive oil lined up along the cutting board.

The recipe is meant to yield four servings, but at the end we push each other's forks out of the bowl for the last bits – the sweet-tart apricot threads, the starchy lone couscous pearls, the left-out deeply savoury soft onion dice, the smears of harissa paste on the bottom of the bowl.

– That was great, thank you, Anthony says and pulls my silk skirt off the back of a chair to hand to me. Let's get out for ice-cream now.

I dump the dishes in the sink, check if I turned the oven off. I dab a little lipstick on my lips with my fingertips, notice how it still smells of garlic and cardamom and how the lips are still burning from harissa.

We shut the door behind us, only leave the ceiling fan on.

Pearl Couscous with Apricots and Harissa

Adapted from TheKitchen Diaries II, by Nigel Slater
Serves 2 (as a main) or 4 (as a side dish)

Unless you have apricots so ripe they practically ooze themselves inside out, I'd suggest to briefly roast them to get them juicier and more fragrant of the themselves. Not too long, somewhere around fifteen minutes in a hot oven.

I found the couscous needs plenty of liquid to cook and not get stuck to the saucepan's bottom, so I upped the amount of stock (water) from 300 ml, as per the original recipe, to 750 ml. (I thought to mention this in case you own The Kitchen Diaries II, look up the recipe and question my choices.)

For the couscous

750 ml vegetable stock or water
150 g pearl couscous
2 Tablespoons olive oil, plus a little extra
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons harissa paste
a small bunch of flat-leaf parsley

For the apricot dressing

3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 small onions, finely diced
5 pods of green cardamom, lightly crushed
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
finely grated zest from 1 small lemon
250 g ripe apricots, halved and stoned (see headnote)

To prepare the couscous, bring the stock or water to the boil in a large saucepan. Pour in the couscous, bring back to the boil and salt the liquid very well, as you might for pasta. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the couscous is tender but still with a little bite. Drain in a colander and run cold water through it to cool it quickly. Tip it into a bowl and toss gently with a few drops of olive oil to stop it sticking together.

In the meantime, warm the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onions and saute them gently till soft and lightly golden (don't brown it). Stir in the garlic, cardamom pods and lemon zest, and cook until the garlic has softened. Cut the (roasted) apricot halves in two or three and add to the onions.

Stir the warm onion and apricot mixture into the couscous, then stir in the lemon juice. Put the harissa paste in a small bowl, stir in the 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, then fold gently into the apricots and couscous. Taste and add salt if needed. Remove the leaves from the parsley, chop them roughly and stir into the couscous.

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