March 20, 2009

Seven Vegetable Couscous with Chunky Onion Harissa

My favorite job of all time was at a Mediterranean restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota. A newspaper review aptly called it a “sunny North African outpost” and that’s exactly what it was. A bright place — both in color and energy — rising up from the Midwestern winter in a cloud of saffron, apricots, lavender, and cilantro. The devilishly charming chef-owner made work an absolute delight for me. We talked about food, wine, and France, he gave me dating advice, and at the end of the night on a weekend, if we weren’t dragging ourselves around grumpy and tired, we danced. His food opened up a world of unfamiliar flavors to me — tagines, brik, merguez — and hammered home to my budding tastebuds the art of agrodolce, that delicate marriage of sweet and savory on one plate. Even before I knew the words to say so myself, he taught me that food was about life, and that the act of eating and drinking with your friends is the most bold, celebratory expression there is of being alive.

But he was also a practical man. At the end of the night, he turned to each dishwasher, cook, and server and asked, spoon in hand, “you want shit?” “Shit” was the staff meal, and its preparation was somewhat of a mystery to me (though the result was always delicious), but was basically a mix of leftover vegetables from the night cooked together in a chicken stock and served over saffron-spiked rice or couscous. I usually tried to sneak a spoonful of a sweet-spicy tomato jam or fiery harissa on the sly. For a college girl far from home, it was the closest I came to a home-cooked meal, and it was divine. And then I would climb on top of a counter, count my tips, and eat shit.

This recipe spoke to me not only for nostalgic reasons but for practical ones: With spring not yet totally sprung and winter still threatening behind every blast of air, this is a tenuous time of year. Long thought of as a wardrobe challenge — too damp for wool, too cold light cotton — this pre-spring windup is also a beast to cook for. You want to taste the lightness of fresh spring vegetables to come, but you also want the warmth and comfort of a bowl of something hearty to take the chill of your bones. For this time of year — and truly, for a pantry meal that is bursting with flavors — this is perfect.

Seven Vegetable Couscous with Chunky Onion Harissa
adapted from Bon Appetit
Serves 8

I know the list of ingredients looks daunting, but you can really think of this recipe as a blueprint, to substitute whatever vegetables you have on hand or look best at the store. Just make sure you don’t cut down on the volume of vegetables — you want this to be chock-full of fresh flavors.

Another note: I liked the idea of this harissa, but would make changes next time around (not sure about the vinegar or all the onions), maybe seeking out a more traditional harissa recipe to whip up in the food processor or just buying a tube.

for the couscous:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), minced
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
2 1/4 cups chicken stock or canned broth
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup 1/2-inch cubes peeled butternut squash
1 large yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 cup frozen baby lima beans, thawed
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup halved grape tomatoes
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 cups (about 10 ounces) couscous
lemon wedges

for the harissa:
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
6 green onions, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced

to make the couscous:
Heat oil in heavy large Dutch oven over low heat. Add leeks and garlic. Cover and cook until leeks are very tender but not brown, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add stock and next 8 ingredients. Season with salt and pepper. Increase heat and bring mixture to boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium and simmer until vegetables are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Mix in tomatoes, peas, cilantro, then couscous. Remove from heat. Cover and let stand 10 minutes.

Fluff couscous with fork. Serve with lemon wedges and a spoonful of harissa.

to make the harissa:
Combine tomato paste, crushed red pepper and cayenne pepper in bowl. Gradually whisk in oil. Whisk in vinegar. Mix in onions and garlic. Season generously with salt and pepper. (Can be prepared 8 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Stir harissa well before using.)

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  • Sara Rose: Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.6 years ago

  • mamichan: I’ve never commented before, but have been reading your blog for a while. I love Boss, my hubby worked for him for a while, as did many of my Mac friends. I’ve mastered the artichoke-goat cheese on the salad and the merguez. I should go over there soon.6 years ago

  • Hey mamichan! I forgot about that artichoke goat cheese salad! I miss Boss so much all the time — my big concern is trying to get him to my wedding. What a great mentor — he just taught me so much about…everything. He’s a gem.6 years ago

  • Kristina: Sarah- I love your description of the restaurant, and that mentor-grasshopper relationship it seems you can only truly have in your early twenties. Why is that?

    And I love that the balance of sweet and savory actually has a name! Great.6 years ago

  • Nath: Hi Sarah, you might like to check this recipe for harissa by Yotam Ottolenghi (and the other recipes are usually pretty good too). Here’s the link:
    Enjoy the rest of the weekend6 years ago

  • Tony: I have to admit I was drawn to this by the wonderful picture. The ingredients sound great – I will be adding this to my list of great new things to cook.6 years ago

  • Andrea: I was just going to guess that you were talking about Boss! (Hi Mamichan.)
    It’s amazing how he touches so many lives.6 years ago

  • Kristina, Your reference to Kung Fu has had me giggling all weekend. :)

    Nath, Thank you for the harissa recipe!

    Andrea, I just want all the Boss-lovers to come out of the woodwork and we can have a little impromptu fan club meeting in the comments. :) PS I’m in love with your blog.6 years ago

  • sarah: Been reading (and loving) your blog from the beginning, but this is the first time I’ve seen this redesign. It looks fantastic–clear, pretty, pink and perfect–everything we expect from you, Sarah. Thanks for the consistently stellar content.6 years ago

  • Sarah, Thank you. Seriously. Thank YOU. Comments like that make me so dang happy, and make me remember what is so uniquely great about blogging.6 years ago

  • Alison: I just want to tell you that I’m currently eating this recipe and it is FREAKING FANTASTIC!! Thank you!!6 years ago

  • maddy: That restaurant is still one of my favorite restaurants of all time. Mmmm…brik…5 years ago

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Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.
- Khalil Gibran