Saturday, January 16, 2010

Saffron-scented Vegetable Couscous with North African-spiced Halibut

One of the big differences between restaurant cooking and home cooking is consistency. Well, perhaps a bigger one would be the liberal use of salt and fat, but consistency is a close second. Students at a culinary school might spend an entire day poaching eggs, going through more cartons than most of us see in a decade. At the end of the lesson, they've got it down. Any time they poach an egg, every time in fact, it will be the same. Perfect.

By contrast, consistency is seldom the primary goal in home cooking. The goal is to stir the soup while conducting telephone negotiations with your health insurance company, come up with a dish using the about-to-wilt items in the fridge, or finish baking before you've got to run out of the door. Sometimes these circumstances lead to amazing dishes. But sadly, they're often hard to replicate. What did I changes did I make to that recipe? What did I end up adding when I was out of paprika? Sometimes we're just left with the memories.

Last spring I freestyled a couscous and fish recipe that ranked as one of my best creations. I used halibut, which is something of an indulgence in our house, so it was half a year until I tried it again. By which time, of course, I'd forgotten what I'd done. Luckily I had emailed a description to a friend, which gave me a vague overview of the ingredients and technique. And a link to the recipe which had inspired it, a link which was now broken. Great.

The recipe I had linked to was for charmoula, the herbal and lemony North African marinade. But since I was using herbs and lemon in the couscous, I wanted some different flavors in the fish. So I looked to recipes for Ras Al Hanout, the North African spice blend. There are literally dozens of spices that can be included in this blend, so I picked the ones I liked best (and happened to have in my pantry), mixed up a marinade, tasted it, and made a few adjustments. I marinated and baked the fish, serving it on top of the herbed and seasoned vegetable couscous. The results were amazing.

The strong-tasting cauliflower and fennel are set off by fusty saffron couscous, studded with green herbs and olives. The warmly-spiced halibut plays against these flavors, and the whole combination is brightened with lemon juice. And best of all, I actually wrote down this time. It turned out so well, I'm aiming to make it exactly the same next time.

Saffron-scented Vegetable Couscous with North African-spiced Halibut

serves 4
The marinade calls for a lot of seasonings, but it'll just take a few minutes to rifle through your spice cabinet (or pick them up at the store). You can also substitute tofu slabs for the halibut, if you'd like to create a crazy elegant vegan option.
1/3 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic, presed or minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 pound halibut (or tofu)

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 bulb fennel, trimmed and cut into bite-sized wedges
1/2 small cauliflower, cored and broken into bite-sized florets
2 cups Israeli couscous (also called pearl couscous)
1 pinch saffron
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup green olives, quartered
1 handful parsley, roughly chopped
1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
1 lemon, cut in wedges

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Assemble the halibut marinade: in a bowl large enough to accommodate the halibut, mix together the olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and spices. Taste, adding more salt if desired. Add the halibut, spooning the marinade over the top. Marinate at room temperature for ~30 minutes (the marinade has citrus, so you don't want to over-marinate for fear of mushy fish).
When the fish has marinated, transfer it into a baking dish. Scrape out any remaining spice paste from the marinade dish, and spread thickly on top of the fillets. Bake until the fish is done and flakes easily, 25-30 minutes.

While the halibut is baking, prepare the vegetable couscous. Heat a large pot over a high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then add the fennel and cauliflower. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to caramelize and develop light brown spots. Add a few tablespoons water and cover to steam, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender (2-5 minutes). Remove from pot, and place in a large serving bowl.

In the same pot, add the remaining tablespoon olive oil. Add the couscous and cook, stirring occasionally, until the couscous toasts and darkens slightly (just a couple minutes). Add 2 1/2 cups water, crumble in the saffron, and add the salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat just enough to maintain a simmer. Cook until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender, ~10 minutes.
While the couscous is cooking, assemble the remaining ingredients. Add the olives, parsley, and cilantro to the serving dish with the cooked cauliflower and fennel. When the couscous is done, tip it into the bowl with the herbs and vegetables, and toss well. Scoop the couscous onto plates, and top with the marinated halibut. Serve with lemon wedges.


  1. Absolutely delicious meal. Tried it. Liked it. Blogged about it. Thought you might like to know.

    1. Looks lovely! Always good to know that delicious results can be duplicated...