I will admit that I was a bit sick of Moroccan cuisine after being profoundly immersed into it for 2 weeks straight. For every meal, I would seek out a new dish that I hadn’t yet tried. As we meandered from Casablanca, to Marrakesh, through the Berber inland towards the Sahara desert, up to Fes and Meknes, there was always something new to try. However, it was mostly meat. I remember asking if I could get a couscous dish without meat, and the waiter told me I could have it with chicken instead. That’s not what I had wanted, either, actually.
My friend and I scoped out some vegetarian restaurants (Clock Cafe in Fes, and Earth Cafe in Marrakech), but vegetarians options (nevermind vegan options) were hard to come by. So, I plunged myself into Moroccan culture, and ate like the Moroccans. And ate my meat quota for the year.
However, perusing the web, there are bountiful recipes with exotic Moroccan-spiced vegetarians dishes. I just didn’t find them in abundance while in Morocco!
While I still have yet to recreate the traditional flavourful and spicy chickpea and lentil Moroccan soup (harira), I busted out nearly everything in my spice cabinet to create this ultimate winter couscous (christened as such by Yotam Ottolenghi). I adapted the recipe I found in Plenty, but a similar recipe was originally posted in his column at the Guardian.
At the same time both savoury and sweet, it embodies my favourite aspects of Moroccan cuisine. The base of the vegetable tagine is made of butternut squash, carrots, parsnips and chickpeas and it is pleasantly spiced with cinnamon, ginger, sweet paprika, bay leaves, turmeric and chili flakes. It could be made even hotter with harissa, but I opted to keep it more tame. The sweetness comes from the dried apricots which are simmered in the broth with the spiced vegetables. Feel free to sprinkle with fresh lemon juice, or use the suggested preserved lemon.
Couscous is prepared separately, but once combined, you have a good textural contrast. Chopped cilantro adds the fresh, finishing touch.
Sometimes cooking in your own kitchen brings you places you never thought. And in this case, my kitchen is a better place to experiment with vegetarian Moroccan cuisine. And trust me, there will be plenty more.
Ultimate Winter Couscous
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks
8 shallots, peeled (or 2 cups chopped onion)
2 cinnamon sticks
3 bay leaves
5 tbsp olive oil
1.5 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/3 tsp red chili flakes
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2cm chunks (300g cleaned weight)
1/2 cup dried apricots, roughly chopped
2 cups cooked chickpeas (or 19 oz can, drained, liquid reserved)
350ml water (or chickpea cooking liquid)
2 cups couscous
2 cups vegetable stock
3 tbsp olive oil, divided
juice of 1 lemon (optional)
1-2 cups chopped cilantro leaves and stems
1. Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Put the carrots, parsnips and shallots into a large, oven-proof dish, add the cinnamon, bay leaves, two tablespoons of oil, half a teaspoon of salt and all the spices, and mix. Roast for 15 minutes, then add the squash, stir and roast for 35 minutes more, by which time the vegetables should have softened but retained their bite. Add the apricots, chickpeas and liquid, then return to the oven for 10 minutes, until hot.
2. Around 15 minutes before the vegetables will be ready, put the couscous in a heatproof bowl and half a teaspoon of salt. Boil the stock, pour over the couscous and cover with clingfilm. Leave for 10 minutes, then add 1 tbsp of oil and fluff up with a fork until it melts in. Cover again and leave somewhere warm.
3. To serve, fill the base of a deep plate with couscous. Taste, adjust the seasoning and spoon vegetables on to the centre of the couscous. Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with lots of coriander.