I first met Lecia a handful of years ago, and I tyan’t remember how. We saw each other around, and then one year, maybe 2011, she took a leap and invited us to her family’s New Year’s Day party. We stood on the deck and talked, and the sunlight was warm enough that I didn’t wear a coat. I guess that was the start of something, but for me, our friendship got its footing while I was pregnant and she, a former nurse, cheerfully withstood my cross-examinations about epidurals and other hot topics of the day, and it has grown in the months and years since, over many meals that June and I have eaten at her table. Lecia is the best home cook I know, and also the most thoughtful. Every few weeks, if not more often, she’ll text to ask if we’d like to come over for dinner, always on a night when she knows Brandon is working and we would otherwise be home on our own. Always, I say yes.
June ate lamb for the first time at Lecia’s, in a stew with cannellini beans, and it’s where she first had halibut, too. Lecia has cooked mussels for us, and linguine with clams, and another spaghetti that I keep meaning to recreate at home, with Spanish canned tuna, capers, and lemon zest. She also makes a deceptively simple thing, this broiled zucchini with basil, that I could eat every day. Lecia is the person who pointed me toward this total winner from Jerusalem, and she also gave me my first taste of this dark, sticky ginger cake with fresh cranberries, which is so good, so so good, that as I type tonight, I want to bash my forehead on the keyboard because I forgot, whywhywhyyyyy, to make it last Thanksgiving, when fresh cranberries were everywhere. But, most important for today’s purposes, Lecia is the reason why I can tell you about Yotam Ottolenghi’s Ultimate Winter Couscous.
Whenever I say the name of this recipe aloud, I hear it in my head in a monster-truck-rally-announcer voice – ULTIMATE! WINTER! COUSCOUS! IT’S AWESOME AWESOME AWESOME! But I’m going to stick with it, because it’s accurate. This couscous is ultimate. It’s spectacular, absolutely spectacular, golden and warming and bright, with layers of spice and a subtle heat that makes everything thrum. The technique is simple. First, you roast vegetables with olive oil and spices: turmeric (attention! it stains!), ginger, paprika, red pepper flakes, cinnamon sticks, star anise, and bay. Then you add water, chickpeas, and dried apricots. While it all braises and melds, you steam some couscous with saffron and butter. Then, just before serving, you stir harissa and preserved lemon into the vegetables, which are by now fudgy and soft, and you spoon it up, and you are glad.
Like a lot of us, I am easily put off by long lists of ingredients. There are exceptions, but most days, I would look at this recipe, sigh, turn the page, and never look back. I would have probably never eaten it, had Lecia not made it for me first. But! As it turns out, a good portion of the ingredients list is composed of spices, which require no prep work. The overall labor is minimal. I cut up the vegetables and measured out the spices one afternoon while June was napping, and the next evening, all I had to do was turn on the oven, stir it up in a baking dish, and set the timer. I even forgot to add the water with the chickpeas and apricots, and it was still spectacular. Keep that in mind when you make it: yours will look juicier, and will in fact be juicier, than mine in the photograph above. Also, you should put some cilantro on it. Details, blah blah blah.
Thank you, Lecia.
P.S. This is great, and it made me so sad.
P.P.S. Ashley lives around the corner from Delancey and has an office down the street, and a while back, she gave me a tube of her cookie mix. This afternoon I finally made it, and: Ashley. You are a genius. It’s perfect.
A few introductory side notes: for the stock, I used Better Than Bouillon, and for dried apricots, I like Trader Joe’s “California Slab Apricots.” For chickpeas, I used canned. For harissa, I stole some from the Delancey walk-in, wa ha haaaa, but you can make your own, or you can buy it. For preserved lemons, we make tons of them at Delancey – preserved Meyer lemons, actually! The best – and use them on pizzas and in starters, and if you’ve got time, hey, you can make some too. If not, they’re usually available at shops selling Mediterrean or Middle Eastern ingredients, and I’ll bet Whole Foods has them, too. And really, I know: this ingredients list is long – long enough that, in my experience, it can be easy to get lost and forget to add something. I’ve tried to make it more foolproof here by dividing it up according to what is added when. Maybe it’ll help?
Preheat the oven to 375°F, and set a rack in the middle position. Put the carrots, parsnips, and shallots in a large ovenproof dish (a 9×13-inch is perfect). Add 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, and toss to coat. Add the spices, cinnamon sticks through pepper flakes, as well as ¾ teaspoon kosher salt. Mix well. Bake for 15 minutes. Then add the pumpkin or squash, and stir to mix. Return to the oven, and continue cooking for about 35 minutes more, by which time the vegetables should have softened while retaining a bite. Now, add the dried apricots, chickpeas, and water or chickpea cooking liquid. Stir to mix, then continue to bake for 10 minutes more, or until hot.
About 15 minutes before the vegetables are ready, put the couscous in a large heatproof bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, the saffron, and ½ teaspoon kosher salt. Pour the boiling stock over the couscous, and immediately cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a tight-fitting lid. Set aside for 10 minutes. Then add the butter, and fluff with a fork until the butter melts in. Cover again, and leave somewhere warm.
Just before serving, take the vegetables out of the oven, and stir the harissa and preserved lemon. Taste for salt.
Serve the vegetables over the couscous, with plenty of cilantro leaves on top.
Yield: 4 good-sized servings