Tuesday, October 11, 2011

on a tropical island

Toasted couscous with lamb and eggplant

Backstory A: Marx Foods is having another contest, in which contestants received random assortments of ingredients and need to make something using at least two of them. I received two kinds of chiles, coconut sugar (actual coconut sugar, not coconut-flavored sugar - these days the differentiation seems necessary), dried black trumpet mushrooms, and Israeli-style couscous. I decided to use the couscous, because I hadn't cooked Israeli-style couscous before, and the mushrooms, because I didn't want to submit another chile recipe. It did occur to me that I could make chile-coconut doughnuts - desserts were popular winners in the last contest - but ultimately, nothing represents this blog better than playing around with something I haven't cooked before.

Backstory B: My family has a place on Squam Lake, in New Hampshire's Lakes Region, and New England happened to have an unseasonable, record-breaking warm Columbus Day weekend. Caitlin and I don't get a chance to go up to the lake very often, so it was nice that the weather was accommodating when we decided to take advantage of her three-day weekend. We had to build a fire Friday night, when overnight temps dipped to freezing, but during the day it hit the high 70s - and this is two hours north of Boston, in mid-October.

This is not a place in which you would normally engage in a cooking challenge:

Up at the lake

Up at the lake

(As you can see, I brought my French press and burr grinder with us for coffee. Also visible on the counter: bacon ranch popcorn from Popcorn Indiana. Good Lord. If your mall in the 80s was like my mall in the 80s, you may have had a popcorn kiosk selling popcorn in 40 flavors, from pizza to nacho cheese to watermelon to green apple. Most of it was not very good. Popcorn Indiana's bacon ranch popcorn and chocolate kettle corn, both of which we bought on an impulse, were amazing.)

Those photos give you some context, part of which is: the light will not be conducive to photographs here. Although there is a lake just outside -

Up at the lake

Up at the lake

- the cabin itself is surrounded by trees, which help keep it cool in the summer. (The weather was not nearly as hazy as it looks in that first photo. Though the moon was bright enough to mess with stargazing - to read by, for that matter - we did see a lone Draconid on Sunday night. And yes, we went swimming. Sort of. Okay, we got in the water - which was cold enough to make you numb - for a few minutes.)

I'll have a separate post later this week or next on these guys, foraged from right outside the cabin:


But in the meantime, the couscous.

Israeli couscous

And the mushrooms.

Dried black trumpet mushrooms

Couscous is a very small pasta, essentially, made from semolina. Israeli-style couscous is much larger than the couscous you might be familiar with. While couscous is traditionally steamed, the larger Israeli-style couscous is cooked like rice, soaking up its cooking liquid.

I decided to use that to my advantage, and also to aim for a good blend of autumnal flavors. Caitlin had picked up thinly sliced leg of lamb - thin like the steak in Philly cheesesteaks - at Super 88 in Boston, and I'd brought eggplant, butternut squash, a German green tomato (the kind that's green when ripe), and onions with me, as well as the Spice House's Baharat spice blend.

I steeped the dried black trumpet mushrooms in boiling water to make a strong mushroom broth, which provided the earthy umami backbone for the couscous:

Mushroom broth

While the mushroom broth was steeping and I managed to chop my vegetables with the spare knives I'd brought (the folding chefs knife I used to bring to the lake no longer unfolds!), I toasted the couscous in a cast-iron Dutch oven with a little bit of olive oil. This is key. Toasting any grain helps develop more complex flavors, and the semolina of couscous is no exception. I wanted a little smokiness that would go with the mushroom and the vegetables.

The pan got a little hot, so as soon as the tomato was chopped, that went in to slow the toasting and keep the couscous from burning, while I struggled to get the peel off the squash with an unfortunately dull cleaver. The vegetables came to about a cup of chopped tomato, a cup of chopped onion, and half a cup of chopped butternut squash (I didn't want the sweetness of the squash overwhelming everything, and knew the tomato and onion would lose more volume in cooking), which were added along with the mushroom broth, a little of the Baharat spice blend, and salt.

When the couscous was almost cooked, I pan-fried slices of eggplant dusted with Baharat spice and salt, and quickly seared thin slices of lamb. Garnished everything with pomegranate seeds.

Toasted couscous with lamb and eggplant

Eggplant's in the top right corner; the lamb's to the right of the couscous.

All in all, everything worked very well - a little heat from the spice blend, a good melange of autumnal flavors from the toasted couscous, mushroom broth, and squash, sweetness from the vegetables balanced by the tartness and astringency of the pomegranate seeds.

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