One of my favourite books of all time is Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker. I remember a friend lending it to me, reading it, and being enchanted right from the start by Robbins’ quirky, memorable characters and poetic way with words. Without giving the game away too much, the book asks the question “how do you make love stay?” and serves up some truly memorable observations along the way. One of these is the romance of objecthood and I love it because it presupposes that there is romance and mystery in every single thing around us, not only in candlelit dinners and moonlit nights.
“The romance of new love, the romance of solitude, the romance of objecthood, the romance of ancient pyramids and distant stars”
Have you ever held an object in your hands that encouraged you to think not only about the object itself, but the place it came from; the people that made it; and how it came to be in your hands? I have an empty ostrich egg that is covered with a fine mesh of tiny gold and black beads that neatly crosses the defining line between craft and art. My mom and I bought a number of these from a woman in KwaZulu Natal (South Africa) who in turn sourced them from rural Zulu women who were employing their ancient tribal art of beading to create them. I often cup it in my hands and run my fingers over the intricate beadwork; I hold it up to my face and I can still smell the faint smell of woosdmoke from the house where it was beaded. I wonder about how on earth the beading was done so seamlessly; I wonder about the woman who made it and the little hut with the woodsmoke in the green hills of Natal; and I think about my mom and our last trip together to Durban to buy it.
On the bookshelf by my front door are two little midnight blue Moroccan bowls with siver metal trim. They are perfectly shaped and sized to fit into a cupped hand and I often find myself absent-mindedly picking one up and running my fingers over the metal while I am talking on the phone or watching TV. They were bought not in Morocco, but in Granada on one of the best holidays I have ever had. In the summer of 2005 my two closest friends from South Africa and I rented a tiny house in the Albaicin (the old Muslim quarter of Granada) with a minuscule roof terrace and a view over the Alhambra palace. I expected nothing more than a joyful reunion, but instead I got a collection of memories and images so vivid that they can (and do) transport me back to that weekend completely, even now years later. As I turn the little bowl over in my hand, I think of my friends in South Africa and wonder what they are doing. I think about our little house in the Albaicin and who is living there now, gazing at the Alhambra every night while sipping Rioja and eating olives on the terrace. I remember the serene beauty of the Nazarene palaces of the Alhambra in the early morning before the tourists buses arrived, and the sound of the swallows. I remember baking hot afternoons and three crazy girls walking up the steep, empty streets of the Albaicin while sane locals napped. I remember sitting in our tiny garden sipping lemonade and listening to the muezzin reciting the call to afternoon prayers from the nearby mosque. I think about the jumble of market alleys around the cathedral, full of Moroccan merchants and Moroccan merchandise like my little bowls; and I wonder about the long journey that brought them from Africa to London, just like me.
Last week I shared with you my Moroccan lamb shank tagine with apricots and ras-el-hanout; today I am sharing the recipe for the jewelled couscous on which I served the tagine. Couscous is a popular throughout north Africa and consists of dry granules about 1mm in diameter. The granules are made by rolling and shaping moistened semolina wheat and then coating them with finely ground wheat flour. Although traditional couscous requires a long preparation time and is usually steamed, more-processed, quick-cook couscous is available in supermarkets and takes almost no time to prepare. No prizes for guessing which method I used! There is considerable scope for customising this recipe with the addition of spices, sultanas, chopped apricots or pistachios; but I kept it simple as it was being served with the lamb tagine that already had some strident flavours of its own. My only indulgence was the pomegranate arils – for their colour and for their associations with my beloved Granada. My couscous was a side dish, but with the addition of some spices and some chicken, this could be a wonderful main course too.
JEWELLED COUSCOUS WITH POMEGRANATE (serves 6 as a side dish)
2 cups dry couscous
3 cups boiling water (can also use stock)
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1 cup pomegranate arils
In a dry non-stick pan, toast the almonds over medium heat until beginning to brown. Watch them like a hawk as they burn easily!
Place the couscous in a large pot. Add salt (I add about half a teaspoon) and boiling water and cover with a lid. Leave to stand for 10 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed.
Add a good glug of olive oil and fluff up the grains with a fork. Mix in the almonds, parsley and pomegranate arils and serve hot.
And in other news…
It is with great pleasure that I announce the 2011 Food and Wine Blogger Indaba! This event was held for the first time in 2009 and I was honoured to be asked to speak. The good news is that I will be speaking again and hosting workshops at this year’s event in Cape Town! Bookings are streaming in and tickets are selling fast – so if you are a food or wine blogger or if you are interested in becoming one, the Indaba is the place to be on 20 February 2011. Book now!
Dont forget to check out the series of posts we are running on the Plate to Page workshop blog featuring a review of 2010 and plans for 2011 from our four workshop instructors Ilva, Jeanne, Meeta and Jamie. The May 2011 Plate to Page hands-on food writing and photography workshop is now sold out - but register now if you are interested in Plate to Page II in Italy in Autumn 2011.
My 2011 calendars are now available! They are A3 size, printed on high quality heavy paper and make the perfect gift – for foodies, for those who love London or Italy or the beach – or those who simply love my Saturday Snapshots! And at £15.51 each they are an affordable luxury.