Tuesday, May 27, 2008


On Friday I had my couscous lesson from Youssef’s mother. She always seems shy about talking to me because she is afraid I don’t understand, so she always has her daughter or daughter-in-law talk to me in English. Neither of them was around on Friday morning, so we talked in Arabic, and I think it was really nice for both of us. Although my inability to cut vegetables without a cutting board (an old boyfriend once told me I wasn’t good at cutting them, even with a cutting board, so it has always been something I don’t feel good about, even though I have since taken several cooking classes, but without a cutting board, I am pathetic) was unfortunate (I need to overcome the feeling that I’ll slice right through my hand).

I imagine that most of you out there who are interested in making couscous will open a box of Near East and follow the ready-in-minutes package directions (I just looked at the web site and there are a bunch of yummy-looking recipes), but if you want traditional Moroccan couscous…. Well, first you need actual couscous, with is probably available at upscale grocery stores (or maybe any; not sure!). You need a couscousier, which is a metal bottom pot with a small upper pot with holes – the upper pot holds the couscous, which steam-cooks while the vegetables and meat are cooking in the bottom pot; I think I may buy one before I leave because if I decide after I get home that I want one it will cost ten times as much (so place your orders now). You also need a tagine – or really just the base of one - so maybe any huge flat dish with sides will do.

We made couscous for ten. They told me to allow 250 grams of couscous per person; the vegetables should be proportioned appropriately (but I can’t tell you a number because I don’t know how many we used for ten!). We chopped everything into big chunks – maybe for a smaller number of people you also want to make smaller chunks, but everything cooks so thoroughly that you can break them apart with your spoon or your fingers, whichever you eat with. We cut three onions, one peeled tomato, ¾ of a head of cabbage, several small turnips, and several cored carrots and put them in the bottom of the couscousier along with meat, a handful or two of parsley (fresh, from the freezer), about 2 tsp each of salt, black pepper, and ginger, a packet of saffron (several strands), a generous helping of vegetable oil and a little bit of olive oil, covered that in water to the top of the vegetables, and put it on a medium flame.

Then you spread the couscous out in the tagine base and add a little cold water, and mix with your hands until all of the couscous is moist. This is the secret to why the couscous doesn’t just fall through the holes in the top of the couscousier – it is moist! Aha! Youssef’s mother tore open a plastic bag and put it between the top and the bottom of the couscousier to seal it, and then put the couscous into the top part. Every ten to fifteen minutes she removed the couscous top, put the couscous back in the tagine and covered the bottom pot with a dish (why doesn’t cookware here come with lids?), mixed it again with cold water (first with a spoon, since it is steaming, and then with her hands) to moisten it again, and put it back on in the pot and put the pot back on top – she did this at least three times. At any point, if the water in the bottom is boiling away, add more.

With about half an hour to go, add chunks of zucchini and pumpkin to the bottom – they take less time to cook – and add chicken if you are using chicken instead of sheep or beef as your meat (I like chicken). And that last time, add LOTS of water to the couscous as you put it in the tagine base (I did not witness the zucchini/pumpkin addition – had to go to cyber – but I will come back to cook again!). Also the last time, add lots of salt to both the couscous and the cooking pot, to taste. Don’t put the couscous back on the pot – keep it in the tagine base and lower the flame on the vegetables. Total cooking time is about two hours (which is why in Morocco it is a Friday lunch special dish and not an everyday thing!). When cooked, put the meat on top of the couscous, ladle the vegetables out so that everyone’s wedge gets some of everything, ladle out sauce to cover the couscous and then put the extra sauce in bowls to bring to the table for people to add once they have eaten away the saucy top layer (or for those who just like more sauce).

I’ve never had the couscous with caramelized onions and raisins on a Friday (just at parties) – I’ll have to ask if the cooking time varies – or if you even caramelize the onions and cook them in the bottom of the couscousier? I love that dish – definitely another cooking lesson required! I had a wonderful time with Youssef’s family, too. I’d been meaning to go over there for a couscous lesson for a while (my host family doesn’t like couscous, or I’d have a lesson from them too – partially to spend more time with them but also to see if there are any subtle differences!).

I’d also been meaning to go for a hike in the mountains for a long time too, and on Saturday I finally did. I went out in the morning and bought some ponge foam, which I realized would be perfect for protecting the breakables, and that gave me the peace of mind to go on the hike, which also gave me peace of mind. Lee called it the enchanted forest and it really is nice to hike through it, up and up to meadows with views of the city and the surrounding fields and of more mountains in the distance – it’s beautiful. I hope it’s not long before I hike again! Down from the mountain, I packed one more carpet and my selected ceramics. It’s interesting that the things I am choosing to bring back now are for the most part things I bought early on – as I stay here longer, different styles of weavings, pottery and other artisan items have grown on me, but for the most part the things I bought early on were things I fell in love with from the beginning. I also know what my favorite things are that didn’t fit, lest I need to prioritize again.

I had ALSO been meaning to go to Meknes for quite some time, and on Sunday I had the chance for that! Linda, my “high school buddy,” met me there and we went to the Dar Jamai Museum, which the book says is one of the best in Morocco – it’s another old palace and is charming, with a lovely garden in the middle, and what was really nice is that even though it was about to close for lunch, they let us in and waited until we were through. We then had tagines on the big square (somehow I was hungry even though I had breakfast before I left and a Magnum bar while I was waiting for Linda) and then dove into the medina. When I’d been in the past I hadn’t gone in an organized manner; this time I read up on recommended routes through the souks. Meknes has a smaller medina than that of Fes and Marrakesh – it also has more things for locals than for tourists (i.e. traditional clothes such as jellabas, lots of shoes, and tracksuits for under the jellabas) but also some nice things for tourists, and well-known woodworking and metalworking sections and a carpet/embroidery souk – we went in the general direction that the books recommended but also took our own turns when things looked interesting, and we found our way back out. The picture is of some traditional embroidery – the technique is called “Fassi” but it’s also used in Meknes and nearby. I think it’s exquisite but I’m not really a tablecloth person, so have more or less resisted so far (I did get a table runner in Fes last year). We covered a lot but didn’t get souked out, so could go back! Then we did the part of the imperial city that I hadn’t gotten to last time (which, fortunately, was just inside the entrance, because we were fading) – Moulay Ismail’s ambassador reception hall, underneath which (according to every book but one, which says it is a myth) were prisons that held 60,000 Christian slaves. You can visit that part, too, and we did.

Yesterday marked the COS minus six months mark. Wow. Time is flying. Then, to put it in perspective, I walked to the post office and found that they moved back to the front – all the construction done, new service windows and new post office boxes. When did they move to the back – over a year ago? So when they moved did they find all the letters that they took from me and didn’t mail and the packages that were sent to me and I never received? Alas, my mailbox was empty…. I don’t know how long it was supposed to take, but my counterpart asked me again if I want to stay an extra two years (at first he had said an extra year) and see the new artisana built, with the restaurant and the café and all of the nice new features…would it be ready?

I went out to Ain Leuh yesterday – with rain threatening (I did my laundry in the morning anyway – and at night it got “nature’s extra rinse cycle” – last year I remember being inundated with “May bugs” this time of year but this month has been cloudy, chilly and even rainy much of the time!) I couldn’t take photographs, but I did get biographies of the women for the web site. The addition of Ain Leuh has really increased my workload – I spend only a couple of hours there when I go, but getting there and back takes an hour, and I work at home to prepare and follow up, so it adds up. I am going out to Timahdite tomorrow for the cooperative’s Annual Meeting – it was great to go last year for the meeting at which they became an official cooperative, and it is nice to continue to be involved in some way. I’ll check out their latest inventory and I’ll bring some baked goods with me (actually, I’m making no-bake cookies) for cultural exchange (last year all of the women baked and Katie did too but she didn’t tell me to bring anything; this year I know that all meetings end with tea and cookies!).

I was asked to go to IST for the first-years to co-lead a VSN session. This would involve getting off the plane next Tuesday after an overnight flight and going from Casablanca to Agadir (nine hours on CTM) at my own expense (last year they paid the expenses of the volunteers who came to train; not this year), and they may say no since I am also on the GAD committee (they made an exception to the only-one-committee rule so that I could get the training, but that doesn’t mean they will let me go, since I do travel already for GAD, and there are other people who were asked who may not have the complications I do). If they say no, that is all right – I’ll come home and unpack and shower and go to bed! It was rewarding to be asked (since I am still sad about not getting asked to do the GAD training for their PST). I did enjoy the VSN session last year at IST though – a reflection exercise and a little bit of active listening training for everyone – so I did say I would if I could. If I do go, it’ll be that much longer before I get back here next week and that much longer before I write again! Now to pack the clothes, toiletries and reading material and to figure out what else I need to do before I go and what I need to do when I get back (not to mention at least two meetings with other volunteers, a trip to the artisana and other errands – plus Frank staying over on his way back from the dentist)!

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