Couscous au beurre (butter couscous) is more than a dish, this is my Proust’s madeleine.
If it was scientifically possible, it would definitely be part of my DNA. Probably because my mother was in love with this dish when she was pregnant with me. She even had a full plate of it just hours before giving birth to me.
It is difficult to talk about the origins of this typical dish of the Jewish cuisine of Algeria, and specifically from the inevitable end of Pesach (Passover). Just like Vera with her Moroccan dafina or Mike with his Tunisian pkaila, couscous au beurre revives an endless string of memories…
From rue Lamarck in Paris to our house in Montpellier, it is the warmth, affection, hospitality, humor of my grandparents who come to me whenever I smell semolina, cilantro, Elben (fermented milk that accompanies this dish, also called kefir). My grandmother (born in Constantine) who strove to call my grandfather (born in Setif) with a “Léoooooooooooon” which was dragging the more he pretended not to hear, as he was too focused to get melodious notes full of nostalgia from its rhod (sort of lute). He then reluctantly abandoned his instrument for a short time to go get the wooden spoons and plates which added a special flavor to the couscous.
Above all, couscous au beurre also reminds me of the large tables with uncles, aunts and cousins whose laughter punctuated all the stories told in two versions by my grandparents, like their marriage born from a bet that my grandfather made with one of his friends. His friend dared him to go meet the “Attali daughter” after school even though they did not know each other. And here is what my grandmother’s father responded to my grandmother, after she explained what she was doing in the company of Leon: “Ahhhhh really? It was a game? He won his bet? Well, it will cost him a wedding!”
Happy union of two “children”, 16 and 18 years of age, who gave birth to this epicurean tribe overflowing with love that I am so proud to part of!
The best known version of couscous au beurre is sweet, where the hot semolina is impregnated with butter that melts in the couscous. It is then sprinkled with sugar. Some people add raisins as well as a glass of fermented milk.
But the one I prefer and I found nowhere on the internet is the one from my grandmother Odette that I’d like you to discover.
Photos by Mike Benayoun.
Recipe of Couscous au Beurre
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Ingredients (for 4 people)
- 1 lb precooked couscous semolina
5 tablespoons neutral oil (such as sunflower oil)
3 cups cold water (1 + 2)
1 lb frozen fava beans
1 lb frozen artichoke hearts
1 bunch cilantro
2 cups milk
- 4 cups of fermented milk (Elben or Kefir)
8 tablespoons butter
For the couscous, you can follow the instructions on the package (in a saucepan or in the microwave), or you can prepare the couscous more traditionally.
Bring a large volume of water to a boil in the bottom of the couscoussier (steamer).
In a large bowl, pour the semolina, add 1-1/2 tablespoon of salt and 2 tablespoons of oil. Mix well by hand while rotating the bowl with the other hand so that all the grains of semolina are greased.
Then add 1 cup of water in 4 times while continuing to mix well between each addition. Mix all the grains enough so that they are detached from each other without forming any lump.
Let the semolina stand for 5 minutes then pour it in the top part of the couscoussier.
Place the top part on the bottom containing boiling water. Make a hole in the center of the couscous with the handle of a wooden spoon so that the steam circulates well, then cover as tightly as possible. Allow steaming for 20 minutes.
Then prepare the broth: In a large pot, sauté the finely chopped onions in 3 tablespoons of oil without coloring them. They must become soft and translucent. Then add the finely chopped cilantro and stir a few minutes over medium heat.
Add the fava beans, artichoke hearts, salt and cover with water (about 6 cups). Bring to a boil and cook for 20 minutes on low heat (you can test if the artichokes are fully cooked and tender by poking with a knife).
Lower the heat and add 2 cups of milk. Simmer on very low heat until ready to serve.
Transfer the steamed semolina in the bowl. Then gradually sprinkle with the remaining 2 cups of water and stir with a fork, again to ensure it is not lumpy. Fearing the heat, I am quite unable to do this with my hands as my grandmother did.
Put the steamed semolina back in the top of the couscoussier for another 15 minutes of steaming.
Serve hot couscous in a large bowl, and melt 1 stick of butter, diced. Mix well. Serve sugar, raisins, broth and vegetables separately.
The fermented milk can be used as a drink and/or it can also be poured in the couscous.