Vegetable Couscous (with Chicken, This Time)

The season for soups and stews has officially begun, and I couldn’t be more excited. As much as I love summer with all its fresh produce, by Labor Day I find myself dreaming about meals that I can make ahead, something I can stick on the burner or in the oven and forget about for a while. It’s tiring to prepare everything à la minute, to cook it as little as possible in order to let the summery lightness shine. As oxymoronic as it might seem, sometimes it takes less effort to cook something longer. So now that the weather’s really gotten chilly (and our apartment’s heat is so far sporadic at best), I’m thrilled to be able to cook heartier fare. And the most exciting part: Cooler weather means I get to use Medium Blue or his slightly older brother, Big Blue!

Last night my youngest brother, G, came over—of the four of us kids, only he and our oldest brother, D, still keep kosher (middle brother A’s like me, a happy shonda who eats treif). In G’s honor, I pulled out one of my oldest cookbooks, which I started using in college: Quick Vegetarian Pleasures. There’s a basic vegetable couscous recipe in there that I’ve made dozens of times, but had largely forgotten about over the last decade.

The beauty of the recipe is its adaptability—even though the instructions don’t really say so, you can use almost any vegetable in it, and as long as you put similarly textured items in at the same time (hard things like carrots & sweet potato earlier, and softer items like zucchini or mushrooms towards the end) it’s pretty can’t-miss. I’d stopped at the greenmarket earlier in the day and bought a butternut squash, a bulb of fennel, and some brilliant green celery, and combined with veggies I already had at home, it made a fine mix. Even the spices are flexible—this time I added a Penzey’s blend, and used their smoked paprika instead of its plain sibling. Towards the end of cooking I tossed in some leftover cooked chicken breast (kosher, of course—even though I’m not observant it’s still the only kind I buy. Just tastes better.), but that’s completely unnecessary; it’s just as good with chick peas.

Vegetable Couscous, with or without Chicken
Inspired by Quick Vegetarian Pleasures
Serves 6

2 glugs olive oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 T. Penzey’s Balti seasoning, or a mixture of cumin, cinnamon, ginger, ground cardamom—the warmer spices
1/8 t. cayenne
¼ t. turmeric
½ t. paprika [I used smoked]
3 ribs celery, chopped
1 bulb fennel, trimmed and sliced
½ medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth, maybe more
1 large can diced tomatoes, with juices [I used Pomi]
½ cup raisins
2 zucchini, cut into half-moons
¼ cup pomegranate juice
1 cup cooked chicken breast, diced, or 1 can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
¼ cup sliced almonds, toasted

Heat the olive oil over low-medium heat in a large dutch oven. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, or until fragrant. Sprinkle the spices over the onions and garlic, stir, and let them toast for a few seconds. Add the celery and fennel, stir, and let cook for about three more minutes, just until they start to soften. Now it’s time for the hard vegetables (in this case, the butternut, sweet potato, and carrots), plus the broth, tomatoes, and raisins. Let it simmer, covered, over a low flame for 20-30 minutes—until a fork pierces the hardest of your vegetables without a lot of effort. Check it occasionally to make sure it’s not sticking—if it does, add a little more broth. Add the zucchini and the pomegranate juice and the chicken or beans, and let cook another ten minutes, until the zucchini is cooked and the stew is mellow and rich-looking.

Serve over couscous, topped with toasted almonds.