I’ve always loved Moroccan food, but lately I’ve had a renewed obsession with it. The foods of the Maghreb are delightfully complex and bursting with flavor. Most dishes are slowly simmered, spice-laden, and aromatic. Sweet, salty, savory, and spicy all blend together seamlessly. Couscous is often the starch of choice in a North African meal. Here, I’ve developed a vegetarian couscous entree that is savory and slightly sweet with a hint of spice. Dried fruits, cinnamon, and harissa simmer together with vegetables and savory chickpeas. It’s a feast for the senses, no meat required.
What Is Couscous?
My Grandma Lois first introduced me to couscous after she traveled to Morocco in the mid-1980’s. These tiny balls of semolina wheat are the Maghreb’s answer to a starchy grain accompaniment. Couscous is most often served with stews or tagines (more on that below). I was delighted by the texture, so delicate and light, soaking up whatever sauce my grandma conjured. Through the years I’ve enjoyed it as an accompaniment to chicken, lemon olive chicken, and sweet lamb stew. My grandma was mostly vegetarian later in life, so I think she would have enjoyed this dish quite a bit.
Tagine vs. Stew
When I set about developing this recipe, I envisioned a Moroccan-style vegan entree that can be served for any occasion. A tagine seemed like the perfect way to go. The North African word tagine refers to a cone-like earthenware pot, as well as the slowly simmered Berber-inspired stews that are cooked inside it. I love the tagine as a cooking vessel, but few people have one in their kitchen. It made more sense to cook this Moroccan-spiced tagine in a heavy pot, rather than a tagine, so that more folks can enjoy it.
Whether this cooking method qualifies the dish as a tagine or a stew is a matter of semantics. I serve it over couscous, so I call it Moroccan-Style Vegetable Couscous. This two-pot meal is easy to make, healthy and satisfying. It’s got layers and layers of flavor, and could be served as a meatless entree or side dish.
Special Ingredients, Substitutions
Harissa is a spicy North African chili paste originating in Tunisia. It can be found at most Middle Eastern and markets. The spice adds a wonderful depth to this sweet and savory dish. Feel free to substitute sambal oelek from the Asian food section if you can’t track down harissa, they have similar flavor profiles. If you’re gluten free, quinoa makes a great sub for the couscous. Enjoy!
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Moroccan-Style Vegetable Couscous
- 1 1/2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium sweet onion, diced
- 2 tsp chopped garlic
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tbsp harissa (or substitute sambal oelek)
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ginger
- 2 1/2 cups low sodium vegetable broth
- 2 lbs sweet potatoes (orange yams) peeled and chopped into 1-inch chunks
- 1 lb zucchini (about 4 medium zucchini) cut into 1/2 inch rounds
- 12 oz carrots (about 4 medium carrots) peeled and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
- 3 cups shredded cabbage
- 1/3 cup dried apricots
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup cilantro
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 1 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas (or substitute 1 can chickpeas, drained)
- 10 oz couscous (1 1/2 cups dry - for gluten free substitute quinoa)
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium. Saute the onion for several minutes till softened. Add the garlic and saute for another minute till fragrant.
Stir in the tomato paste, harissa, cinnamon, ginger and 1/2 cup of the low sodium vegetable broth till smooth. Bring to a boil.
Add sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots, shredded cabbage, dried apricots, golden raisins and cilantro to the pot. Stir till combined.
Add remaining 2 cups of vegetable broth to the pot. Bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper to taste (I use about 3/4 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper). Reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer the mixture for 50-60 minutes, stirring gently 2 times during cooking, till all the vegetables are fully tender. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste, if desired. Remove from heat. Add chickpeas to the pot and simmer for 5 minutes more till they're heated through.
Meanwhile, prepare couscous according to package directions. Pour cooked couscous onto a large platter. Top with the cooked vegetable stew. Serve.