A couscous for the (not quite) end of summer

With late summer's vegetable bounty still deliciously plentiful, a stew with couscous and spicy pesto is something a little different to bring to the table. — NYT pic
With late summer's vegetable bounty still deliciously plentiful, a stew with couscous and spicy pesto is something a little different to bring to the table. — NYT pic

NEW YORK, Aug 31 — It’s that wistful time, as summer fades away — going, going, but not quite gone. Still, the season has changed. Days are shortening. Even if the hot weather hasn’t packed up and left town, we all know darker days are standing in the wings.

And so I head to the farmers’ market to bask in the still-glorious bounty.

I have been more or less vegetarian during these last few weeks of doldrums and dog days. Lots of crisp vegetables and salads and fruit, surviving on peaches, blueberries, watermelon and juicy ripe blackberries. Tomatoes every day, big heavy ones for dinner, and colorful sweet cherry tomatoes for lunch.

I still want my summer vegetables. Except now I feel like cooking them instead of having everything raw with olive oil and sea salt, or with lime and red chili powder.

I went down to the market, and all of a sudden I saw my dinner. Hello, it said, beckoning. Maybe it was the morning light, but it was a heavenly moment and everything seemed golden: the zucchini, and the crookneck squash, the little orange and crimson sweet peppers and especially the okra. They would be transformed into a North African stew to serve with couscous, warm with toasted cumin and hot pepper, very brothy and rust-colored.

I had cooked a pot of dried chickpeas the day before — great to have on hand and always better than canned — to use for a few meals (a batch of hummus, some garbanzos en vinagreta). I would use some chickpeas for the stew along with some of the lovely pot liquor, that added bonus of cooking your own.

I cooked the vegetables slowly until they were soft enough to eat with a spoon and had absorbed all those spicy, tomato-y, brothy juices.

The big surprise was the couscous itself, a little epiphany. I had the idea to cook couscous and corn together with butter and saffron and turmeric and cinnamon. That was a bright yellow brainstorm.

I dug out my beat-up aluminum couscousière from the Paris flea market, poured a glass of rosé and relaxed while the couscous steamed — in between seasons, but living in the present.

Summer Vegetable Couscous With Spicy Pesto

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

For the stew:

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water

1 small onion stuck with 2 cloves

1 bay leaf

A short piece of cinnamon stick

1 medium carrot, peeled

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large red onion, cut in 1/2-inch-thick slices

2 teaspoons grated or minced garlic

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon pimentón or paprika

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon toasted ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon toasted ground coriander

2 cups sweet peppers (such as red and yellow bell, cubanelle, gypsy or corno di toro), cut in 1-inch cubes

4 cups zucchini, cut in 1-inch cubes

2 cups chopped ripe tomato

1/2 pound okra, left whole

For the couscous:

2 tablespoons butter

2 cups corn kernels (from about 3 large ears)

Salt and pepper

2 cups couscous

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of crumbled saffron (optional)

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

For the spicy pesto:

4 cups roughly chopped cilantro, leaves and tender stems only

1 or 2 serrano chilies, roughly chopped, to taste

1 smashed garlic clove

1/2 teaspoon toasted ground cumin

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

Juice of 1 lime

1. Prepare the chickpeas for the stew: Put chickpeas in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Add onion stuck with cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and carrot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and gently simmer for 45 minutes or so, until tender. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and let chickpeas cool in their broth. May be cooked a day or 2 ahead. Alternatively, use 2 cups canned chickpeas.

2. Make the couscous: Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat. Add corn kernels and season generously with salt and pepper, then sauté, stirring, for a minute or so. Add couscous, cinnamon, saffron (if using), turmeric and 3 cups water, bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 1 minute, stirring. Put the lid on and turn off heat. Leave for 10 to 15 minutes, then fluff. Taste for salt and adjust.

3. For optimum texture, spread couscous on a baking sheet to let cool to room temperature, raking with fingers to remove clumps. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup cold water. Then place couscous in top compartment of a steamer and put water in bottom compartment. To steam, bring water to a boil, then reduce heat but leave at a rapid simmer. Steam for 15 minutes, covered. Keep warm.

4. Make the stew: Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add red onion and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes, until somewhat softened. Add garlic, tomato paste, pimentón, red pepper flakes, cumin and coriander and stir to coat.

5. Add sweet peppers, zucchini and tomatoes and season generously with salt. Add cooked chickpeas and 3 cups chickpea cooking liquid or water. Stir to combine, bring to a simmer and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add okra, cover again and cook for 5 minutes more, until all vegetables are soft. Check seasoning of broth and adjust if necessary.

6. Meanwhile, make the pesto: Put cilantro, serrano chili, garlic, cumin, olive oil and salt in a food processor and pulse to a rough purée. Transfer to a small serving bowl. To keep green color, add lime juice just before serving.

7. To serve, ladle stew (with plenty of broth) into large wide bowls or deep plates. Nestle a large spoonful of couscous on the side. Pass the spicy pesto separately, telling everyone to add pesto to taste. — The New York Times

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