Cuscus: Sicilian, and also Jewish
Cuscus is one of the signature dishes of the Arab world. It's also good, and has therefore become a sort of calling card, a dish one can find many places that have been under Arab rule, or in which people who have once lived in Arab lands have settled. Thus one finds it in Sicily; the island was an Arab province before the arrival of the Normans in the 1100s, and though they Christianized it, the fishermen and other workers kept right on dealing with their neighbors across the waters in North Africa. And one finds it in Jewish neighborhoods, because it was one of the dishes the Sephardim brought with them when they fled the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s.
What exactly is cuscus? It's coarse ground semolina that's carefully rehydrated by rubbing it between the palms while slowly working a liquid into it, and then steamed over simmering broth, in a special cuscus cooker that consists of a pot for the broth, a flat-bottomed sieve-like contraption to put over the broth, whose holes are small enough to keep the grains of semolina from falling through, and a lid. Under the gentle steaming from the broth the cuscus swells, becoming light and easy to digest.
Once it's cooked it's served, either in individual bowls or from a platter, with a stew, which can be either meat or fish based, and a series of sauces. A tremendously academic presentation for a dish that can be an extraordinarily warm family affair. A number of years ago Elisabetta and I went to the Couscussú, Florences Jewish restaurant, to enjoy the cuscus they serve on Saturday night, with dozens of side dishes. Next to us was a long table at which a couple was celebrating its diamond anniversary, with friends and family from all over the world; about half way through the meal Rabbi stood and led a sung service. A beautiful moment. For information on the restaurant, which is next door to Florence's Synagogue, give them a call during office hours when you're in Florence, on 055 245252. Or stop by to visit; the Synagogue is just towards the river from Piazza dAzelio, where the number 6 bus stops.
Pellegrino Artusi included a recipe for Cuscus in his Scienza in Cucina a century ago, when most Italians had no familiarity with anything beyond their local cuisine. A tasty recipe and interesting background, with a foray into Dante.
A recipe Aldo Santini gathered from Giancarla Zuccherofino, owner of Livorno's Ristorante Gibigiana. It's a Libyan variation on the theme, and includes egg in the pre-steamer preparation; the cuscus is then served with vegetables, meatballs and beans (recipes given).
A classic Sicilian recipe that accompanies the cuscus with fish rather than meat.
Cuscus with Pork and Cauliflower, or Cuscus con Carne
di Maiale e Cavolfiore
Sicilian cuscus recipes generally call for fish. But not always; this meaty variation is from Trapani.
Frascatole in Fish Sauce, or Frascatole al Sugo di
A Siclian variation on cuscus, served with a rich fish sauce.
There is also a sweet cuscus (cuscus dolce) made by the nuns of the Monastery of Santo Spirito in Agrigento, who work the cuscus as one normally would, but flavor it with minced almonds, chocolate, sugar, and a pistachio cream. Mr. Correnti, author of an excellent Sicilian cookbook, says it cannot be reproduced at home and doesn't give a recipe.
Photo by Kyle Phillips.