Virtually every ethnic cuisine boasts a dish involving a grain product topped or combined with a melange of savory meats and vegetables.

Italian pasta and sauce and German beef and noodles are variations on the theme, as are goulashes from Hungary and rice dishes from the east.In the Middle East, especially the northern tier of African countries - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya - the dish is couscous.

Couscous is the name given both to the fine pasta and to the dish created when a stew of spiced meat and vegetables is ladled over it.

Couscous - the pasta - is hard durum wheat coarsely ground. When the wheat is ground very fine, the result is semolina, the flour that is the key building block of pastas.

Even though couscous is commercially processed in North Africa, many women there continue to grind the wheat and follow the three- to four-day process of steaming, drying and storing couscous. Couscous is as Moroccan (or Tunisian or Algerian) as apple pie is American.

American groceries have stocked quick-cooking couscous for several years, ever since the yellow, grainy pasta became a staple at upscale eateries. It is available boxed, in a variety of flavors.

All the aforesaid should dispel such mystery as still might be clinging to couscous. Just think of it as pasta and sauce.

If you like the couscous you have encountered, "The Great Book of Couscous" (Primus/Donald I. Fine Books, $14.95, paper), by Copeland Marks, is a good book to dip into. It contains more than 300 recipes for authentic Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan dishes, many of them couscous-based.

Marks, a seasoned traveler and traveling gourmand, culled the markets and casbahs of the Middle East for recipes, techniques and history of couscous and the dishes that traditionally accompany it.

He divides his recipes by country and includes both Muslim dishes and those of indigenous Jews.

Meats, salads, baked goods and sweets are separated into sections interspersed with historical and explanatory essays.

While boxed couscous can be prepared in a matter of minutes by adding it to boiling water and leaving it to absorb the liquid for a few minutes, I occasionally get out the couscousier passed to me by my moth-er.

This double-panned cooker allows the meat and vegetables to cook in the lower compartment (the makfout) while steam rises into the pierced receptacle above (the kesskess) to cook the couscous.

My mother got the couscousier in the early '50s in Libya, where my father, a career Air Force officer, was stationed. It has made appearances on three continents, and the makfout and lid, because of their compact size, made annual Ohio-Texas round trips in a motor home for a number of years after the folks retired.

Despite this peripatetic existence, and some signs of wear, the three pieces of the couscousier fit together as if purchased yesterday. Not one whiff of steam escapes.

Here's the traditional way to prepare couscous using a couscousier:

Briefly rinse one pound of couscous in water and drain thoroughly. Allow the couscous to sit for 15 minutes to absorb moisture.

Meanwhile, if the holes in the kesskess are so large that the couscous might drop through, line the bottom with two or three layers of cheesecloth. A paper coffee filter also works.

Brown the meat in the makfout and add spices, liquid and the longer-cooking vegetables.

When the meat mixture comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Toss the couscous to break up any clumps and put it into the kesskess. Fit the kesskess onto the makfout and put on the lid.

After 30 minutes, add the remaining ingredients to the lower pot and remove the kesskess, putting the lid on the makfout to conserve liquid.

Put the couscous into a large bowl and sprinkle with 1/4 cup water, toss and cover with a kitchen towel. After 10 minutes, add 2 tablespoons oil to the couscous and toss again, then return it to the kesskess for a second 10-minute steaming.

The meat mixture and the pasta should be done at the same time.

If you have a vegetable steamer, you can use it in place of a couscousier. Or it is equally tasty to prepare the meat and the pasta in separate pans.

The meal offered here is a Moroccan hybrid from Marks' cook-book.

Couscous Bytfaya is a simple concoction using onions, raisins, chickpeas and lamb. It is quite a light couscous, not so highly spiced as some. If you like your food fiery, go directly to the cookbook's Tunisian section, where heat reigns.

Couscous Bytfaya is traditionally served with fruit on Fridays.

In the Middle East, the cook only lightly sprinkles the pasta with liquid from the stew. Extra liquid is served in a separate bowl, because adding it all would make very soggy pasta, which would be difficult to eat in the Middle Eastern manner.

Diners use their index and middle fingers of the right hand - never the left - to lift bites out of the bowl.

Also, there is L'Harsha, a flatbread made of semolina flour, eggs and olive oil and cooked on the stove top.

This, I warn, is an acquired taste.

The bread is very dense, quite crisp and rather bland, but it is good for crumbling into liquid left in the bottom of one's dish after the couscous is gone.

It also welcomes highly seasoned dips and spreads and is good with soups.


Yield: 6 servings

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 pound boneless lamb, cut into 6 pieces, or 1 pound boneless lamb cut in 1-inch cubes

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

2 cups water

1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water, drained and skins peeled off, or 1 151/2-ounce can ready-to-use chickpeas, drained

2 or 3 large onions (2 pounds), cut into slices lengthwise

1 cup white or golden raisins

1 pound instant couscous

Stir-fry oil and lamb over moderate heat for five minutes. Add the salt, pepper, turmeric and water. Bring to a boil and simmer 45 minutes. Add the chickpeas, onions and raisins and cook 15 minutes. While final stew ingredients are cooking, prepare couscous according to package directions.

To serve, put the couscous in a large bowl and level it slightly. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup of the liquid from the meat mixture over it. Do not moisten sauce, as it will make the pasta soggy. Toss well to mix. Serve excess sauce separately for adding at table.

Put the lamb in the center of the couscous and arrange the onions, raisins and chickpeas over everything.

(Adapted from "The Great Book of Couscous," by Copeland Marks.)


Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Marinating time: 3 to 4 hours

6 leeks, white part only, roots and green leaves removed, halved lengthwise, thoroughly washed

3 tablespoons corn oil

1 teaspoon white vinegar

Juice of lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 small clove garlic, crushed in a garlic press

1 teaspoon prepared Dijon mustard

1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

Cook the leeks in lightly salted water for about 15 minutes. Drain well and cool.

Mix toether all the remaining ingredients. Place the leeks in a flat dish and pour the sauce over all. Let stand three to four hours before serving.

May be served cold or at room temperature.

(Adapted from "The Great Book of Couscous," by Copeland Marks.)


Yield: 3 10-inch loaves

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes per loaf

4 tablespoons butter

1 cup olive oil

2 pounds fine-ground semilina flour

1 teaspoon salt

4 eggs, beaten

1/2 cup water

Warm the butter and oil together. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix together, stirring vigorously. Knead the dough to 10 minutes.

Oil an 8- or 10-inch skillet lightly. Tkae 1/3 of the dough and form in into a ball, then press the ball into the skillet with your fingers to shape a round, flat disc, not uite 1/2 inch thick. Fry over low heat for 10 minutes on each side, until light-brown.

Serve at room temperature.

(Adapted from "The Great Book of Couscous," by Copeland Marks.)