Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants | Image: Laura Messersmith

Each week I follow along with Ina Garten (aka the Barefoot Contessa) and attempt to recreate one of her dishes in my tiny New York City kitchen. The catch? This is my version of cooking school and I’m making these recipes for the first time. I’ll share both my successes and um, challenges, along the way and we’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

Episode: “Friends of Friends”

The Set-up: Ina and Michael the Florist TM are cooking dinner for some of his “foodie” friends.

The Menu: Roasted Striped Bass, Couscous with Pinenuts, Meringues Chantilly

0:39 – We’re diving right in with Meringues Chantilly and whipping egg whites with cream of tartar.

1:20 – Cream of Tartar sounds like something that belongs more on a seafood plate, but a quick search tells me it’s a stabilizer.

2:14 – Ina is so tricky - she’s tracing the rim of a glass on the back side of a sheet of parchment paper so that there’s a guide to follow when she pipes the meringues and they’re all the same size.

3:08 – Interesting! Pro Tip #1: Fold in (rather than beating) the last 1/2 cup of sugar to the whipped eggs whites for a more tender meringue.

4:51 – Ina advises us not to make meringues on a rainy day (damp air = chewy meringue), but that’s exactly when I’d want to tackle a project like this!

5:27 – Pro Tip #2: Pipe the meringues starting from the center of the circle and spiraling outward to the edge, then go over your outer ring again to make a shallow bowl. Genius.

6:03 – Over to Michael the Florist TM to see what he’s planning for the table. So far it’s an old-fashioned tin colander full of green grapes with some leaves tucked in, like that will fool us into thinking this took work.

7:16 - We’re back with Ina to make stewed berries for the meringues. When she started with just water I was confused, but I know my girl and she was soon in the pantry getting a bottle of framboise liqueur.

8:35 – To the fresh berry sauce Ina adds more un-cooked berries and sets everything aside to be assembled later as the meringues cool and crisp up in the oven.

11:44 – Roasted Striped Bass is the main course, but first let’s raise our suspicions that these “friends of friends” will be just the worst before backtracking and postulating that because they’re good cooks they’ll actually be cool.

12:01 – You know what? That’s fair. I bet there are Friends of Ina (FOI) who have a passel of people just dying to meet her and trying to wrangle dinner invitations all the time. You know I would if I had an FOI of my very own…

13:12 – Over to Michael the Florist TM again and I’d like to retract my earlier snide remark, because this is actually clever: he’s used little bud vases of each attendee’s favorite flower instead of place cards.

14:29 – Right. Let’s focus on the recipe, shall we? It involves sautéing onions, pancetta, and garlic with saffron, chopped tomatoes and white wine, along with Ina’s favorite Pernod.

15:57 – Hmm. I wonder how this is going to work? Ina has sea bass, mussels and shrimp all together in the roasting pan – but I’d think they would need different cooking times?

19:23 – I was hoping for a comment on the seafood cooking process, but it’s out of the oven already and we’re on to Couscous with Pinenuts.

20:51 – Ina says she loves to share the responsibilities of a party with friends, but it seems like she has the lion’s share of the effort!

21:06 – Is anyone else almost categorically unable to toast nuts without burning the first batch?

22:40 – Pro Tip #3: Fluff the couscous with a fork (no spoons!) to keep it light.

23:55 – A little montage of packing the stewed berries, couscous, striped bass, and meringues and she’s off!

26:09 – Ina has taken command of Michael the Florist TM’s kitchen and is whipping heavy cream and sprinkling chopped parsley like mad.

27:38 – The dreaded “foodie” friends have arrived and they all look like appropriately lipsticked suburban women. None of them appears to be carrying a stack of Ina’s cookbooks for her signature, which is a mistake if you ask me.

28:24 – Everyone finds their favorite flower “placecard” and the table really does look charming now that the candle are lit. In case you’re wondering there is a sunflower, pink peony, yellow calla lily, pansies, lily of the valley, pink roses, blue hydrangea and of course our girl’s orange tulips.

29:30 – Dinner appears to be a great success, but someone forgot to tell the friends never to bring chocolate cake when Ina has made meringues. Rookie mistake.

Final Thoughts:
I really need to attempt a meringue soon. No more egg white intimidation!

The idea of favorite flower place cards is pretty cute. I should know better than to question Michael the Florist TM.

How do people find that perfect pinkish nude shade of lipstick? If I ever do then I’ll know I’ve officially become a grown-up.

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned:
This recipe for Couscous with Pinenuts is dynamite, and the ingredient list is so simple I can’t believe I didn’t think of it myself. It’s not that I’ve never made couscous before, it’s that it has always come from a Near East box and I was never sure about how to achieve the same depth of flavor when starting from square one.

Shallots – The little allium that could. Their flavor is subtle and distinct – not as sharp as onion or scallions, more delicate than garlic – there’s no substitute that I’m aware of and a scant 3/4 cup sautéed in butter worked wonders managing to perfume an entire pot of couscous. Angels sing.

Chicken Stock – Never underestimate the power of replacing water with chicken stock (and a not insubstantial amount of butter) for amping up the flavor. Assuming you don’t have vegetarians coming for dinner I’d start doing this all the time with pilafs, stews, etc.

Currants – The addition of pine nuts was straightforward since many box versions of couscous contain them or toasted almonds, etc. However, the currants were a bit of a surprise, mainly because when I actually tasted them they were sweet; not tart as I expected them to be. A little research uncovered what is typically sold as a “dried currant” is actually a grape and therefore really just a tiny raisin, not the sharply flavored red berry you might occasionally see sold fresh. If you’re actually looking for tartness a cranberry or even cherry is probably a better bet.

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants | Image: Laura Messersmith

Small Kitchen Friendly?
Totally. All I needed was a 2 quart sauce pan (with lid!), a liquid measuring cup, dry measuring cups, a small cutting board, and a chef’s knife. A table fork to fluff it all together and you’re set!

The Verdict:
Is it odd to rhapsodize about a couscous recipe? If so, then get ready for an odd paragraph singing the praises of Couscous with Pinenuts. I love how easy it would be to switching out some of the additions maybe thyme instead of parsley, or chopped apricots in place of the “currants.” Yes, a boxed version is still slightly faster, but couscous is so quick to make that the extra five or six minutes of sautéing hardly makes a difference in total effort and the results are 100% worth it.

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Couscous with Pine Nuts & Currants | Image: Laura Messersmith