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November 19th, 2009

Interview by Rebekah Denn on Al Dente

Rebekah Denn, the 2009 James Beard winner for newspaper reporting with recipes, just published this interview on Al Dente, a blog by Amazon.com editors.

Rice Pasta Couscous (And Don’t Forget Frogs)

Rice Pasta Couscous After living in Barcelona for 12 years, Jeff Koehler is technically considered a resident. Luckily for us, the American food writer and photographer has retained the curious eye of the outsider, roaming his adopted home for recipes and stories.We talked on the phone about his new book, Rice Pasta Couscous, a cross-cultural journey around the Mediterranean to see the similarities and differences of how people view these staples of family meals. Oh, and along the way, he shared the secrets for making perfect couscous without any special equipment. Here are some highlights from our talk:

On how he wound up living in Barcelona: Her name was Eva. “We were in London. I was studying drama, and she was studying organic chemistry. We shared a kitchen…When she went back to Barcelona to do a PhD, I followed her.” And that meant an introduction to her mother’s weekly family gatherings over paella. “Everything goes through the paella. I met the family over the paella, and eventually we said we were going to get married over the paella. I saw this simple staple become this anchor of the whole family.”

On how the book was born: Through those same weekly dinners, seen through other eyes. “My friends in Morocco, it’s the same for them on Friday, after the mosque, to go to the mother’s house for couscous…In Algeria, one of the guys told me, you can make other dishes, but couscous is obligatory, from birth to death, couscous is at every important milestone. My friends in Naples, the mother told me a meal isn’t a meal without pasta.” It became clear there was a story in the similarities and differences between these traditions.

On keeping it real: It’s possible to find recipes in the book simple enough for a quick dinner, say, orzo with brown butter and cheese. But one of Koehler’s chief goals was authenticity, “traveling around the nooks and crannies,” and replicating what he found in kitchens from Lebanon to Catalonia. That means many more labor-intensive recipes, and some with unlikely ingredients, such as the traditional frog and eel stew he found in Croatia. (”How many frogs do you add?” I asked, taking notes on the recipe. “As many as you can catch.”)

He knows many people won’t be able to cook the more unusual recipes, but some will.

“I definitely didn’t want to avoid stuffed pigeon with liver, it’s one of the great Egyptian dishes…Some people, they can find it. There are a couple people out there who will be very happy to do it.” Even with pastas, he does include well-loved standards, but “there are so many great pasta traditions that have nothing to do with the classic Italian style of boiling and saucing.”

On what “the Mediterannean” really is: A lot bigger than most people realize, and more than Tuscany and Provence. “Tunisia is 87 miles from southern Italy…You can have, in Tunisia, cuttlefish or squid sauteed with garlic, the same as in Italy, but with cumin, a completely different taste.” On researching: “You can say to somebody, I really want to talk about rice. They say, I don’t know the history of rice. I don’t want (to know) that. I want to know, how do you use it in your life? How does your mother make it? Then you get a four-hour answer.” On his next project, Country Cooking of Spain: A highlight will be how no food that can be used or preserved is thrown away. He’ll include vinegars and oils and preserved savory foods and more. “There’s a big chapter on innards and extremities.” On what to do if you don’t own a couscoussiere: Don’t worry about it. Real diehards will say it’s the only way to make couscous, and there are recipes where “the couscous is being steamed in the vapor of the stew, and so it does take, to an extent, some of the flavor”–but, Koehler said, using it all the time “for me is not reality, even though I have one and can get the real stuff and we make it.”Using the boxed instant stuff is fine, he said, so long as you ignore the directions. Instead, he does it this way: Dissolve a teaspoon of salt in 2.5 cups warm (not boiling) water. Pour 1 lb couscous into a very wide, shallow dish and dribble the salty water over it. Mix with a fork. Let it sit for 10 minutes to absorb the water. Drizzle in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Toss with both hands, lifting the grains and letting them fall through your fingers. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, transfer the couscous to an ovenproof baking dish, and bake, turning the grains from time to time, until steamy warm, 10 to 15 minutes. If you like, add a tablespoon of butter or smen (clarified and preserved butter). Fluff with a fork.

– Rebekah Denn

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