Everybody needs a little couscous

Published 12:04 am Saturday, March 7, 2015

Morocco was a French protectorate in 1912 (becoming independent in 1956) with the French leaving a legacy of architecture, cuisine and language. The local language is Arabic but French is universally spoken. Being western we were always greeted with bonjour, never salaam alaikum. Street signs, if present, are in French and Arabic. A French treat we visited one day was the Majorelle Gardens. This is considered one of the glories of Marrakesh. The garden is the chef-d’oeuvre of Jacques Majorelle, painter, plant collector and scholarly enthusiast of the culture of Marrakesh and the Sahara. He was born in Nantes in 1886, the son of the celebrated Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Majorelle. Jacques came to Marrakesh in 1917 and in 1924 purchased a plot of land outside the city walls that was to become his studio and garden. Majorelle created a personal idiom, blending elements of the local Islamic tradition with his artistic vision in which the garden is developed as a series of unfolding, living canvases. The visitor moves from a cool bamboo forest to areas of squat fan palms and agaves set among towering date palms, to a cactus garden and a lily pool.

The single most influential choice Majorelle made was to adopt a striking cobalt blue which he had come across in his travels in the Berber villages of the South. This exhilarating hue has become known as Majorelle Blue. Walls and structures were painted and terracotta pots were given the same treatment, but with an extended palette of orange, citrus yellow and pale blue adding highlights. The garden remained after Majorelle’s death in 1962, and in 1980 was purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. In 2000 they endowed the garden and it remains open to the public as one of the great gardens of the world. We spent a couple hours wandering this exotic space and resting in its small café with mint tea.

Later that day we visited what I think is the other great garden of Marrakesh—the Mamuonia. The Mamounia hotel began as an arsat, a productive orchard garden including a zone of habitation, created by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah (r.1757-90) for one of his sons, Mamoun. The hotel was developed in 1923 to accommodate the growing number of European officials and a burgeoning tourist industry. The ‘Art Deco meets Orientalism’ design of 1922 has acquired almost mythic status. One staff member explained that ‘the garden is our history, it gave us our name and is the soul of the hotel.’

The Mamounia is not just the most notable hotel in Marrakesh but is something of a twentieth-century legend. Its guestbook has a host of notable signatures: Charlie Chaplin, Will Smith, Marlene Dietrich, Sharon Stone, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, General de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela. Churchill was a big fan, describing the view from his balcony as ‘paintaceous,’ with the famous gardens being, ‘the most lovely spot in the whole world.’ Staying at the Mamounia is costly but non-residents are welcome to order a drink on the terrace and enjoy the gardens—-which we did. This time we had a cocktail instead of the mint tea, but with the ever present olive appetizers.

Angelica Gray wrote a nice coffee-table book entitled the Gardens of Marrakesh in 2013. The cover is of Jnane Tamsna, the arsat style garden in the Palmeraie where we stayed. Jnane Tamsna is an unusual guesthouse created by ethnobotanist Gary Martin, an American, and his Senegalese wife, Meryanne Loum-Martin. They built the place in 2000 to express their personal vision of the good life. Maryanne is a lawyer but has found her forte in design. Ethnobotany is the study of the interaction between people and plants.

Gary designed the garden, janna, traditionally a space planted with date palms and fruit trees, and including grapes vines, which appears in the Koran as an explicit description of paradise. Gary acknowledges that the great traditional garden types of the region are at the heart of his design; the overall structure has been inspired by the arsat model, with its mix of tall sheltering palms towering over a middle stratum of citrus, olive, pomegranate, fig and mulberry trees, with a lower level of seasonal vegetables and overlaid with the kind of ornamental plants typical of a bustan garden, such as daturas, jasmine, pittosporum, roses, lavender, rosemary and other aromatic herbs. Indeed many bouquets around the property, in our room and in the dining room, were roses from the garden, and the vegetables we ate came from the garden. I particularly liked the freshly squeezed orange juice we enjoyed from the trees all around us. And of course, those olives.

Gary has projects all over the world which have won him international prizes and he is the director of the Global Diversity Foundation, which supports biodiversity in community projects on three continents. We met Meryanne but not Gary, and I took a cooking class in her home which is in the compound.

I had been told the class was about cooking in a tagine, but that did not happen. We basically did the class using a Moroccan couscous pot, which is a big pot with a steamer on top. Probably all of you have one. I did get some good ideas in the class, and did buy a $5 tagine which I used when I got home and made a wonderful dish of chicken and vegetables. The tagine was cheap but did a great job in producing wonderful chicken and vegetables. Here is my version using what I did at home and including some of the cooking class.

Couscous with Seven Vegetables

Serves 6


1 chicken (2lbs.) could not get all the chicken in my tagine and in the class they seared it in a skillet

2 tomatoes (peeled and coarsely chopped)

1 small bunch parsley

1 small bunch of cilantro

1/3 cup olive oil


1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon ground turmeric


½ small cabbage

1 small butternut squash or a chunk of red pumpkin (cut into pieces)

1 small eggplant

1 zucchini (ends removed and halved)

4 carrots (peeled and halved)

2 turnips (peeled and halved)

2 cups dried chick peas (soaked in water overnight) or 1 can of chick peas

3 red chilies (optional)

Drizzle the olive oil in the bottom section of the couscous pot and add the chicken, onion, tomatoes, spices, and ¼ cup of water. Cover the pot and sear the chicken for 5 minutes on medium heat. My tagine could not hold all the ingredients and I did have to remove some of the liquid. I did put it back in the end of the cooking and used it to cover the couscous.

Add the cilantro, parsley, and harder vegetables: cabbage, carrots, turnips, and chick peas. If using canned chick peas, add them at the end since they are already cooked.

Add 2 cups water, cover the pot and cook on medium heat for 40 minutes, or until the chicken is done. At the end there should be enough sauce covering the chicken as the sauce is served on the side with the couscous. The tagine cannot hold 2 cups of water; 1 cup is enough.

Steaming the couscous:

I used couscous which only had to be added to hot water, salt and butter. You can steam it three times on the couscous pot if you want to take the time.

Once 40 minutes have elapsed, remove the chicken from the pot and reserve. Taste sauce and adjust the spice accordingly.

Add the softer vegetables to the pot: zucchini, butternut squash, and red chili pepper. Cook on medium heat for 15 minutes or until done.

Serve by setting the couscous grains first in a dome shape, pouring some sauce over the couscous, placing the chicken in the center, and the vegetables on the top of and around the dome. Pour the remaining sauce in bowls and serve with the couscous to so people can add sauce, to their taste, to their individual plates.