When I was in college, I used to wear this purple t-shirt that said in big white lettering, “One Flew Over the CousCous Nest.” My Mom gave it to me. I think she found it in one of those mail order catalogues that have all sorts of random trinkets and gift-like items – kind of like Sky Mall but for your house. Ah, this will be PERFECT for Lauren, I bet she thought to herself, knowing the full extent of my food nerdiness even then, even at my “ripe old” age of twenty. I’d taken a pair of kitchen shears to that shirt, chopping off the ends of the sleeves and widening its crew neck to make it look like I’d plucked it from a vintage clothing rack in a town much cooler than my own.
I chose this shirt one morning in the Spring of my Sophomore year, as I was getting dressed for my job at the campus bookstore, and I distinctly remember glancing in my warped, full length mirror on my way out the door and thinking to myself man, wouldn’t it be great if I landed a job where I could wear cut-off t-shirts and jeans to work every day? Now, as I sit here at my home office desk sipping from a coffee cup that is ironically perched atop a small pile of writing invoices from jobs past, I can’t help but smile at that notion.
With my time card punched at exactly 10:00 a.m. and a Diet Dr. Pepper in hand, I made my way to the customer service desk to man my battle station for the remainder of the day.
“Good morning, Lauren,” greeted my pleasant and always friendly co-worker, a guy I’d worked with for a couple of years who hailed from Cairo and was studying Aerospace Engineering. He was, quite literally, a rocket scientist. I always enjoyed the way he pronounced my name. He rolled the “r” in a way that no one else ever had and transformed what is otherwise a fairly typical American-sounding name into something almost exotic. I never tired of it.
“Good morning, Hazem!” I replied, plopping down on my wooden stool and accepting the peppermint patty that he offered me, knowing that I was a sucker for them.
“What is that your shirt says?” Hazem inquired, giving my purple shirt a quizzical stare. “Couscous nest?”
“Oh!” I exclaimed, pleased that someone had noticed my couscous shirt. “It’s just a silly joke; a play on the book-turned-film, One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. You know it?”
“I do not think I know this book. But I do know about couscous!” Hazem declared, smiling as he did so. “In Egypt we eat a lot of that, and I make it the best.” Thus began our lengthy conversation about the foods he loved from his homeland – from stuffed grape leaves and couscous to lentils and ful – fava beans stewed in olive oil and served on springy Egyptian flatbread. Sensing my genuine enthusiasm for the topic, and probably welcoming the captive audience he had in me, Hazem wound up inviting me and several other bookstore coworkers of ours over to his small apartment off campus to enjoy a traditional Egyptian meal, prepared entirely by him.
On the night of that dinner, I remember walking into his apartment to the smells of deliciously unfamiliar spices and slow cooked meats. Everyone was seated on pillows in a circle on the floor, eating everything with only their hands – no utensils were offered. It was a truly sensory experience and I loved it. Hazem greeted me warmly upon my arrival and took great care to inform me that he’d watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Well, what did you think?” I asked, curious as to what he’d say.
“I thought it very strange. Maybe I would like the book better?” I laughed and helped myself to seconds of the lentil soup, topped with a fragrant Egyptian spice blend known as dukkah.
“Thanks for having us, Hazem,” I said, everyone chiming in and offering their appreciation for all of his hard work. “This food is all so incredible. It must have been so much work!”
“Don’t worry about it guys,” he replied with a smile. “It’s not rocket science.”
North African Couscous Salad RECIPE
note: I like to serve the salad in roasted squash halves, but it is equally delicious served in zucchini boats, bell peppers or even tomatoes. Or, you can always serve it as is.
2 acorn squash, halved and seeded
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 cup carrot, diced (I like to reserve the leafy carrot tops and chop them for a garnish as well)
1/2 small onion, diced
2/3 cup golden or dark raisins
1.5 tsp ginger (grated fresh)
1.5 tsp freshly grated lemon zest
1 tsp orange zest
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup orange juice
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup red bell pepper (diced)
1 cup couscous
1/4 cup kalamata olives (pitted and chopped)
2 tablespoons homemade pistachio dukkah (recipe below), plus more for topping
DIRECTIONS: Rub the squash (cut side) with a little bit of olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Roast, cut side down, in a 375 degree oven until tender and lightly caramelized around the edges (about 30 – 35 minutes, depending on the size).
Meanwhile, prepare the couscous. Add the carrots, onions, raisins, ginger, lemon rind, orange zest, saffron, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, salt, orange juice, and vegetable oil (phew!) to a saucepan, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes or until your carrots are just fork-tender.
Add the bell pepper and cook for an 2 additional minutes.
Take the pan off the burner and add the couscous. Stir to combine everything.
Cover and let sit for 10 minutes.
Fluff couscous with a fork to mix, and then season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into the roasted squash halves and sprinkle with parsley or chopped carrot tops and extra dukkah if you like.
Pistachio Dukkah Recipe
1/2 cup pistachios, shelled
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes
Add all ingredients to a dry pan over medium heat and toast for about 5 – 6 minutes, or until they begin to give off their aromas. Toss frequently as you toast the spices to allow for even toasting. Transfer the toasted spices to a spice mill (or coffee grinder) and grind into a fine powder.