For their first class, Ron and Leetal chose to focus on the Jewish cuisine of North Africa.
After introducing themselves and their business, Ron and Leetal began the evening by making an ouzu cocktail.
They had hoped to use arak, a Middle Eastern anise-flavored spirit, but settled for the similar-tasting ouzo when they couldn't find it. The alcohol was mixed with grapefruit juice, simple syrup, zest of orange and clementine, and rose syrup.
Flick and Spray
The first stage of making couscous is to flick the semolina and flour with water. Ron grew tired of using his hands, and repurposed an everyday spray bottle for the task. (Think of those plastic cooling fans you get in the summer.)
Ron Demonstrating Hand-Rolling
"When I say hand rolling, I literally mean hand rolling. Its a circular process," Ron said to our class.
It's worth repeating: the path to success in couscous is trusting your intuition.
"Obviously people ask me, when you make the couscous what do you think about?" he told me. "Joan Nathan asked me that. Sometimes I think of trying to invent new recipes. I think about the process of the couscous and try to imagine in my head every step and what happens to the semolina while I roll it."
Rolling the Couscous
Notice the accumulated beads of water on the side of the bowl.
The process of sprinkling and rolling the semolina and flour is repeated again and again until a desired consistency is reached. This depends on the size of the couscous you're making.
Notice the smaller, smoother balls and the clumps. Evolution, baby.
Stirring and Steaming
After the couscous is rolled to a satisfactory state, it is steamed in a couscousiere, a two-chamber pot.
"You can use stock or soup for the steaming liquid, but I use water because I prefer the natural flavor of the semolina," Ron offered.
Stirring and Steaming: Close Up
For the first 10 minutes, Ron suggests stirring every 30 seconds to 1 minute to prevent clumping. The couscous is then left to steam for another 30-40 minutes, after which it is removed from the couscousiere and mixed with oil and salt. You then steam it once more for another 15 to 20 minutes.
"At that point, you need to decide what to do with the couscous," Ron told me. "You can dry it; I usually put hot liquid on it and mix it until I feel like the couscous has enough moisture, and then I let it cool down. Then when I’m going to serve it, I steam it again."
Starting the Tanzeya
To begin the tanzeya, here a stew of dried fruit tossed with almonds, Ron adds sugar, spices, and then the soaking water from the dried fruit. The mix was brought to a boil before a cocktail of apricots, dates, raisins, and prunes were added.
Cooking the Tanzeya
"Normally when I make tanzeya," Ron said, "I do it as low-and-slow as possible. But because we only have so much time, I am cooking it over a higher flame and using water here to quicken the process."
Stirring the Fruit
"Lower the temperature and reduce the liquids slowly" Ron instructed. "Everything needs to be shiny, kind of like a jam. It's very versatile, one of the reasons I choose it."
Leetal instructing students on how to de-stem and chop herbs.
Roasted Carrots, Gettin' Chopped
These carrots were sprinkled with salt and water, then covered with water in a deep pan and roasted.
Ron and Students
All smiles as they prepare the roasted chilies.
Ron would normally use a food processor to get the chilies for his matsi mashweeya down to the desired consistency, but students here used knives.
When asked about what chilies they used he responded, "We used serrano and Thai." But use what you have on hand. "It's not something that's going to break your meal. You have to learn to improvise."
"When you are steaming the couscous, take the lid away from the pot when you lift it up. There's a lot of steam that will turn to water and drip back onto the couscous if you don't," Ron explained.
Once the couscous was done steaming, Ron had his students come and smell the pasta.
The Couscous and the Sieve
"I push it through the sieve as much as I can, but never push it down," Ron explained. "I throw away what doesn't go through. It's too bad, you work so hard to get this!"
After taking the couscous out of the couscousiere, the next step is to pass it through the sieve. For our class, the couscous that didn't pass through the sieve was tossed. But that's just one way of making the staple.
"To get a bigger couscous that's not very fine like ours," Ron told us, "all the couscous that gets stuck in the sieve gets kept. All that passes through gets sprayed with water and rolled again."
"I tried to buy ground coriander and its impossible to use it. It's not a spice. It's like putting sand in your food," Ron said.
Ron and Leetal are spice evangelists—or, as Ron likes to say, "very spicy." The proper treatment of spices is, for him, "one way of showing how you can take the simplest ingredient and get the most out of it."
The Finished Couscous
Behold, hand-rolled couscous. One of the few instances where the use of "hand-" is truly justified.
"Because it's a manual process, it's never going to be completely the same from one time to the next. But I think that's part of the charm."
A Candid Couscous Closeup
Try saying that six times.
We could have made our couscous even smaller if only we had more time, but even here it's remarkably fine. The flavor and texture—light, pillowy, fluffy, even buttery—is incomparable to the coarse and harsh taste of the boxed version.
Matisha mashweeya ("roasted tomatoes") is a kind of spread or salsa made of roasted tomatoes and chilies. Its the sort of stuff that you dream of spreading over crusty baguettes, without further embellishments.
"It's very important to understand that this is just one layer of flavor. Although, technically, peppers aren't flavor. It's pain," Ron joked.
After the dried fruits are finished cooking, they're mixed with roasted almonds. It's important to do this while the fruits are still hot from the pot.
Salada de Chizo
Our two salads were, truly, a group effort. This one is a mix of roasted carrots and chopped cilantro, tossed with lemon zest, ground chili, and spices.
"I'm going to season the beets and use olive oil, because," Leetal said, smiling, "I didn't have a Moroccan mom."
While its traditional to boil beets, Ron and Leetal believe they're unquestionably better roasted. After cooling down, the beets were peeled and cut by students. The beets were served on a bed of parsley, mint, and cilantro tossed in lemon juice and olive and then mixed with the walnuts.
Leg of Lamb
Our leg of lamb was dressed simply, just salt, black pepper and sage, and roasted in the oven until fork-tender.
If only all school days ended this way.