Yesterday, we introduced you to couscous champions Ron and Leetal Arazi, whose NY Shuk can be found Saturdays at Smorgasburg. Last Friday, the couple taught their first ever cooking class, though you wouldn't have known, given how natural it came to them.
The evening was hosted by the surprisingly homey Haven's Kitchen, an appropriate place as any for the Arazis. The theme? A Friday night Shabbat dinner, as celebrated by the Moroccan half of Ron's family, with a menu including roasted leg of lamb, a tabbelouh salad, matisha masheewya, and hand-rolled couscous.
"Cooking the food we cook here, it has a completely different meaning than in Israel, where it's your everyday food," Leetal told me. "That's the beauty and exactly what we're trying to bring: that everyday life from there to here."
Ron and Leetal wanted to share more than recipes: their class was about honoring the proud culinary tradition of an everyday foodstuff—couscous—and encouraging students to bring it into their lives. They emphasized getting the most out of simple ingredients through proper technique: "Not everybody can go to the farmers' market and buy tomatoes at $5 a pound," Ron said. "That's why it's important to know how to cook the ingredients you can buy to get the most out of them."
Making good on his words, Ron spent time emphasizing the significance of handling spices properly, softening onions before caramelizing them, and the superiority of roasted beets. But the focus was our lesson in making couscous by hand, a process that lasted the entire class (though not all of it active time). After kicking off the evening with introductions and a crash course in an ouzu cocktail, they got right into "the art of couscous." But don't be mistaken. Ron and Leetal aren't doing this for show.
"The bottom line is, if there wasn't as big of a difference from the box[ed couscous and homemade] as there is, we wouldn't make it," Leetal said to me. "We're not doing this just because we want to say we're doing it from scratch. It's not about that. It's because the experience is completely different."
Ron and Leetal suggest using a wide, flat bowl for making couscous, as it makes rolling the pasta easier. You begin by sprinkling water over semolina, coarse durum wheat middlings also used for dried pasta, and then rolling it in a circle.
For 10 people they recommend 800 grams of semolina. After steaming the couscous will increase 35 to 40% in mass. Their recipe purposefully doesn't specify how much water you need, although Ron does suggest a ratio of 1-2 cups of water for every 1500 grams of semolina. From the beginning to end of the class, Ron stressed the vital importance of trusting your intuition when making the couscous. He instructed students to use their hands to feel if it was ready for the couscousiere, and to smell it while steaming. For him, recipes are guidelines. Ingredients change with geography and seasons, and it's important to be able to adapt.
"You sprinkle and you roll until you get the feeling that you have these tiny balls of semolina clumping together," Ron explained. "I don't know exactly how to measure it, but you can feel that the semolina has enough moisture and it's ready to be steamed."
Once the couscous was put into the couscousiere for steaming, students were set to doctoring ingredients for the night's side salads. Some peeled beets while others chopped walnuts; one student was tasked with stirring the couscous. Lamb was pulled from the oven, and a flame was lit under a pan for the tanzeya, a Moroccan stew of dried fruit and roasted almonds.
Throughout the night, Ron was clear to remind everyone not to take what he says as doctrine. His Moroccan-born mother never used olive oil in her kitchen, for instance. Likewise, couscous is made differently, and with different ingredients, depending on where you travel. In some places the rolled couscous is sieved before steaming; in West Africa, it may be made with pearl millet.
They're won't judge if you don't have the time to make your own couscous. "Everyone says it's always better to be fresh," Ron said. "Let's get real. If you're the only one cooking, you need to take it down a notch."
But Ron and Leetal are gunning for you to try it at home. "If one person from the class shared this experience with their family and friends? "Mission accomplished."
In July, the pair will return to Haven's Kitchen with a second class focused on the Jewish cooking of Lebanon, where Ron's father hails from.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.