Couscous alla Trapanese | North African Flavors of Sicily

Castellammare del Golfo, Trapani, Sicily.

Castellammare del Golfo, Trapani, Sicily.

This autumn, our Tavola Tours guests are in for an adventure of a lifetime to the dynamic island of Sicily, Italy’s largest region, also known as the “little continent”.  We will surely become well acquainted with a host of Sicilian flavors that may not be familiar to most people when they think of Italian cuisine.  So, if you are expecting to find classic Italian flavors in Sicily, then you are in for a big surprise.  Many people do not know this, but Sicilian cuisine is an amalgam of cuisines and ingredients. It draws from a plethora of different cultures that have inhabited the island over the centuries. Sicily is also known as the “eternal meeting point” between Africa and Europe. One of the island’s great influences in its cuisine comes from North Africa since the west coast of Sicily is only about 219 miles (352 km) from Tunisia.  As you may know, North African cuisine is a complete world of flavors unto itself and interestingly enough you can enjoy the bold flavors of North Africa intricately woven into many Sicilian dishes.

Castle at Erice, Trapani, Sicily

The castle at Erice, Trapani, Sicily. Here on a clear day, you can catch a glimpse of the coastline of North Africa.

One good example would be the preparation of couscous.  A staple of North African cuisine, couscous can be found in various recipes in Sicily where it goes by the name of cuscusu in Sicilian dialect.  When you are visiting Sicily, and more specifically the western part of the island near the area of Trapani, you are sure to encounter a local seafood version of couscous known as Cuscusu alla Trapanese.  This seafood and couscous dish is a perfect example of the culinary crossroads between Sicily and North Africa.  Yes, you can always try making this North African-influenced Sicilian dish at home.  The traditional recipe can be quite complicated.  However, I am sharing a simpler version for the home that’s not too difficult.  If you like to cook and think out of the box at times when cooking, then you will enjoy creating this Trapani-style couscous recipe.  So, have fun with it and relish the fact that it can help bring you a little closer to the magnificent Mediterranean island of Sicily!

Couscous alla Trapanese

Couscous alla Trapanese

 How to Make Trapani Style Couscous at Home   

Ingredients Required:

Serving size: 6 to 8 people 

  • FISH BROTH/ COOKING BROTH
  • SAUCE
  • COUSCOUS

In order to prepare the FISH BROTH, you will need:

  • 3 quarts water
  • 1 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 3 cloves garlic skin removed and lightly smashed
  • 1 0nion, root end removed, skin on and quartered 
  • 2 celery stalks, cleaned and cut in thirds
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, stem side removed and halved
  • 2 bay leaves 
  • 1 bunch parsley, cleaned
  • 1 pinch saffron threads (optional)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 5-10 peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 4 lbs of mixed fish and shellfish.  Such as sea bream, red snapper, scorpionfish, grouper, swordfish, mussels, clams, calamari rings, shrimp and 5 lobster tails (optional). Use a minimum of three to five different fish/shellfish combinations.

Broth preparation:

  • Fill a medium or large pot with 3 quarts of water.
  • Add the white wine, garlic, onion, celery, tomatoes, bay leaves, parsley, saffron, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, and salt. Cover the pan and bring to a boil. Once boiled, reduce to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes.

Cooking the shellfish and fish: The combination of fish and shellfish that you use is entirely up to you according to what you like and availability. 

  • First, bring the broth to a simmer.
  • Add the clams and mussels to the broth.  Once they open, quickly remove them with a slotted spoon and season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper and reserve in a bowl to collect any juices that might accumulate (We’ll add those back later for flavor).
  • Add the calamari rings to the simmering broth until just cooked. Do not overcook or they will become rubbery.
  • Clean and devein the shrimp, leaving the tail ends attached. Add the shrimp shells to the broth.  Then rinse the shrimp under cold running water to clean them.
  • Now, add the shrimp to the broth, bring it to almost a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  As the shrimp begin to cook and turn slightly pink in color, remove and season and add them to a bowl.
  • Next, crack the five lobster tails open with a knife creating two pieces. 
  • Add the lobster tails to the pot and bring to almost a boil again and then reduce to a simmer.  They will take a little longer to cook than the shrimp, but not much.
  • Once the lobster meat has firmed up (about 5 min cooking time) it should easily pullout from its shell by using a fork or your fingers.  If not, let it cook a little longer.
  • When done, remove from the pot, season the flesh side and set them aside with the other seafood.

Tip: Remember, DO NOT overcook the lobster meat or the shrimp.  A little underdone is better than overcooked.

To cook the fish:

FISH (CUT INTO PIECES) INSTRUCTIONS:

  • Cut all fish into one- or two-inch pieces depending on the size you prefer.  Add them to the broth and bring to a gentle simmer.  Do not let the broth boil or the delicate fish will break apart and your plate presentation will not be as dramatic.
  • As they are done, scoop the fish out and add to a plate, season with a little salt and freshly cracked black pepper and reserve in a dish deep enough to collect any juices that will collect as the fish rests.

WHOLE FISH INSTRUCTIONS:

  • If you plan to use whole fish, make sure to have it gutted, scaled and the gills removed.  Rinse all fish well under cold water and then add them to the broth. Then bring the broth back to just a boil and quickly reduce to a simmer.
  • If more liquid is needed to cover the fish, simply add enough water to just cover the fish.  Cook about 10 minutes on a strong simmer, but not a boil.
  • The fish are done once you can easily pull the back fin off from the body and the flesh feels firm to the touch.  This should take about 7-10 minutes depending on the size of the fish and the quantity of fish cooking in the broth.
  • Remove carefully and reserve in a dish to catch any liquid.
  • Once the fish are cool enough to handle, filet them and flake the flesh into big chunks.  Season and reserve.  Add any bones that remain to the fish broth and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer.  You may have to strain it twice to remove all particles left behind. This broth will be used to cook the couscous and to flavor the sauce (see recipe below).

For the sauceThis will accompany the completed dish.

  •  1 onion sliced in thin half-moon shapes
  •  2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 ¾ lb ripe Roma tomatoes
  • 4 tablespoons Extra virgin Olive Oil
  • 3/4 cup blanched halved almonds
  • 2 cups fish broth (from the above recipe)
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Procedure:

  • Heat a frying pan or a skillet that is at least 2 1/2 inches deep.
  • Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, garlic and onion slices to the pan.  Now, add enough water and a pinch of salt to just cover the ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Leave to cook stirring frequently to until all the water evaporates. (This traditional method will mellow the garlic and onion before sautéing.)
  •  At this stage, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes, until the onion and garlic become golden brown. Make sure you stir occasionally.
  • Then, you can add the tomatoes and almonds. Season with some salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
  • Mash the tomatoes with the help of a fork while cooking.
  • Add 2 cups of fish broth and keep cooking (about 15 – 20 minutes). Stirring occasionally, let it reduce to a nice sauce-like consistency.
  • Remove the pan from the stove and season to taste.
  • Measure out about 1/2 cup of the sauce and reserve. It will be added to the cooked couscous.
  • You can now add all fish and shellfish to this sauce and cover with tin foil and/ or a lid.
  • At service time, gently warm up the fish in the sauce.  If your pot is not big enough to divide the fish and shellfish into two separate pans to heat up. Place the shellfish in one and the fish in another.

To cook the couscous

Ingredients:  

  • 5 cups couscous
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Zest of 1 lemon, carefully grate the yellow portion of the skin leaving the pith behind.
  • 1/2 bunch parsley, cleaned and finely chopped

For Serving:

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Lemon Wedges

Procedure:

  • Cook 5 cups of couscous per the box’s instructions of whatever brand you prefer.
  • Substitute the liquid suggestion on the box with the strained fish broth. If there is not enough broth top it off with add a little water.
  • Add the bay leaves and lemon zest to the broth and follow the manufacturer’s cooking procedures.
  • Once your couscous is cooked stir in the 1/2 cup of the reserved sauce, and the parsley.

Now you can plate your Couscous alla Trapanese and serve it!

To Serve:

  • Spoon some couscous onto a serving plate. Top it with the fish, making sure all dishes have an equal distribution of fish and shellfish.
  • Sprinkle the dish with some chopped parsley
  • Serve the remaining sauce on the side with a few lemon wedges.
  • Drizzle a light ribbon of Extra Virgin Olive Oil over the dishes and serve immediately.