Recipe: Sicilian Couscous with Shrimp and Almonds
I’ve been to the seaside town of San Vito Lo Capo, in Sicily, but only off-season, when it was empty and raining. And not during the annual couscous festival, in September, which I’m dying to get to one of these years. That is a couscous cook-off where chefs from all over the couscous-eating world gather and compete using their culinary skills .
Western Sicily is one of the places outside of North Africa where couscous first took hold, thanks to various Arab conquests and also because of its proximity to Tunisia. But Sicilians prepare couscous differently from their neighbors. For starters, theirs is almost always a fish-based dish. It’s got spices, but not as many, or not as complicatedly infused. When I think about the flavors of Sicilian couscous, I smell fresh bay leaf, cinnamon, and saffron—which all go great with fish.
Sicilian fish couscous begins as a real cucina povera dish, just grains of durum wheat painstakingly rubbed together with water to form little balls (just like in Morocco). Then the pasta, and it is technically a pasta, is steamed until tender over of a fish broth made of bones and more or less inedible fish odds and ends such as eyeballs and fins. Then the grains are fluffed, and more fragrant broth is ladled on top. That’s it. There’s no discernable fish in sight. That is how I’ve had it served to me the several times I’ve ordered it in Trapani. It was good, but I considered it incomplete, maybe even a little peculiar. It was like something I’d make for myself out of desperation when returning home trashed and just happening to have a container of fish stock in the freezer (as has often happened).
Fancy Sicilian couscous recipes do exist. There are ones that involve simmering big pieces of fish and shellfish in the broth and presenting them as a separate course, as one would with a bouillabaisse. There’s a good one in Giuliano Bugialli’s book Foods of Sicily & Sardinia and the Smaller Islands, published by Rizzoli. (That book is full of good recipes and, for all you Italian food maniacs out there, is well worth picking up.)
Christmas Eve, La Vigilia (the vigil), has always been my all-out favorite food holiday, where I get to indulge my love of anything fish to the extreme. This year I’ve decided to make this very simple version of Sicilian fish couscous as one of my offerings. It does seem a shame to use quick-cooking couscous in such a ceremonial meal, especially when Sicilian women (and they’re usually women) work hours to produce those uneven little balls of grain. But what the hell, it’s still a good dish. I’ve left all the traditional flavors in place, so the aroma is right on.
Have a great Christmas Eve.
Sicilian Couscous with Shrimp and Almonds
(Serves 4 to 5 as a main course)
For the shrimp broth:
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds large shrimp, shelled and deveined, saving the shells
½ cup dry white wine
3 cups chicken broth or water
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
2 fresh bay leaves
A generous pinch of Aleppo or another medium-hot dried chili
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups quick-cooking couscous
½ cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
A big handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves
For the sauce:
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ cup dry white wine
1 35-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped, with the juice
1 fresh bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
About 8 threads of saffron, dried and ground to a powder
A big pinch of Aleppo pepper (or some other high quality hot chili)
To make the shrimp broth: In a medium saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells, and sauté until they turn pink. Add the white wine, and let it bubble for about a minute. Add the chicken broth, a cup of water, a little salt, sugar, the cinnamon, the bay leaf, the Aleppo, and the butter. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to medium low, and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain.
Pour the couscous into a large bowl, and pour on 3 cups of the shrimp broth, saving the rest to add to the sauce. Add a big drizzle of olive oil and a bit more salt, give it a stir, and cover the bowl with aluminum foil. Let it sit while you continue with the recipe.
In a large casserole, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and the celery, and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté to release its flavor. Add the tomatoes, the remaining shrimp broth, and the bay leaf, cinnamon stick, ginger, saffron, and Aleppo. Season with a little salt, and let simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes.
Now add the shrimp, and simmer on medium heat for about 2 minutes. Turn off the heat. Check for seasoning.
Uncover the couscous, add the parsley, and fluff with a fork. Scatter the almonds over the top.
Serve the couscous in bowls, and ladle the shrimp sauce over the top. Serve right away.