I was on the jury of a couscous competition in San Vito lo Capo, near Trapani in Sicily. There was always an annual local festa del couscous, then it went international and every country that has a couscous tradition was invited to participate. The streets were in a carnival mood with lights, musicians, cooking demonstrations, and tastings. The competition was carried out with pomp and ceremony. Each delegation marched with their couscous on a big tray and their flag, accompanied by their national anthem. The Italians won. Their fish couscous was sublime. It is the local dish in the little fishing village– turned–holiday resort of Trapani, where all kinds of seafood are used. Songs and poems are written about it and it features in legends and proverbs.
When I celebrated my eightieth birthday with the family in Sicily, I had a simpler version in a restaurant, which I’ve tried to reproduce. It is worth making for a lot of people and it’s easy to double the quantities. As well as the grain and a stock in which you poach the seafood, there’s the fresh tomato and almond pesto trapanese, which can be delicate and aromatic, but if you like it hot you can use plenty of Aleppo pepper; it can be made in advance and kept, covered, in the fridge.
Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes from a Lifetime of Travel cookbook is available here.
Sicilian Fish Couscous Imperiale of Trapani
- 3½ cups (830ml) good-quality fish stock
- ⅔ cup (160ml) dry white wine
- 1 good pinch saffron threads
- 1½ cups (250g) couscous
- 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- grated zest of ½ orange
- 10 oz (285g) skinless fish fillets, such as monkfish or hake
- 7 oz (200g) raw peeled king prawns
- 14 oz (400g) ripe plum tomatoes
- 1 to 4 garlic cloves, crushed, to taste 1 tsp sugar
- ¾ tsp ground ginger
- ¼ cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 very good pinch Aleppo pepper, or piment d’Espelette
- ½ cup (55g) sliced almonds
- 1 bunch basil, leaves chopped
- In a stockpot over medium heat, warm the fish stock with the wine and saffron. Put the couscous in a wide baking dish from which you can serve it and pour in 11/2 cups / 360ml of the fish stock, stirring well so that it is absorbed evenly. Let sit for about 15 minutes, stirring again once or twice, until the grain has absorbed the liquid and is tender. Stir in the olive oil and rub the couscous between your hands above the dish to aerate the grains and break up any lumps.
- For the Trapani pesto, cut the tomatoes into quarters and remove the little white hard bits at the stem end. Put in a food processor with the garlic, sugar, ginger, olive oil, Aleppo pepper or piment d’Espelette, and a little salt and blend to a creamy consistency. Add the almonds and basil and blend briefly until the almonds are very coarsely chopped.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cover the dish of couscous with foil. About 10 minutes before serving, put the couscous in the oven to reheat. Bring the remaining fish stock to a boil, taste and adjust the seasoning, and add the orange zest. Add the fish and simmer for 5 minutes, then add the prawns and cook for 1 to 2 minutes more, until they turn pink.
- Pour the pesto all over the hot couscous and arrange the fish and prawns on top. Pour some broth over each serving.
Reprinted with permission from Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean: Treasured Recipes from a Lifetime of Travel by Claudia Roden, copyright © 2021. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.