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Tunisian Couscous Au Poulet and an assortment of wines

On the evening of November 5th, we finally got around to making my favorite dish, Tunisian Couscous Au Poulet, whose recipe can be found in this post. When I think about couscous it reminds me of family and friends, as my mother used to make it every Friday Night at our house while I was growing up. Her recipe was a bit more authentic, but I believe I am close enough on the Couscous soup and makoud. Where I have totally taken the liberty to change things up was with the meatballs (boulette).

The thing I love about couscous is the assortment of food and options that the guests have to enjoy. The couscous starts with a chicken/meat/fish/vegetable soup, which has a large assortment of cubed vegetables. The chicken or meat of the soup is used in the makoud (potato kugel), and the couscous itself is fluffy and full of the soup flavor, as it is steamed with the soup. Along with all of that, there are cold pepper and carrot salads, and meatballs. All of these options allow the guests to eat at their own pace and enjoy the plethora of flavors that meld so well together. The contrasts that the display themselves on the palate are a product of the wonderful flavors that each dish on the menu shows. The couscous is soft and fluffy and in perfect contrast with the just firm vegetables. The meatballs are hot and a touch spicy which plays well with the couscous and cold salads. The vegetables are warm and infused with the meat or fowl’s flavor, which carries into the couscous and the rest of the plate.

The official meatball recipe is an artery clogging heart popping display of fried food at its greatest. The meatballs are each topped with a fat slice of potato and then fried in oil until golden brown and finished in the oven. Yes the original recipe sounds and tastes great but I am past the oily flavor, so we have been using a more Italian styled recipe with meatballs braised in tomato sauce. I have been playing for many years with the sauce and the texture of the meatballs. I have tried baking and braising the meatballs, and I keep coming back to braising. In the past few years we have pretty much nailed the tomato sauce that the meatballs braise in, but this week we killed on the meatballs as well. We used a combination of beef, turkey, and mounds of shredded raw vegetables. I was concerned that we put in too many vegetables and that the meatballs would be runny and messed up. Instead they were structurally firm but moist in the mouth and to the fork, while not crumbling to easily as well.

Of course if couscous is on the menu close friends cannot be far behind. Our table was filled with some friends who have been absent for too long and some old standbys. Benyamin Cantz was present and brought some lovely old Four Gates Chardonnay, along with other friends who brought a few Cabernet, but we only got around to one of them, that being a 2006 Yarden Cabernet. The wines were served from lightest to boldest, and there were no duds to be found!

Though the dishes do not call for heavy reds, the meatballs and the flavorful broth and makoud easily stood up to the mixture of reds that we served until the last one, which was an all out beast. The meal started with a pair of 1996 Four Gates Chardonnay and was followed by the only partial dud of the evening – the 2007 Hagafen Cabernet Franc Estate Bottled. We last tasted this wine, almost a year ago, at the winery and it was wonderful, full of floral notes, oak, chocolate, and red fruits. We bought two bottles from the winery and though the wine tasted fine, it lacked the fullness, polish, and finish that we remembered from a year ago. I can only guess that the wine is in some dumb period and will once again display its true potential, when it exists it dark cloud period. The third wine of the evening was the much talked about 2008 B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon, Trestle Glen Estate Vineyard. Mr. Bruce Cohn is the manager for the famous Doobie Brothers, and has been making wine for some 25 or so years. Much has been made of the wine, including a wonderful score of 92 from Daniel Rogov and a lovely write up on the wine and winery as well. For full disclosure, I did not pay for this wine. It was given to me to be tasted and the notes follow below. It was the third rated wine of the evening behind the next two. Those being the 2005 Ella Valley Cabernet Franc and the 2006 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. The final wine of the evening was the 2005 S’forno Monastrell Dulce, while nice, was clearly showing its age in color and palate.

The 2005 Ella Valley Cabernet Franc was not sold here in the US. I imported it during one of my visits to the Israel. I bought them at the winery, and alas, this was my last bottle. This wine is still expressive and explosive and one that is not on its last legs at all. The 2006 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon is a pure beast, one displaying bright and powerful fruit, oak, and layers that come at you in waves. The B.R. Cohn is a polar opposite, in many ways, of the Yarden and Ella Valley wines. Where the Ella Valley and Yarden wines are explosive and highly expressive, the B.R. Cohn is more of an elegant wine with its own flair of complexity and expression. In no way is that a back handed compliment to the wine, but just a definition of its character and makeup.

The B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon was made in the Herzog Winery, some 420 miles south of the vineyard. The grapes were trucked down and the wine was pressed, fermented, and aged in the Herzog winery, under the B.R. Cohn label and the supervision of the OU. The thing I find truly fascinating, beyond the fact that Mr. Cohn wanted to make kosher wine, was how he and the winery kept it such a secret until it was released. With more and more connoisseurs looking at wines in the kosher market, it is truly hard to keep a secret. Everyone is looking for the next big or special wine to show off to their friends and family. Notwithstanding, the Herzog and B.R. Cohn wineries did a wonderful job at keeping a lid on this success, and we can only hope for more wines to be coming out of this winery in the future.

On an aside, I also served a bit of the 2009 Terrenal Cabernet Sauvignon from Spain. As discussed in my other posting, this is a wine that is available at Trader Joes and one that is really catching on in the kosher market. Look for more coming soon on Terrenal and the rest of the wines under the Trader Joes white label.

The wine notes follow below in the order they were enjoyed. My thanks again to B.R. Cohn Winery for the opportunity to taste the wine and the Allison at Coats Public Relations who was instrumental in procuring us the bottle of wine we so greatly enjoyed:

2007 Hagafen Cabernet Franc Estate Bottled Napa Valley – Score: B+ to A-
This is Hagafen’s second release of a single varietal Cabernet Franc, the other one being the 1996 vintage. This is the second time we are tasting the wine and it did not show nearly as well. The last time we tasted this wine at the winery, almost a year ago, it was showing quite nicely. This time the wine showed weaker with a more shallow finish and less body overall. We got these bottles from the winery, so I am not sure what could be wrong. We really loved the 1996 vintage, but this one was even better, though it has been around 10 years since we last tasted it.
The nose on this dark garnet to black colored wine showed a bit of floral notes, some crushed herbs, chocolate, along with a bunch of rich and ripe raspberry, black cherry, plum, and sweet oak. The mouth on this medium to full bodied starts off with mouth coating tannins, raspberry, plum, and black cherry. The mid palate is packed with balancing acidity, spicy oak, chocolate, and nice tannins. The finish is medium long and oak with chocolate, vanilla, rich ripe plum, spice, and black fruit.

2009 Terrenal Cabernet Sauvignon Yecla (Spain, Murcia, Yecla) – Score: B+
The nose on this dark garnet to black colored wine is rich with dirt, raspberry, blackberry, crushed herbs, a hint of chocolate, and black cherry. After some time blueberry also makes an appearance, however at that time the wine is starting to degrade. The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine is heavy with tannin that lends to a nice but crazy mouth feel, along with blackberry, raspberry, and black cherry. The mid palate is bone dry and acidic along with some chocolate and a fair amount of crushed herbs. The finish is long with chocolate, blackberry, black cherry, crushed herbs, and some mineral. After a few hours the tannins soften a bit and turn more mouth coating along with some nice vanilla. However, after a bit more time the wine turns totally tannic and out of balance, so be careful to drink this wine with 3 to 4 hours after opening.

2008 B.R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon Kosher Trestle Glen Estate Vineyard – Score: A- to A
The nose on this wine starts off closed and not very enjoyable. After quite a few hours the wine becomes very enjoyable and “elegant”. This is not a sledge hammer wine, not an overly complex or layered wine, rather this is a wine that has enjoyable characteristics.  The nose on this purple colored wine starts off closed and muted. Over time it opens to display light notes of sweet oak or cedar, raspberry, black plum, eucalyptus, cranberry, tobacco, chocolate, and a hint of vanilla. The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine is elegant in its attack, again, not one that relies on shock and awe, rather a wine that attacks with ripe raspberry, plum, cranberry, lovely tannins, and a mouth feel that is luscious and attention grabbing. The mid palate is balanced with acid, tobacco, chocolate, cedar, and eucalyptus. This finish is spicy and long with ripe plum and raspberry, tobacco leaves, dark chocolate, licorice, and vanilla.

2005 Ella Valley Cabernet Franc (Israel, Judean Hills, Ella Valley) – Score: Almost A
The nose on this purple colored wine is hopping with blackberry, cranberry, raspberry, plum, sweet oak, tobacco, chocolate, meaty notes, vanilla, and nice mint. The mouth on this medium bodied wine filled out as it got more air. The mouth on this medium bodied is layered with rich oak, cranberry, blackberry, plum, and tannins that calm down as the wine sits in the glass. The mid palate is balanced with a rich mouth, just enough acidity, and not yet integrated tannins. The finish is long and luxurious with a playful amount of spice, tobacco, chocolate, and vanilla that is joined in by rich fruit. This was the winner of our Cabernet Franc lineup once again – unfortunately I do not have any more. This is a wine that still has another year or two under its belt and another winner for this wonderful winery.

2006 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon (Israel, Galilee, Golan Heights) -Score: Almost A
This wine is not going to sneak up on you – it is more like a combination of a sledge hammer and a two-by-four hitting you right between your eyes. The nose on this massive, complex, and sledge hammer styled wine explodes with super ripe blackberry, raspberry, chocolate, herbs, rich oak, licorice, plum, tobacco, and sweet cedar. The mouth on this massive full bodied wine is now showing softly integrating tannins that give the wine a super lovely mouth feel. Please do not let the lovely mouth feel fool your perception of this wine, it is massive, aggressive, and heavily layered wine with rich ripe blackberry, plum, cassis, and dates. The mid palate is inky black fruit, massive sweet oak, dates, and balancing acid. The finish is super long and spicy, with nice spice, cassis, date, oak, chocolate, tobacco, and still gripping tannins.

2005 S’forno Monastrell Dulce (Spain, Murcia, Yecla) – Score: B+
The nose on this garnet to mahogany colored wine is hopping with spicy oak, fig, dried plum, dates, honey, spice, and fair amount of heat (alcohol). The mouth on this medium to full bodied wine is rounded and accentuated with sweetness and alcohol, but balanced with nice spiciness, along with honey, fig, date, and spice. The mouth is coating and round from the tannin, alcohol, and sweetness. The mid palate is balanced with acid, more spice, date, and dried fruit. The finish is long, spicy, and sweet, that is punctuated at the end with more dried fruit, fig, and honey. This is a nice wine that is a bit over the hill, but still showing enough qualities to make it enjoyable.

Couscous Au Poulet, Boulette, Makoud, 2007 Hagafen Lodi Roussanne, 2004 Four Gates Chardonnay, N.V. Four Gates Pinot Noir, 2006 Four Gates Cabernet Franc, 2005 Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Zinfandel/Syrah

Two weeks ago saw us huddled around our shabbos table enjoying some wonderful company, friends, family, food, and wine.  This past Friday Night we had my family and friends over for a classical Tunisian Friday Night dinner – Couscous Au Poulet and Boulette.  Many have had couscous, which is fine, but proper boulette(s) and fluffy couscous is what makes a couscous dish work.  Boulette is French for balls, which in this context mean meat balls.  But if you think Italian meatballs, again, you are missing the point.  My family makes boulette by frying the meatballs, and then topping them with slices of potato, obviously they are thank god all very healthy!  However, being that I care for my heart and arteries, and they work far better when not stuffed with cholesterol, I go with lean meat and braise them in a pan of tomato sauce and wine.  The meat sauce is a hit on the table often, though not true to the Couscous heritage.  But the main ingredient to meatball heaven (other than the meat), is the Quatre Epices!  WAIT!  If you are wondering what the heck is going on – yeah that is the last bit of French, I hope – 🙂 . Truly, there are few things that totally metamorphosize a dish like FRESH Four Spices!  What an explosion of flavor that is tempered by the sweet flavor of cinnamon.  There are those who use Four Spices that is based on Ginger – but that is not what we use!  The Four Spices we use is based on: Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Cloves, and Black Pepper, though the black pepper is not in equal proportions as the other three spices, but that is fine with me.

Meatballs Recipe:
2 pound of sliced onions
2 tbsp of olive oil
2 tbsp of sea salt
1 pound of finely diced onions
1 pound of finely diced zucchini
4 tbsp of Four Spices
3 pounds of meat
3 slices of thick bread soaked in rice milk
5 cans of 10oz tomato sauce (or 2 large cans of tomatoes)

Heat the wide and deep pan with olive oil, once the oil starts to shimmer, add the sliced onions and sprinkle them with salt (to help them release their water), and then sauté them until they brown nicely.  In the mean time mix the rest of the ingredients (except for the tomato sauce) until the meat moves well in your hands but can keep its form.  I find that the meat we order is rarely the same in terms of consistency.  So at times it is really thick, while other times it moves far better.  I can only guess it depends on how much fat, versus God knows what else, makes the meat more solid or more fluid.  This time, we added rice milk to the mixture to make it more fluid, as after the mixture was made, it was far too thick.  Roll the meat into balls that have a rough diameter of one and half inches to two inches.  Once the onions are browned, add the tomato sauce to the pan, along with some basil, and pepper.  Cook the sauce until it starts to reduce slightly.  Then drop in the rolled meatballs and simmer them for 1 hour.

Bouillon Au Poulet (Chicken soup) Recipe:
1 chicken cut up
Cubed Carrots
Cubed Onions
Cubed Parsnip
Cubed Turnip
Cubed Sweet Potato
Cubed Potato
Cubed Zucchini
Parsley
Tons of Garlic
Saffron
Bay leafs

This all depends on the size of your pot, and I always overdo the amount that I cook, which is fine with me, but too much leftovers, becomes a hassle!  So, keep the amount to a single large pot with a double boiler to cook the Couscous.  This part is important, the only way you will get the correct texture and flavor in your couscous, is to boil it over the Bouillon.  First drop the chicken into the pot and start browning the meat.  Next throw in the hard vegetables and let them get some of the chicken fat.  Once some of the chicken fat is rendered, mix the vegetables around and then remove the chicken for a bit.  Place the rest of the softer vegetables in, and then place the chicken and spices on top.  We do this to allow you access to the chicken for later on, when it is removed for making the Makoud.  Finally fill the pot till the top with water and you are good to go.  Boil the soup for an hour or two.  Be careful to not overcook the sweet potato or zucchini.  I normally pull them after an hour (or a bit less), and let them cool.  At that same time (about an hour in), I pull the chicken meat off and then return the carcass back to the soup to help it thicken the soup more. After the soup is fully cooked, we let the soup cool and throw it into the fridge for the next day.  I find the soup tastes much better after a few hours of chill on it.  Normally, I cook this Thursday night for Friday night dinner – the classic Tunisian meal for Friday Night.  The next day I will reheat the soup, and at that time I drop on the double boiler, wet the holes so that the couscous sticks to the pot, and then I pour in two boxes of dry couscous.  Now, on an aside, the folks who make couscous from scratch need to be praised, but I have no time to do that.  There is a GREAT video on how to make couscous from scratch.  I guess it is a touchy issue to the real Tunisian cooks, much like dry vs. fresh pasta is to a true Italian cook.  Now, once the double boiler it hot and MAKE SURE that there is a GOOD INCH at least between the boiling liquid and the bottom of the double boiler.  Remember, we want steamed couscous and NOT boiled couscous.  Another very important tip is that once you have poured in either the fresh or dry couscous in the double boiler make sure to create three holes in the couscous layer.  By doing this you will have three circles in the couscous layer and should be able to see the double boilers holes.  By making these holes into the couscous layer, you allow the soup steam to rise from out of the bottom pot and circulate inside the upper boiler.  Also, start the process by ladling a few ladles of broth from the bottom into the double boiler.  This will allow the top layer of couscous to not get dry off the bat.

Makoud Recipe:

This dish has been described by Ashkenazim as Potato Kugel!  AHAHHH!  What a shanda!  No way my friends, Makoud is NOT potato kugel.  It is more of a chicken potato Soufflé.  Like any good potato casserole, you MUST preheat the pan with the oil, so that the potatoes and mixture get crispy underneath and on top (from the oven heat).  Further, do NOT overcook the makoud!  In the beginning, I was like – what we do not need all of those eggs!  Wow was I wrong.  The eggs of course make it a soufflé instead of a kugel!

Canola Oil
Potatoes (from the chicken soup) – just add more to the soup for the second hour
Chicken from the soup, pulled and cubed
2 eggs per pound of chicken
Salt
White or Black Pepper
Cumin`
Basil

Place the oil in the casserole dish and preheat for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.  In the mean time mash the rest of the ingredients together, and place into preheated dish and then cook for 40 minutes or until crispy on top.  This is simple as can be, the most difficult part is stripping down the chicken when it is still boiling hot!

That makes up the Couscous menu.  There are two side dishes of sliced carrots (classic middle-eastern carrot salad) BUT without Cilantro (Cilantro is the work of the devil!), along with Marmouma (a pepper and tomato salad).

To pair with all of this lovely food, we chose a set of wines, as I wanted to taste a few of them and well, it was time to drink some of them already.  So enjoy the recipes and the wine notes follow below (in the order they were drunk):

2007 Hagafen Lodi Roussanne (15% of Marsanne) – Score: B+
This was not a winner on the table, but I kind of liked it.  It is deceptive in its nose and mouth.  Initially, you think it is bone dry from the nose.  Then you taste it and you think it is actually sweet, to only concentrate a bit more and realize that this wine is as dry as a Sancerre, but ripe with fresh fruit flavors, quite a ride.  The nose on this golden straw colored wine is popping with kiwi, melon, lemon, and dry green grass.  The mouth on this medium bodied wine is ripe with melon, kiwi, grapefruit, and lemon.  The mid palate quickly flows from the mouth in an almost shocking manner.  The fruit just ends and then there is an onslaught of bone dry green tea, flowers, and bright acidity.  The finish is long with summer fruit, slight bitterness, and toasty flavors.  The fruit attacks to start and is then annihilated by the bitterness and green flavors that come bright into the finish.  I think the finish is what turned off the crowd.  I can see this work with sweeter flavored foods, with something like maple glazed salmon, or veal.  Interesting wine indeed that exhibits characteristics that are not commonly seen in the other kosher white wines.  The closest that I have tasted recently, that compares to the Roussanne is this Chilean Chardonnay.  It may not as good as the Roussanne; but has many commonalities, the most striking one is its green dryness.

2004 Four Gates Chardonnay – Score: A
Well, after tasting that bone dry wine, any Kosher California Chardonnay will taste sweet!  Still, the 2004 vintage has a bit more residual vintage than do the 2005 or 2007 vintages.  This wine has not really changed much since our last tasting.  The oak is ever present, and the sweet tooth is receding, which gives rise to the acidity and the fresh fruit flavors that still abound.  Thank goodness I have a few more leftover.  I want to taste these soon side by side my 2005 and 2007 vintages that will be a real kick!

N.V. Four Gates Pinot Noir – Score: A-
This wine is still holding to our previous tastings, with the tannins receding further, which is allowing the dark cherry fruit to come through, while showing a bit more wood as well.

2006 Four Gates Cabernet Franc – Score: A-
What a treat, we have recently had this wine a few times, and the latest tasting is still true (which after a few weeks is almost obvious with this winery).  Of course we are not complaining.  Many thanks to Benyamin for bringing this wine to the dinner.

2005 Herzog Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Zinfandel/Syrah – Score: B – B+
What can I say; this is normally a wine that we love!  This vintage or bottle was not a winner.  Almost no one took more than a drop.  The wine was overly Zinny — tasting of rose and blackberry intertwined.  It may sound cool, but not great.  The wine was left open in the fridge for a couple of days and the Zin flavors (31%) finally gave way to the dominantly measured Cabernet (66%) and Syrah (3%).  At that point the American Oak and full body of the Cabernet were tempered by time and vanilla.  Still, the wine was way off balance and overall off putting.  I would recommend decanting this for a few hours in advance to give a chance for all the flavors to come out and play.

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