Dinner · Libyan · North African

Tastes Like Summer – Libyan Aslooz

Aslooz is one of my favorite summertime dishes. It’s a couscous-based dish and I love couscous; however, only steamed couscous. If you haven’t eaten steamed couscous, you just haven’t truly tasted real couscous. Steamed couscous has a delicous fluffiness to it that you cannot achieve with any other cooking method. Someone once served me a couscous dish that was prepared by mixing couscous with hot water and oil. It was like eating a mouthful of sand. Honestly, I will refuse to eat couscous prepared any other way for the rest of my life.

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Let’s start with the basics of couscous. Many people think couscous is a grain. In actuallity, it is just semolina flour that has been sprinkled with water and rolled into grains before being dried. Back in the olden days in Libya (aka my grandmother and probably a hundred years prior), couscous would be a tedious dish to make. They would sprinkle semolina with water on huge trays and roll it by hand into the small granules we call couscous. Then they would set the trays out to dry and harden in the sun. Once dried, it was time to make dinner. There are many variations of couscous dishes in the Maghreb region of North Africa and each country’s versions are distinctly different. One could not mistake a Moroccan couscous dish with a Libyan couscous or a Tunisian couscous. Today, we will be making a distinctly regional couscous dish from the Nafusa mountain region of western Libya called Aslooz. The eastern side of Libya had never even heard of Aslooz until a few years ago, thanks to Facebook cooking pages…that is how regional this dish is! I think another reason for it being very specific to this one region is because of the historical poverty (pre-Libyan oil discovery in the 1950s) of the Libyan mountains. This dish is a very economical dish to make using local ingredients and no meat…it was what was available to them.

Aslooz is a vegetarian (and vegan!) dish that consists of steamed couscous, a tomato-based sauce and the aslooz plant. (I will point out for thoroughness, some people make a carrot-tomato sauce instead of the tomato-based sauce.) The aslooz plant is indigenious to North Africa and I have actually never seen it in real life nor have I tasted it. For me, it has been quite elusive. In my quest to understand the dish, I asked my mama about the aslooz plant and we spent hours scouring the internet trying to figure out it’s name in English and whether it is available in America. Let me just say that Google searches in Arabic are a nightmare. Libyans have yet to master the use of the internet…unless it’s on Facebook. The best we could find was that it is an African mustard green and definitely not available in America or Germany. It has a short growing season during the summer and, apparently, it can be picked off the side of the road in the Nafusa mountains of Libya. Basically, it grows wild and is not a cultivated farm crop. It grows wild everywhere in the Nafusa mountains for a few weeks every summer, along roads and on the hillsides. Apparently, picking it off the side of the road seems to be a perfectly acceptable method of acquiring it, although my family gets from the hillside behind their home in Gharian, Libya or at the local market. If you are curious, watch this YouTube video of someone picking aslooz from the side of the road in Libya with road noises in the background as she narrates the various ways to prepare it. Btw, the aslooz plant in the video looks like a random weed! My husband and I were out for a bike ride two weeks ago and we came across some similar looking weeds and my husband got excited and exclaimed, “Look, aslooz! Let’s pick it for dinner!” I ignored him as I had no interest in cooking with an unidentified plant growing on the side of a road in Germany. There are multiple ways to make Aslooz and I prefer the Americanized version that my mama created for us to enjoy during our summers.

My mother’s version does not use the African mustard green/aslooz plant since it’s not available in America. Instead, her version uses asparagus and dill. (A few friends use broccolini, but I still prefer the asparagus.). It is heavenly and my favorite summer dish. It is also quite easy to make and ready in about 45 minutes. And since moving to Germany, I have come to learn that Germany has a true love affair with asparagus (“Spargel” in German, pronounced as “shparg-el”). They even sell asparagus cooking pots everywhere here, which I didn’t know existed. Although when I googled it, I found that Amazon and Williams-Sonoma carries them. Anyway, the German asparagus obsession is great for me because there is always fresh and reasonably priced asparagus available in the spring and summer here. I think it’s approximately half the price of asparagus in America!Ingredients (serves 3-4):

Ingredients (serves 3-4):

  • 1 1/2 cups couscous
  • 1 bunch asparagus spears
  • 1 bunch fresh dill
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 14 oz can crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1  1/2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon paprika (sweet, not smoked)
  • 1 teaspoon Libyan bzaar spice mix (if you don’t have any, use Arabic 7-spice and a pinch of turmeric)
  • cayenne pepper, to taste
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, adjust to taste

First, dice the onions and crush the garlic. In a medium saucepan, sautee the onions and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes. Then add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, water and spices.

Allow this to simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. If it is splattering all over your stove, you can place a lid on the pot at slight angle which will allow the steam to escape as it simmers.

Pull out your steamer pot (it should consist of a base pot, a steamer pot that fits on top and a lid…a basket-type steamer will not work for this) and fill the base pot halfway with water. Place it on the stove to heat the water to a boil. As you are waiting for the water to heat up, wash and trim the asparagus stems. Then chop the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces.

In a bowl, mix the dry couscous with 1/4 cup water. It will clump initially, but just keep mixing and breaking up the clumps. (sorry the lighting is odd in these pictures, the couscous is the same color in all three pictures…lol)

In the steamer portion of the pot, distribute the chopped asparagus across the bottom…be sure to cover all the little holes of the steamer with the asparagus. Then spread the couscous over the asparagus.

Place the steamer pot over the water pot that should be boiling by now, cover with the lid and reduce the heat to medium. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes have elapsed, you will need to carefully remove the lid (Caution: Hot steam will release, so be very careful!). Using a spoon or a spatula, gently mix together the asparagus and couscous.

IMG_6353

Replace the lid and set your timer for 15 minutes. Give the tomato sauce a stir, add water if needed. The tomato sauce should have a slightly thick consistency, but it should be little thinner than a marinara sauce. Next, wash and finely chop the dill.

When your 15 minute timer goes off, remove the lid of the steamer (very carefully!) and give the couscous a taste using a small spoon. It will be hot, so let it cool on your spoon for a few seconds and maybe even blow on it to cool it off before tasting. If it is soft, the couscous is ready! If it still has a little bite to it, allow it to steam for a few more minutes. Once the couscous is ready, carefully transfer it from the steamer to your serving dish. Stir in the chopped dill. Taste the salt-level of your tomato sauce, adjust as needed. The salt in your tomato sauce is very important as it will be seasoning your couscous. Once the tomato sauce salt level is ready and the sauce consistency is good (slightly thinner than a marinara sauce!), remove it from the heat and take a few spoonfuls of the sauce and mix them into the couscous. Your couscous should be slightly orange now, otherwise add more sauce.

Next, smooth the top of the couscous with the back of the spoon. Spoon the remainder of the tomato sauce over the top of the couscous and do your best to evenly distribute it across the entire surface. And the Aslooz is ready! If you are feeling fancy, garnish with some flatleaf parsley. Serve it with a Mediterranean-style salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, lemon juice, olive oil and salt. I also like to eat it with my Libyan Hareesa (hot sauce). Enjoy!

IMG_6373

 

Aslooz

  • Servings: 3-4
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

A summertime asparagus, dill and couscous dish from the Nafusa mountain region of Libya.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups couscous
  • 1 bunch asparagus spears
  • 1 bunch fresh dill
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 14 oz can crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon tomato paste
  • 1  1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon paprika (sweet, not smoked)
  • 1 teaspoon Libyan bzaar spice mix (if you don’t have any, use Arabic 7-spice and a pinch of turmeric)
  • cayenne pepper, to taste
  • black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, adjust to taste

Directions

  1. First, dice the onions and crush the garlic. In a medium saucepan, sautee the onions and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat for a few minutes. Then add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, water and spices.
  2. Allow this to simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. If it is splattering all over your stove, you can place a lid on the pot at slight angle which will allow the steam to escape as it simmers.
  3. Pull out your steamer pot (it should consist of a base pot, a steamer pot that fits on top and a lid…a basket-type steamer will not work for this) and fill the base pot halfway with water. Place it on the stove to heat the water to a boil. As you are waiting for the water to heat up, wash and trim the asparagus stems. Then chop the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces.
  4. In a bowl, mix the dry couscous with 1/4 cup water. It will clump initially, but just keep mixing and breaking up the clumps.
  5. In the steamer portion of the pot, distribute the chopped asparagus across the bottom…be sure to cover all the little holes of the steamer with the asparagus. Then spread the couscous over the asparagus.
  6. Place the steamer pot over the water pot that should be boiling by now, cover with the lid and reduce the heat to medium. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
  7. After 15 minutes have elapsed, you will need to carefully remove the lid (Caution: Hot steam will release, so be very careful!). Using a spoon or a spatula, gently mix together the asparagus and couscous.
  8. Replace the lid and set your timer for 15 minutes. Give the tomato sauce a stir, add water if needed. The tomato sauce should have a slightly thick consistency, but it should be little thinner than a marinara sauce. Next, wash and finely chop the dill.
  9. When your 15 minute timer goes off, remove the lid of the steamer (very carefully!) and give the couscous a taste using a small spoon. It will be hot, so let it cool on your spoon for a few seconds and maybe even blow on it to cool it off before tasting. If it is soft, the couscous is ready! If it still has a little bite to it, allow it to steam for a few more minutes. Once the couscous is ready, carefully transfer it from the steamer to your serving dish. Stir in the chopped dill.
  10. Taste the salt-level of your tomato sauce, adjust as needed. The salt in your tomato sauce is very important as it will be seasoning your couscous. Once the tomato sauce salt level is ready and the sauce consistency is good (slightly thinner than a marinara sauce!), remove it from the heat and take a few spoonfuls of the sauce and mix them into the couscous. Your couscous should be slightly orange now, otherwise add more sauce.
  11. Next, smooth the top of the couscous with the back of the spoon. Spoon the remainder of the tomato sauce over the top of the couscous and do your best to evenly distribute it across the entire surface. And the Aslooz is ready! If you are feeling fancy, garnish with some flatleaf parsley. Serve it with a Mediterranean-style salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, lemon juice, olive oil and salt.

 

 

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