Regarding the couscous party, Aunt Snow in the comments exhorted me to talk about "the food". Well, here comes the food post.
I'm going to preface my description of the food by noting, with some relief, that I had invited a young lady that I'd just met in a local pub to the party, but she had a prior family commitment and couldn't come. You ask yourself, "Why was he relieved that an attractive girl couldn't make this party?" Well, when I mentioned couscous, she said, "Couscous is easy to make, just get a box of Near East couscous, and add it to boiling water!" Yeah, and making risotto is just like boiling up some Uncle Ben's. If I had brought this beautiful barbarian to a Moroccan's apartment, both of us would have been asked to leave the premises.* I'm not knocking Near East couscous- I have two boxes in the kitchen, but it's a pre-steamed convenience product, not the sort of thing that a proud North African would serve to company at a dinner party.
The authentic couscous is sprinkled with salted water, then caressed like a lover with oiled hands so the water and oil are evenly distributed throughout the pasta and there are no large clumps. Then the couscous is placed on a cheesecloth to "rest" for a while. The couscous is then placed in the top portion of a steamer and steamed over a stew for about an hour. When it is done cooking, it is once again caressed with oiled hands to break up any clumps. My friend started the process of "caressing" the couscous the night before the dinner party.
My friend used lamb shoulder as the base of his stew, and added chickpeas and winter vegetables- cabbage, butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and onions- to the mix. Toward the end of the cooking process, he added tomatoes and two large jalapeños to the stew for added flavor. In a haute cuisine touch, he braised additional lamb shoulder to serve with the couscous.
To serve the couscous dish, he mounded the pasta on a plate the diameter of a sewer cap, and made a depression in the mound, like the caldera of a volcano. He placed the braised lamb in the "caldera", and distributed the vegetables around the mound. A Bronx-Irish friend looked at the cabbage, potatoes, and lamb and joked, "I thought this was going to be Moroccan food, not Irish food!" Bowls of the stock from the stew were placed strategically around the table so diners could moisten their couscous to their preference. Additionally, a large bowl of dark-brown caramelized onions and small bowls of harissa were available so diners could add them to the couscous to their individual tastes. Sprigs of cilantro were also on hand, to be added according to one's preference.
The typical Moroccan way to serve couscous is to place the serving dish in the middle of the table and the diners all have their "station" from which to grab from the main dish. This being hard to pull off in a NYC apartment without a large dining room, we all had individual plates. Diners could pick and choose which vegetables they wished to place on their plates (I glommed both jalapeños, and concentrated on my beloved parsnips), so even picky eaters would be well served by this presentation style.
* I must have mellowed considerably in my dotage- a few years ago, I probably would have yelled at the girl for being such a proud, unapologetic couscous n00b. I am reminded of a fundraising event a few years back which featured a display of artworks by young artists from Florence, and an array of olives, cheeses, and other fine Italian food products. Contemplating a round of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese the size of a tire, I turned to my friend Salvatore and said, "Hey, I wonder what the street value of this cheese is- it's gotta be about $800." A young lady overhearing me said, "Parmesan cheese is about $3.99 per pound in the supermarket." At that, I yelled at her, "This isn't Kraft, baby! This is the real deal, how dare you disrespect the cheese!" Oddly enough, I didn't go home with her.