By Elizabeth Gracen:
I’ve been meaning to start this recipe series for quite some time—with an open invitation for all you home cooks out there to contribute recipes and articles in the coming months. (Please read submission guidelines at the end of this article). Since summer is here, and I’m steeling myself for a major kitchen renovation (pray for me), I’m contemplating my temp kitchen and how the hell I’m going to navigate a month’s worth of family meals. Even though we’ll be ordering a lot more take-out than usual over the next month, I’m a kitchen witch who likes to cook her own food the majority of the time. We’ll see how long that actually lasts for this adventure, but I thought it might be interesting to start the series by contemplating my stack of cookbooks and favorite recipes before I pack them away until I cross the kitchen reno extravaganza finish line.
The plan is make good use of my large crockpot, and I’ve decided to start with one of my all-time favorite dishes: Couscous Legumes à la Chez Omar in Paris, France.
Let’s talk the history of Chez Omar—not just the restaurant, but my fondest memories as well. Chez Omar, owned by Omar Guerda, opened in the Marais district of Paris in the 1970s at 47 Rue de Bretagne in the 3rd Arrondissement. It was one of the first Algerian restaurants in Paris and quickly became a go-to destination for fashionista and Parisian foodies in search of something out of the ordinary. From the little research I have done, a sister restaurant, Bar Omar, was opened in Brooklyn, NY, in 2016 by Guerda’s daughter, but it appears to have closed. What a shame! Especially since the article I read talked about a menu with Chez Omar’s signature dishes and Omar Guerda himself often appearing from the kitchen to greet the diners. What an easy, natural charmer he is!
I first met Omar in the early 90s on my very first visit to the glorious City of Lights. He was such a gracious host, warm and friendly, and the food was such a delight. Later, in the winter of 1995 on New Year’s Eve, right before I was to begin another months-long stint on Highlander: The Series, I stayed with my British expat friends and partied at Chez Omar until they kicked us out after an evening of Couscous Royal and copious amounts of Bordeaux. The night ended with me pulling my black wool coat off the restaurant peg to make the chilly walk back to the apartment. It was the next morning before I realized that I had plucked the wrong coat from the rack!
I spent that day strolling Paris in a stranger’s coat, but as soon as the restaurant opened, I called and explained the dilemma, only to hear that my black coat twin had called as well. A new year’s cocktail rendezvous was planned with my very tall English friend, Nick (aka Nikita), at my side as an escort.
At six p.m. Nick and I returned to Chez Omar to sip champagne at the bar and toast the year to come with Omar. Suddenly we heard an American say, “I don’t know why I envisioned a beautiful young woman waiting to exchange this coat, but I did.”
Nick’s tall frame totally obscured the American’s eye line, as well as mine. Nick looked to the door and laughed his boisterously perfect English actor’s laugh before turning to the side with a grand flourish of his big slender hands to reveal me with a loud “Voila!”
The handsome, silver-haired American’s eyes went wide. He hesitated before putting his hand in the pocket of my coat draped over his arm.
“I just knew from the dried rose bud and a ripped ticket for the Musée Rodin in the pocket that it had to be a woman,” he said with a smile as he pulled the named items out of the pocket and opened his palm.
What followed was a sweet exchange of addresses written on Chez Omar cocktail napkins (these were the days before email and iPhones), goodwill wishes for a new year, and a promise for him to make contact if he ever made his way to Los Angeles. It would be almost a year later when his rouge letter appeared in my mailbox, declaring a lingering curiosity about our unusual meeting and the outside possibly that it might be destined for something more. For better or for worse, this romantic story chocked full of possibilities went no further, but it is one that I will never forget . . . just like Chez Omar.
I’ve tried many versions of this recipe over the years, doing my damndest to replicate the texture, taste, and heat of Chez Omar’s delicate blend of flavors and savory addiction, and I’m always aiming for the fairy-tale magic that hit my taste buds on that first night. If you Google the recipe for Couscous Legumes à la Chez Omar, you’ll find a variety of versions, but none of them feel quite right. I've experimented over time, adding zucchini and turnips.
It is very important that you include the essential ritual of adding harissa to a ladle of the stewed broth to dissolve the spicy paste before pouring it over your plate of couscous topped with vegetables. It's just not "à la Chez Omar" unless you do it. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
Serve Couscous legumes with a roast chicken, sausages, or lamb for those who demand meat for their meals. For the rest of us . . . all you need is a fresh green salad to follow the main course and a bottle or two of good French wine.
Couscous Legumes à la Chez Omar
2 onions, chopped
2 Tbsp olive oil, ghee or butter
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
3 cups water
1 can diced tomatoes
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 carrots, peeled and sliced into 1-inch pieces
2 turnips, peeled and cut into small 1-inch wedges
3 zucchini, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 Tbsp honey
1 Tbsp harissa paste
Brown the onions in olive oil and then add the garlic and spices. Cook for a minute or so before adding it to the slow cooker.
Add the remaining ingredients and stir well. Season with salt and pepper.
Cover and cook on High for 5 hours.
When you are ready for the meal, remove 2 cups of hot legume stew broth and pour into a bowl. Add the couscous and oil and cover for 5 minutes. You should be able to fluff the couscous with a fork.
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