- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Last month I arrived in the Perigord area of southwestern France with a small group of students for a week of culinary adventures and hands-

on cooking classes.

As I have for six years, I shepherded enthusiastic cooks to Wendely Harvey and Robert Cave-Rogers’ restored 18th-century manor house, La Combe. In the past several years, our hosts have transformed a run-down farm into a glorious compound that includes a barn with beautiful suites and a courtyard surrounded by centuries-old walnut trees.

They have planted a huge vegetable and herb garden known as a “potager.” More than this inviting rustic setting, though, it is the owners’ warm hospitality that makes these stays so special.

They have truly mastered the art of entertaining.

For example, the evening we arrived, there was a delicious, welcome dinner spread out on the buffet waiting for us. The menu included braised chicken and baby onions cooked until fork tender in an earthenware pot and served with mounds of golden couscous studded with a melange of dried apricots, dates and golden raisins.

Trays laden with roasted tomatoes scented with garlic and rosemary and thin roasted eggplant slices topped with tapenade were other tempting sides. Cheeses and crusty breads and a buttery chocolate gateau ended our fete.

This menu was so delectable and served with such ease that we all pleaded for the recipes, which they quickly shared. My favorite dish was the bright yellow-hued couscous. I loved the enticing blend of sweetness from the dried fruits and the spiciness of several splashes of hot chili oil.

Miss Harvey revealed that she had used a spiced packaged couscous, so when I adapted this recipe in my own kitchen I added hints of cumin, curry and cayenne pepper.

Nothing could be simpler. The couscous takes less than half an hour to assemble and cook, and it holds up beautifully when made a couple hours in advance. I’ve served it twice for family meals this week, once with roast chicken and another time with grilled lamb chops.

Now I can’t wait to serve this couscous along with some small greenbeans to accompany balsamic-glazed roast pork tenderloins as the opening menu for friends coming for the weekend. I just hope that my husband and I can make our welcoming-night dinner as warm and inviting as that one hosted last month in Perigord.

Wendely’s couscous with dried apricots, dates and golden raisins

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots

½ cup finely diced dried apricots

2 tablespoons finely diced dates, preferably Medjool dates

2 tablespoons golden raisins

½ teaspoon cumin

½ teaspoon curry powder

1/16 teaspoon (about 2 pinches) teaspoons cayenne pepper

3 cups chicken stock

2 cups couscous

About ½ teaspoon chili oil, or more as desired

Kosher salt

1½ tablespoons chopped parsley

Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan (with a lid) over medium heat until melted and hot. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until softened and translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the apricots, dates, raisins, cumin, curry powder, and cayenne. Stir to mix. Remove pan from heat and set aside.

Heat stock in another saucepan until it comes to a boil, then pour it over the shallot-fruit mixture. Stir in the couscous, and cover pan with a lid. Let stand for 5 minutes.

Uncover pan and stir in ½ teaspoon chili oil. Taste, and if you’d like a spicier flavor, add 1 to 2 more splashes of oil. Then stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Season to taste with salt. (The couscous can be prepared 2 hours ahead. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave at cool room temperature. Reheat in a microwave-proof bowl in a microwave oven according to manufacturer’s directions.) To serve, mound couscous in a serving bowl and sprinkle with parsley. Serve warm. Makes 6 servings.

Note: Chili oil is available in most supermarkets on the same shelf as the olive oils. Use chili oil sparingly, as it can add quite a bit of heat to a dish.

Betty Rosbottom is a cooking school director and author of “Big Book of Backyard Cooking” (Chronicle Books).

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