Spelt and cauliflower couscous with Ras el Hanout

Sometimes a few tweaks can render a simple dish healthier, getting you one step closer to achieving your daily dietary fibre target. The addition of spices can also help to add flavour without the need for salt.

It is no secret that I am always on the lookout for ways to try new recipes, add more vegetables to my diet, and generally make healthy swaps. My latest culinary experiment has been with wholegrain spelt couscous rather than the more traditional couscous which is (white) semolina milled from hard durum wheat.

What is spelt?

Spelt is an ancient grain, which was first used over 8,000 years ago in Europe and the Middle East but later almost disappeared from our tables. In more recent times it has made a come back, in both refined and wholegrain form, in breadmaking, pasta, crackers and breakfast cereals. Although it is not gluten-free and coeliacs should avoid it, spelt appears to be more readily digestible by those with gluten and wheat intolerances than conventional wheat.

Like for all grains, the wholegrain version trumps the white (refined) original in terms of health, not only by the addition of fibre, but also because wholegrains do not cause a high insulin spike in the same way white, refined flour and grains do. Consider that regular white semolina couscous racks up a score of 52 on the G.I. (glycaemic index) scale so anything that can lower that will be welcome.


The nutritional differences between regular and spelt couscous

The table below outlines the differences between traditional white, wholegrain couscous and wholegrain spelt couscous. As you can see, wholegrain spelt is not only lower in calories and total carbohydrates, it also contains considerably more fibre

100grams of uncooked, dry couscous

Regular white couscous

Regular wholegrain couscous

Wholegrain Spelt couscous


349 kcal

372 kcal

343 kcal


70 g




16.3 g




4.7 g







These are all considerations that need to be taken into account if your blood sugar or cholesterol levels are high.

Couscous itself, rather like flour, does not taste of anything in particular. So, how do you make it flavoursome? When it comes to pre-cooked couscous, the addition of a pinch of sea salt and a splash of olive oil in the cooking water will help a little but spices are the way to go.

Enter Ras el Hanout

If you have never heard of this spice mix you should know that Ras el Hanout is to North African cooking, what Garam Masala is to Indian kitchens. This rich spice blend varies according to the region and household. In fact the Arabic name itself literally means “the head of the shop”, which is used to refer to the best spices available in the shop. You can see why, then, there is no standard of agreed spices in the mix.

Most commonly seen in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, it usually includes cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, fenugreek, turmeric and black pepper, often with the addition of other spices such as cardamom, cloves, dry ginger, fennel and chili. All these are in powder form and confer a distinctly spicy (not to be confused with hot!) taste to any dish.

No tagine can exist without this spice mix. However, it is not always present in couscous dishes.

Other uses of Ras el Hanout include meat and fish recipes, where it can either be used as a rub (I often use it on chicken breasts), or to flavour the sauces. It is also found in vegetable dishes such as the Cauliflower and Chickpea couscous below.

The difference between a tagine and a couscous

Have you ever wondered what the difference between these two deceptively identical dishes is? Apart from the obvious – a couscous must by its very nature be served on a bed of couscous, whereas tagines can be served with bread instead of the couscous, or nothing at all – tagines and couscous do have distinct characteristics.

Tagines are sweeter and are more often cooked with sweet dried fruit, such as dried figs, dried apricots, raisins, dried prunes or preserved lemons. For meat and fish tagines you will notice that only one type of meat or fish is used, they are not mixed such as you might see in a Couscous Royale. There is also no sight of the traditional North African sausages, merguez, in a tagine. Vegetables more usually found in tagines are courgettes, and potatoes.

Couscous, on the other hand, is characterised by the use of artichokes, onions, pumpkins and turnips. It is also ok to mix different types of meat or fish, or inlcude merguez.Two ingredients that are common to both tagines and couscous are tomatoes and carrots.

In terms of spices you might find paprika, cumin and coriander in both. But, as indicated above, you will not always find Ras el Hanout in a tagine although it is a must in couscous dishes.


Of course, like all things, tagines and couscous can be made only with vegetables, and in this case with the cauliflower and chickpea recipe which follows. What better way to serve up a nutritional powerhouse of flavours in a single, filling dish packed with fibre?


Spiced Spelt Couscous with Cauliflower and Chickpeas

Ingredients (2 generous portions)

160g of Wholegrain Spelt Couscous

1 small cauliflower head

1 can of chopped tomatoes

½ cup of dried chickpeas

½ medium-sized red onion

1 clove of garlic

15g of raisins

a handful of dry black Moroccan olives

2 tsp Ras el Hanout

½ tsp ground cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

1 tsp ground coriander

½ tsp chilli flakes

1 tsp dried parsley



1.      The night before (or at least 6 hours before), soak the dried chickpeas in warm water with a pinch of bicarbonate. If pinched for time add almost boiling water to speed things up.

2.      Drain and cook the chickpeas for approximately 30 to 35 minutes or until cooked through. Then discard the water and set aside.

3.      In a separate small bowl, soak the raisins to rehydrate them for at least 30 minutes.

4.      Peel and roughly chop the onion.

5.      Wash the cauliflower in a bowl with bicarbonate and water. Dry and trim, removing which can be saved for a soup. Separate the cauliflower florets (not too small) from the stalk.  Finely chop the stalk.

6.      Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a pan, add the onion and cauliflower, a pinch of salt and the chilli flakes and allow to gently sauté for a couple of minutes. Then add a splash of water and cover with a lid to cook for approximately 10 to 15 minutes until the cauliflower is tender.

7.      In the meantime, slice the garlic, remove the pits from the olives (this can easily be done by pressing hard with your thumb to split them open), and prepare the spices.

8.      In a separate pan heat a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the garlic and cook for one to two minutes, then add the spices and dry parsley and cook for another minute allowing all the flavours to mix.

9.      Next, toss in the drained raisins and olives to the spice pan and cook for a few more seconds before adding the chopped tomatoes.

10.  Allow the tomato to cook for about 10 minutes before adding the chickpeas. Mix well, leave on medium heat and cover up to allow the tomato to thicken.

11.  Once the cauliflower is cooked and the tomato begins to thicken, toss the cauliflower mixture (any water should have evaporated by now) into the pan with the tomatoes. Stir well. Cover and turn off the heat.

12.  Prepare the couscous following the packet instructions. Place the couscous in a small bowl, boil the water in a kettle, then pour enough just cover the couscous with it, adding a pinch of salt and a splash of olive oil to the water. Cover with a plate for a couple of minutes without touching it.

13.  Once the couscous has absorbed the water and is ready, fluff up with a fork. Scoop onto the plates, and top with a generous serving of the cauliflower and chickpea mix.

Garnish with a little fresh coriander and or a squeeze of fresh lemon and serve.

Bon Appetit!

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