Moroccan couscous salad

A tribute to Eloise : teacher, mentor, friend

Moroccan couscous salad

At some point in your education, if you were lucky, you had a transformative educator who was dedicated, enthusiastic, and funny. That teacher knew how to grab your curiosity and channel it in the most inspiring ways. Most importantly, that teacher shaped the course of your life. And if you were really lucky, the result ended up looking like something I’d call destiny.

In French, any type of learning program is called a formation. On the first day of classes in the tech school where I worked for six years, I’d draw an amoeba-like forme (shape) on the board, and tell students that they were informe – shapeless – and that by being in training for two years, they were going to find their shape, which would hopefully resemble a square, if I did my job right. Based on exam success rates, I’d like to think that most of them ended up looking at least like rough parallelograms.

Middle English

But when I was in high school, I didn’t really resemble any shape at all, and was lucky enough to find myself spending a lot of time with Eloise, or Mrs. C., as we called her back then. Mrs. C. taught French and English, and also coached the school’s public speaking team, which she encouraged me to join. Her classes were challenging : who else would have asked us to memorize the [**prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in Middle English*]  ?

But we did it (and I can still recite the beginning, all these years later), because Mrs. C. was precisely the kind of teacher who believed in us so much that we couldn’t fathom disappointing her. She raised the bar on teaching and learning. But what about those students who didn’t meet the challenge ?

I’ll admit freely that I dozed through a lot of my classes back then, dreaming of the day I’d finally have my driver’s license, or about how fascinating Luke and Laura were compared to my boring suburban existence. (If you never watched afternoon soap operas growing up, then you missed out on a very peculiar kind of education.)

Internal regulation

But when I arrived in Mrs. C.’s class sophomore year, my real education began. My lethargy ended the day I saw what happened to sleepy students in her classroom : Mrs. C. would continue to talk to the rest of the class, and at the same time she would stealthily approach the listless teenager in question. Then she would suddenly slam a large, heavy book onto the desk next to the student, jolting him awake and of course, as all the other students pointed and laughed, embarrassing him enough so that it wouldn’t happen again.

All of Mrs. C’s little tricks and tips to keep students on their toes are ones I’ve adopted for my own classroom : when students get chatty, I start speaking very quietly so that they must strain to hear me, and they shush the other talking students, a kind of internal regulation of the classroom that works wonders.

Pastis and topless sun-bathing

But it wasn’t just all about little tricks : Mrs. C had a sincere and genius way of teaching that was all about flexibility and creativity. She would help us find mnemonic devices or acronyms to remember French verbs or the order of adjectives. I remember one day being surprised to see Mrs. C.’s wedding ring on her right hand, and she told me she’d changed it just an hour before, so that when she got home, she would see it, wonder why it was there, and then remember to water the plants.

The first time I traveled to France, it was with Mrs. C. I was 17, and she chaperoned our little group through Paris and on to Antibes in the south of France, where we had home-stays and French classes every day at a local school. I still remember the exotic dilapidation of the school facilities : forlorn classrooms scrawled with graffiti, and in the bathroom, there weren’t any toilet seats, just bare toilets. And I’m sorry, Mrs. C., but the south of France was also where I took my first sip of pastis and sun-bathed topless on the beaches in Nice. You’d be happy to know I got a sunburn in two of the worst places possible.


But Eloise, as she asked me to call her about 10 years ago during one of our annual visits together here in Paris, would never be happy about something like that. But she most definitely would have made a comment that just verged on sarcasm, and that was also a witty and yet compassionate equivalent of “I told you so.” When students were acting up in class, she would sometimes say, “Education is wasted on the young.” Such a strange comment from someone so dedicated to her art.

And Eloise did indeed elevate teaching to its highest form : an art. Eloise was so good at her job that I wanted to do what she did – it seemed like magic. Have you ever watched someone who is really good at what they do, and then tried to reproduce their technique, because they made it look so easy ?

Learn with the best

That happened all the time during my culinary training – for example, our teacher would make an au poivre sauce for steak. It seemed like he moved his hands twice, and suddenly, the pan was aflame, and then he was turning the creamy sauce out onto that juicy steak. When we attempted the technique, we set our tea towels on fire, dropped spoons on the floor, or ended up with crème fraiche in our eyes. How did he do it ?

Last week, we lost one of our best educators, precisely the kind that made it all look effortless. Eloise has left behind a loving and equally enthusiastic and curious husband – her high-school sweetheart – as well as three children, and many grand-children. She had moved to Florida years ago. When most people would have stopped working, she had no real interest in full-time retirement, and continued to teach all sorts of people who were lucky enough to learn with the best.

So Eloise, it is with a heavy heart, but also with plenty of fond memories of our friendship, that I dedicate this post to you. You touched many, many lives in the course of your career and life. It is thanks to your art, your sense of dedication, and your joie de vivre that I became a Francophile and a teacher. Merci beaucoup, Eloise.

Moroccan couscous salad

Moroccan couscous salad

Once or twice a year in high school we’d have Culture Day, when everyone would bring in a dish that corresponded to their choice of language learning. One year Mrs. C brought in a Morroccan couscous salad for us to try.

I still remember it : I’d never tasted such perfumed ingredients in a savory salad. There were tender cubes of chicken, and fluffy couscous studded with sweet raisins and apricots. The whole salad was spiced with what seemed to me at the time to be exclusively “sweet” spices : allspice and cinnamon.

Do you remember the scene in the movie Ratatouille, where Anton Ego, the critic, tastes the ratatouille that Rémy and Alfredo have prepared ? Upon tasting, the critic is transported back in time : we see him as a boy, at his mother’s table, eating ratatouille for the very first time. It’s what we would call his own personal madeleine de Proust – that tasting experience that reawakens our taste buds and transports us back to childhood, all in one bite.

In the same way, the French chef Joël Robuchon built his reputation and fame on mashed potatoes, because his recipe tastes just like the potatoes grand-mère used to make (never mind that grand-mère and Monsieur Robuchon use nearly equal proportions of potatoes and butter…). You might have guessed that this salad’s ingredients and spices are my madeleine – they take me right back to French class with Mrs. C.

If you’ve never made instant couscous, nothing could be easier, but you might like to read this helpful article. And if you like to eat bell peppers raw, feel free to not cook them at all. I’ve given instructions for cooking them here, since I’ve grown accustomed to accommodating French friends who claim that raw bell peppers are indigeste, or too difficult to digest.

ingredients :
- 1½ teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon ras el hanout (Moroccan spice mix)
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon coriander
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound, 4 ounces (560g) raw chicken breast, cut into cubes (or use cooked chicken)
- 3 bell peppers (1 each red, green, yellow), washed, seeded, and chopped
- 4 ripe apricots, pitted and cut into about 8 pieces each
- 1 medium shallot, minced
- 1 cup (240g) instant couscous (I use whole wheat)
- ⅓ cup (50g) yellow raisins (sultanas)
- 1 cup (240g) chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup (240g) cooked chickpeas (canned are fine here, but rinse them well in a colander)
- ½ cup (70g) pine nuts, toasted (see here)
- 1 generous handful fresh mint, chopped
- 1 generous handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

for the vinaigrette :
- 1½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1½ tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- ⅓ cup (70g) olive oil

how to make it :
1. Measure out the spices and combine them all in a small ramekin.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. When the oil is shimmering hot, spread the chicken cubes in the pan and brown the cubes on one side (about 5 minutes).
3. Shake the pan (or turn the cubes over with tongs) to brown the other side, and add about half of the spice mix, along with a good pinch of sea salt, and continue to brown the chicken.
4. Remove the pan from the heat and using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken pieces from the pan to a large bowl, leaving as much of the remaining oil as possible in the pan.
5. Add the peppers to the pan and cook over medium heat, occasionally shaking and stirring, until soft (about 6 minutes). Add the rest of the spice mix and a good pinch of salt, and continue to stir and cook for about 2 more minutes.
6. Remove the peppers from the pan and add them to the chicken, again using a slotted spoon. Return the pan to the heat and add the apricots and the shallot. Cook until the apricots are just slightly caramelized (browned), about 4-5 minutes. Let cool.
7. Pour the instant couscous and the raisins into a large bowl. Heat the chicken or vegetable stock and olive oil to boiling, and add them to the couscous. Stir well and cover, letting it sit for about 10-15 minutes.
8. In the meantime, add the chickpeas, and toasted pine nuts to the chicken and peppers in the large bowl. Add the apricot/shallot mixture, and stir well.
9. Fluff and carefully stir the couscous with a fork (a spoon tends to crush the grains)
10. Once it’s cool, add the couscous to the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
11. To make the vinaigrette, combine the mustard, lemon juice, and salt in a small bowl, and stir well with a fork or small whisk. Add the oil in a slow, steady stream, stirring vigorously to make an emulsion.
12. When ready to serve, pour the vinaigrette over the salad, add the chopped herbs, and stir well. Bon app’ !

makes about 5 servings

Tags : couscous , education , teaching


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Martha Keith 3 juillet 2015

What a beautiful tribute to such a powerful figure in your life, Allison. Her influence on you has no doubt helped you to influence countless students of your own. Reading this reminds me of mentors in my own life, and how lucky we are to experience that chemistry between student and teacher when both gain. I’ll be reminded of that again when I taste this delicious looking couscous salad ! Thanks for sharing.

Allison Zinder 3 juillet 2015

Thank you for your comment and your compliment, Martha. Yes, how important mentors are, and how lucky we are when we find one. Merci !

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