It’s the grain that isn’t.
Many people, if not most, would put couscous on the same shelf as bulgur, cracked wheat, and barley — they’re all nutritious but sort of unusual forms of grain. Right?
Not couscous. It looks like a grain, it is prepared and served like a grain. But it is, in fact, a pasta — little, tiny beads of pasta.
Couscous is one of those foods that acts like a sponge, drawing in the flavor of all the foods that surround them. When you put, say, a braised shank of lamb on top of it, it becomes almost an extension of the taste of the lamb and the braising liquid. But you also get a marvelously fluffy texture to go with it, enhancing the flavor with what chefs would call “mouthfeel.”
A recent article in the New York Times described the easy, though somewhat time-consuming, method for making your own homemade couscous, which the writer claimed is infinitely better than the stuff you buy at the store.
And indeed, it did not seem difficult at all. You take semolina flour, spritz it with water, and then rub it lightly with your hands until it clumps together like coarse meal. Shake it through a sieve, steam it uncovered over boiling water, and add salt and oil. Steam it once more, covered, and you have the freshest couscous possible.
Even so, that is a bit over the top, even for me. You can get perfectly good couscous in a store for relatively little money, and then you will not need to buy a couscousiere, a special double-boiler pot with holes on the bottom of the top pot that is good for making couscous and really nothing else.
Because couscous originates in northern Africa, most people tend to use African spices and flavor combinations when they make it, and that makes sense to me. Fusion cooking has its place, as we shall see, but it is often best for a food to dance with the country that brought it.
For instance: I made a Melissa d’Arabian recipe for north African meatballs served with couscous with dried dates, and my life may never be the same.
OK, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration. But it is easy to be moved to superlatives when encountering this dish. You might never expect these flavors to go well together, but in a decidedly Moroccan way, they do. And how.
The bite-sized meatballs (beef mixed with cilantro, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon), are simmered in a heady north African sauce (garlic, olives, lemon zest, tomatoes, and white wine, which does not seem right for a recipe representing an almost entirely Muslim country). Then it is served on top of fluffy couscous with dried dates mixed in. The dish is at once salty from the olives, savory from the cinnamon, cumin, and cilantro, and a little sweet from the dates and a hint of brown sugar.
The flavors have a chance to marry, and then the sensation of eating it is extraordinary. Unforgettable, even.
In a different dish of chicken and mushrooms with couscous, the couscous is also mixed with dried fruit — in this case, apricots. Although this meal also has the traditional Mediterranean blend of cinnamon and cumin, it seems a little less exotic to those Americans whose taste runs less toward the adventurous.
Chicken and mushrooms with couscous is essentially a typical baked chicken with mushrooms, but flavored with just enough cinnamon and cumin that you know they are there. For many folks, it is the couscous on the side — with the dried apricots — that makes this filling and satisfying dish unique.
Couscous is also the star in a delightful side salad with, yes, a bit of dried fruit. In this case, it is dried cranberries. The flavors seem complex in this salad, though it is simple to make. You simply pour boiling water and chicken or vegetable stock on top of couscous, cranberries, and curry powder. Add a bit of orange juice for a boost of flavor, and stir it a couple of times while the couscous absorbs the liquid.
Then, you stir in olive oil, parsley, lemon juice, and toasted walnuts, and serve; room temperature is fine. For a touch of extra flavor and a little welcome crunch, you could also add a diced apple. That would take a salad that is already great and turn it even more special.
Finally, I tried a little fusion cooking, blending couscous with an all-American dish. In her book Couscous: Fresh and Flavorful Contemporary Recipes, Kitty Morse hit upon the concept of serving chili over couscous. It is the same basic idea as serving it with crackers or, more exactly, the Cincinnati favorite of chili over spaghetti.
Chili over couscous is a great thought anyway, but the combination is even better in Ms. Morse’s Red and Black Bean Chili Con Couscous because the chili in Red and Black Bean Chili Con Couscous is some of the best chili I’ve ever had — and I’ve had a lot of chili. She has determined the perfect proportion of spice, aromatics, liquids, and tomatoes.
The chili is not very hot, and the couscous tempers what heat there is. If you want it spicier, you could certainly bump up the heat with peppers or a hotter chili powder. It also does not have meat (though it is not vegetarian unless you use vegetable stock). If you want meat in your chili — add meat. Pretty simple, really.
It’s an unbeatable use for couscous, a tiny pasta so nice they named it twice.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.
Red and Black Bean Chili Con Couscous
In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, warm two tablespoons of the oil. Add the onions. Cook, stirring, until golden, 3-5 minutes. Add the diced pepper and cook, stirring, until soft, 2-3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, garlic, 1 cup of the beef broth, and half of the cilantro, tied with a cotton string.
Chop the remaining cilantro, and set aside. Cover and cook until the soup comes to a low boil, 10-12 minutes. Reduce heat to medium. Add the red and black beans, cumin, chili powder, corn, 1 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper. Cover, and continue cooking until the flavors blend, 15-25 minutes. Discard the cilantro.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the remaining broth, salt, and olive oil to a boil. Add the couscous in a stream. Stir once. Remove from the heat. Cover and let stand until the couscous is tender, 12-15 minutes. Stir in the chopped olives. Set aside.
Gently pack equal amounts of couscous until 6 generously greased 6-ounce ramekins. Ladle 6 equal servings of chili into 6 warm, shallow soup plates. Carefully unmold a ramekin of couscous into the center of each plate. Garnish with the shredded cheese, sour cream, and reserved, chopped cilantro.
Yield: 6 servings; Source: Couscous: Fresh and Flavorful Contemporary Recipes, by Kitty Morse
North African Meatballs
To make the North African sauce: In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic until soft but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the lemon zest and olives and cook for 1 more minute. Add the white wine, deglaze the pan, and let it reduce for 1-2 minutes. Stir in the stock, canned tomatoes, sugar, crushed red pepper, and cinnamon, and simmer to blend flavors, about 7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
To make the meatballs: In a medium bowl, add the egg and tomato paste and stir until smooth. Add the cilantro, ginger, cumin, and cinnamon and mix until well blended. Stir in the ground beef and oats, season with salt and pepper to taste, and combine gently after each addition. Do not overmix. Rolling with your hands, make about 32 small meatballs, about 1 inch in diameter.
In a large sauté pan, heat 3 tablespoons vegetable oil over medium heat, and brown the meatballs in batches until golden on all sides. Add more oil, as needed. Transfer the meatballs to the pan with the sauce and let simmer for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve over the couscous with dried dates.
To make the couscous with dried dates: Bring the water, stock, and oil to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the dates followed by the couscous. Cover the pan tightly with a lid, remove from the heat, and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl, and serve.
Yield: 4 servings; Source: By Melissa d'Arabian, via Food Network
Chicken and Curry with Couscous
Preheat the oven to 400°. Toss the mushrooms, 2 tablespoons olive oil, the garlic, cumin, cinnamon, ½ teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste on a rimmed baking sheet.
Rub the chicken breasts with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the chicken skin-side up among the mushrooms. Roast until the chicken skin is crisp and golden and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 165°, 25-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the couscous with the chopped apricots as the package directs. Season with salt and pepper.
Transfer the chicken to plates. Toss the mushrooms with the lemon juice, cilantro or dill, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve the chicken with the mushrooms, couscous, and yogurt.
Yield: 4 servings Source; Food Network Magazine
Curried Couscous Salad with Dried Sweet Cranberries
Cook's note: To toast the walnuts, spread them out on a baking sheet and bake in a 400° oven until they turn a shade darker, about 8 minutes.
Stir the couscous, cranberries, curry powder, salt, and sugar together in a heatproof bowl. Bring water (amount will be listed on package directions, but for every 1 cup of couscous, use 1 cup each of water and chicken broth) to a boil and pour it over the couscous. Add the orange juice. Give it a big stir, cover the bowl tightly and let it stand, giving it a big stir once or twice, until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender, about 5 minutes.
Fluff up the couscous with a fork, Add the olive oil, scallions, parsley, lemon juice, and walnuts. Stir around until everything is distributed evenly throughout the couscous. Make up to 2 hours ahead of time and keep at room temperature until you're ready to serve. Check on the seasonings just before you serve the salad and add salt and pepper, to taste.
Yield: 4 servings Source: By David Lieberman, via Food Network; Another recipe on Page 2