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~ Couscous: What it is and How to Cook and Use it ~

6a0120a8551282970b015432d85dde970cI love this wonderful, versatile, pasta (NOT a grain) and I've been cooking and serving it for many years.  I particularly like to serve it with chicken or fish.  While children love it as a simple weeknight side-dish (mine did), when paired with the right entree, I think it is regal enough to be served at an elegant dinner party.  While teaching a cooking class last summer, it surprised me to learn how many folks have never tried it because they believe it to be difficult to prepare. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Busy cooks rely upon couscous as a "secret" time-saver. 

6a0120a8551282970b014e891c5978970d 12.01.28 PMCouscous is often referred to as Moroccan, but this is incorrect.  It is equally a dish of Algeria, Turkey, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, which all claim to be the home of couscous. Couscous, resemblant of and often confused with grain, is actually tiny coarsely-ground semolina pasta. Making and cooking couscous in the traditional manner is a time consuming process. It requires time and patience, 2-3 rounds (2-3 hours) in a special steamer to achieve this. The steamer, called a couscousiere, is similar to a colander placed over a large pot. Simply put, while a thick, hearty stew slow simmers in the large lower pot, the couscous steams on the top.  Perfectly-cooked to-the-tooth (al dente) couscous is light, fluffy and loose-grained, not sticky, gummy or gritty. 

Unless couscous is being served with warm milk as a porridge for breakfast, cold in a salad or incorporated into a dessert, it is served underneath the above mentioned stew which contains a meat or poultry, plenty of vegetables, toasted almonds, dates, currants and/or raisins, along with an array of fragrant spices.  Moroccans often add saffron, Algerians like to add tomatoes and Tunisians spice theirs up with the fiery hot-pepper-based "harissa sauce", which is sold in in Middle Eastern markets.  The steamed couscous is heaped onto a common platter with the stew ladled on top of it.  Diners typically use pieces of bread to scoop it from the common platter.

6a0120a8551282970b01538f29344b970bFinely milled Moroccan couscous (pictured below) is the cousin to the larger sized Israeli couscous (pictured here), which is sometimes referred to as pasta pearls.  It is often toasted in a skillet with a bit of EVOO and/or butter to bring up a lovely nutty flavor when cooked.  Israeli couscous is similar in size to the pasta shape called acini di pepe. While cooked couscous and acini di pepe can be used interchangeably in a lot of applications, it's important not to confuse the two.

Here's why:  While couscous is considered a pasta, pasta is not considered couscous and cannot be cooked like couscous.  Unlike how pasta is prepared (a mixture of semolina and water), couscous is not kneaded, which means the gluten is not released.  So, while pasta requires a lot of boiling water for it to tumble around in while cooking and absorbing moisture, couscous does not.  Cooking acini de pepe in the same manner would result in a starchy, sticky product.

6a0120a8551282970b015432d82396970cTraditional couscous cooking is NOT what we are focusing on here today. For the most part, the couscous sold in our Western supermarkets has been pre-steamed, then dried, and is referred to as instant couscous, and there is no shame in this kind of easy -- especially when it is so versatile and down right delicious. Unlike its counterpart, it cooks very quickly, in about 5 minutes, so be certain to check to make sure this is what you are purchasing.  Just like its counterpart, when properly cooked it is very light and fluffy.  The following is my basic, plain, unembellished recipe for couscous:

PICT4454 1 3/4 cups instant couscous (or 1, 10-ounce box)

2  cups water or stock (beef, chicken, vegetable etc.)

4  tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

1/2  teaspoon salt


~ Step 1.  In a 1 1/2-2-quart saucepan bring 2 cups of water and 4 tablespoons of butter to a boil over high heat.







~ Step 2.  Gradually sprinkle/add the couscous to the boiling water. Remove the pot from the heat. Using a large spoon, give the couscous a brief but thorough stir. Cover the pot and set it aside for 5-6 minutes.





~ Step 3.  Uncover the pot and using a fork, gently fluff the couscous.  I describe fluffing as gently raking through the couscous to separate its "grains" and incorporate air, which imparts volume.






~ Step 4. Serve immediately as an accompaniment to  anything you would serve rice with.  As I mentioned above, I particularly like to serve couscous with fish or chicken. That being said, here is a picture of my Couscous & Dilled Summer Squash stuffed tomatoes. You can find my recipe for ~ Dilled Summer Squash, Zucchini & Onion Saute ~ in Categories 4 & 14.You can read my instructions for ~ How to:  Hollow Out Tomatoes for Stuffing Them ~ in Categories 4 & 15!

Dilled Summer Squash & Zucchini #15

Couscous:  What is is and How to Cook & Use it:  Recipe yields 5 cups of cooked couscous or about 4-6 servings.

Special Equipment List:  1 1/2-2-quart saucepan w/lid; 2-cup measuring container; large spoon; fork

Cook's Note:  Cover and refrigerate leftovers.  To reheat and serve:  return to room temperature, reheat in the microwave and re-fluff with a fork just prior to serving.

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)


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