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Couscous quick

Think this tiny pasta is a mystery best left to restaurants? On the contrary, it's a great solution for busy cooks: fast, easy and inexpensive.

Published April 19, 2006

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Plain couscous gets along with a variety of flavors. For a quick side dish, mix it with dried cranberries, mint and pine nuts.

Thinking too much about couscous can hurt your head.

Is it a grain or pasta? Should it be steamed or boiled? What's the difference between Moroccan and Israeli versions? Or for that matter, how about Lebanese couscous?

It's enough to send one running for takeout. Or wishing we had couscous takeout; in France you can get it to go with your choice of meat or veggies.

Here's what you really need to know about couscous: It's a busy cook's best friend, so quick, easy and cheap that you don't need takeout. The fluffy granules cook in less than 10 minutes most of it off the heat.

And, like tofu, couscous takes on the flavor of whatever it's blended with. That makes it an amiable accompaniment to fish, meat and poultry, plus a variety of vegetables and fresh herbs. Eat it hot or cold.

Just in case you are ever on Jeopardy, couscous is a pasta (not a grain) made from hard durum wheat, which is indigenous to North Africa and is smaller than a grain of rice. It's a staple in cuisines across the Mideast and northern Africa, especially in Morocco, where it often serves as the cradle for thick lamb stews or pairs with dried fruits.

Finely milled Moroccan couscous is the cousin to Israeli couscous, which is sometimes called toasted couscous or pasta pearls. Lebanese couscous is larger still and nearly impossible to find.

They taste significantly different. Moroccan couscous is bland when cooked in water, a stark canvas that needs embellishment. In the mouth, the micro-mini pasta fuses together like mashed potatoes. The larger pasta pearls have a nutty flavor and almost pop when bitten.

Mostly what we see in stores today are instant varieties of the fine couscous. It's important that you know which kind you are buying, instant or traditional. Traditional will take much longer to cook, sort of like the difference between dried beans and canned. You'd have to seek out the long-cooking version. Whole food stores and the Internet are probably your best sources.

But why cook for two hours when 10 minutes will do the trick? The taste is similar, and the nutrition is, too: About 90 calories for half a cup, with a little fat and protein and about 15 carbohydrate grams. Add in 2 grams of fiber.

Near East food company produces instant couscous mixes with flavors as diverse as roasted garlic and olive oil, tomato lentil, broccoli and cheese, and wild mushroom. See how congenial the neutral couscous is?

To experiment, buy unflavored instant couscous. Follow these instructions. Carefully. Boil 1 cup of water in a pan with a lid. Dump in 1 cup of instant couscous, put the lid on and remove from the heat. File your nails for five minutes. Take off lid and fluff granules with a fork.

All done. Seriously. That's it. No throwing a spoonful on the wall to see if it sticks. No need to know the difference between al dente and Al Pacino.

Now, what you'll have is something so flat you'll wonder why you wasted those precious five minutes. To pump up the flavor, substitute chicken broth for water, sprinkle in a bit of coarse salt and drizzle with a good-quality olive oil. And spend part of those few minutes chopping veggies.

Now you've got a bed for grilled salmon or lamb chops. Or ladle a luscious ragout on top. Or even dump a few spoonfuls over a green salad.

Nearly anything you've got in the vegetable bin can meld nicely with couscous. Peppers, tomatoes, carrots, scallions, asparagus, broccoli and peas are just a start.

Nuts, cheeses, green and black olives, and dried fruits can star in both warm and cold couscous dishes. Don't forget lemons.

And the list of fresh herbs (parsley, mint, cilantro) and dried spices (cumin, curry, cinnamon) is long enough to give couscous five days a week a completely different attitude. Go Indian with curry, think Italian with basil or stay close to couscous' roots with mint and cayenne.

In paella couscous salad, a classic Gourmet magazine recipe, couscous made more yellow with saffron threads stands in for rice and makes the dish somehow lighter. It's a good offering for a small group or crowd; the recipe is easily doubled or tripled.

Some other combinations that put a party dress on plain old couscous:

  • Chopped kalamata olives, crumbled feta cheese, a few shakes of oregano and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve warm with lamb or cold as a salad.
  • Diced red and yellow peppers, a handful of sliced scallions, a bit of goat cheese and couscous cooked in chicken broth.
  •  Fresh chopped basil, tomatoes and small, fresh mozzarella balls.

Don't think about the measurements too much. Since ancient times, couscous has been at once forgiving and accommodating.

And that's a necessary ingredient in a modern kitchen.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at (727) 893-8586 or Her blog, Stir Crazy, is


Paella Couscous Salad

For salad:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

½ pound Spanish chorizo (spicy cured pork sausage; preferably hot), cut into ¼-inch dice

½ cup finely chopped shallots

1 large garlic clove, minced

1½ cups chicken broth

½ cup dry white wine

¾ pound medium shrimp in shell (26 count), peeled and deveined

¾ pound sea scallops, tough muscle removed from side of each if necessary, halved crosswise (quartered if large)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 10-ounce box unflavored couscous (1½ cups)

¼ teaspoon crumbled saffron threads

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

1 large red bell pepper, finely diced

1 cup coarsely chopped drained pimento-stuffed green olives

¹/³ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

For dressing:

¹/³ cup fresh lemon juice

¹/³ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

¾ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon black pepper

¹/8 teaspoon cayenne

Lemon wedges

To make salad, heat oil in a large heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté chorizo and shallot, stirring, until chorizo is golden brown on edges, 3 to 4 minutes. Add garlic and sauté, stirring, 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a large bowl, scraping out skillet with a rubber spatula.

Bring broth and wine to a boil in a 21/2-quart saucepan and cook shrimp, covered, until just cooked through, about 45 seconds. Transfer shrimp with a slotted spoon to a small bowl. Bring liquid in saucepan back to a boil and cook scallops, covered, until just cooked through, about 2 minutes. Transfer scallops with slotted spoon to bowl with shrimp and pour any liquid accumulated in bowl back into pan. Add lemon juice to seafood, then add salt and pepper to taste and toss to combine.

Put couscous in a metal bowl. Reserve 13/4 cups cooking liquid in saucepan and discard remainder. Add saffron and bring liquid to a boil and pour over couscous. Let stand, covered tightly with plastic wrap, 5 minutes. Fluff couscous with a fork and add to chorizo. Stir in peas, bell pepper, olives, and seafood and toss to combine.

To make dressing, blend lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt, black pepper and cayenne in a blender until smooth and pour over seafood salad, tossing to combine well. Let stand 30 minutes at room temperature to allow couscous to absorb dressing.

Stir in parsley and season salad with salt and pepper.

Cooks' note: Salad can be made (without parsley) 2 hours ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature and stir in parsley just before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: Gourmet, July 2002

Moroccan Chicken

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 large carrot, sliced

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 tablespoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon ginger

½ teaspoon allspice

6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat (about 1½ pounds)

1 cup fat-free, reduced sodium chicken broth

¼ cup chopped cilantro

1 cup dried apricots

1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans

1 10-ounce box unflavored couscous (1½ cups), made according to package instructions


Heat oil in a Dutch oven over a medium heat. Add onion, carrots and garlic and cook until onion and garlic are softened, about 5 minutes. Add cumin, paprika, cinnamon, ginger and allspice and blend well with vegetables. Cook and stir for 2 to 3 minutes.

Turn heat up to medium-high and add chicken thighs. Cook for 5 minutes, turning occasionally. Add chicken broth, cilantro and apricots. Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 25 minutes. Add garbanzo beans and cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Serve with couscous.

Serves 4 to 6





[Last modified April 19, 2006, 08:04:57]

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