Setting the matter straight about couscous is no easy task. Is it a grain? Is it pasta? Is it a form of rice? No worries: This primer covers everything you wanted to know about couscous, but were afraid to ask. We’re aiming to turn you into a couscous aficionado quickly and painlessly – and we’ll throw in some recipes to get you started on your couscous journey.
First of all, contrary to popular belief, couscous is a type of pasta, not a grain. It looks a little bit like rice – hence the confusion – but it’s made of semolina and wheat flour. Couscous is a staple in North African cooking, particularly in the Maghreb region, which includes Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya. Couscous is usually served with meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables, and lots of spices, which makes it an outstanding main dish that can please even the fussiest diner. It can also be added to soups to add a little “bulk,” and it’s equally useful in salads for a lighter approach.
No-Fuss Preparation of Couscous
The New York Times says about couscous that in Morocco, the land of its origin, couscous is more than just a quick fix. There, it is considered to be a full meal, which requires lots of time and effort. However, that is not necessarily the method that most Americans have adopted. Whereas in Morocco the couscous is soaked briefly in cool water, then worked by hand to separate the grains, then steamed, then allowed to rest and worked again — and then steamed at least once more before being served — resulting in magnificently fluffy couscous, the effort takes away from the convenience and ease that Americans like from their packaged couscous.
The easiest way to prepare couscous is to simply pour boiling water over it and allow the water and steam to hydrate it. Special couscous pots, known by the French word couscousière, are available, but they tend to be expensive. They work by steaming the couscous, producing a perfect texture every time. A regular steamer, or just a simple sauce pan, will work just as nicely if you don’t feel like investing in the luxury of an exclusively designed couscous steamer.
Health Benefits of Couscous
Eating couscous provides you with a good source of lean, vegetarian protein; a one-cup serving of cooked couscous gives you 6 grams of protein, which is about 12% percent of the recommended daily protein intake. A serving of couscous has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving, and provides 2 grams of dietary fiber. Couscous, as a whole-grain food, is a good source of essential B vitamins, such as thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, B6, and folate. These nutrients help metabolize energy and maintain healthy red blood cells.
Although some people may consider couscous an exotic or “international” item, it is widely available and easy to find in almost every store (usually in the pasta section). It comes in different sizes, such as larger couscous, which is often referred to as “Israeli couscous” or “pearl couscous,” or smaller couscous, which may be labeled as Libyan or Lebanese couscous. The larger type has a nuttier flavor and a chewier texture than the smaller varieties (though it takes longer to cook), while the smaller type can be prepared in a matter of minutes because of its small size.
Couscous Made Simple
A classic platter of couscous usually consists of a mound of couscous laid out as a “bed,” with pieces of soft lamb or chicken on top and in the middle. The vegetables, usually carrots, turnips, zucchini, pumpkin, and chickpeas, along with raisins and possibly eggplant, are arranged around the outside, and on the top. However, couscous is nothing if not versatile, and it can be included in dishes that are much easier to prepare for a quick, middle-of-the-week main dish or side dish.
For those of you who want to invest time in your couscous, we’ll offer a more complicated recipe, followed by a quicker and easier one.
For both recipes, prepare the couscous as follows:
- 3 cups couscous
- 4 ½ cups boiling water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Add the salt and oil to the boiling water. Spread couscous evenly in a thin layer on the bottom of a large dish (like a casserole). Add the water and cover tightly. Wait until all the water is absorbed (about 15 minutes), then fluff with a fork.
Classic Moroccan-style couscous is loaded with slow-cooked lamb and poached vegetables, and spiced with fresh ground pepper and saffron. This is a simplified version that will be a huge hit.
Couscous, Vegetable, and Lamb Stew
- 2 to 4 pounds of lamb
- 3 medium fresh tomatoes, diced
- 2 medium onion, chopped
- 1 tsp. salt
- 2 tsp. pepper
- 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley and cilantro (or just one)
- 3 cups uncooked couscous
- 3 small turnips, peeled and quartered
- 3 large carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
- 8 sprigs fresh parsley and 4 fresh cilantro
- Pinch of saffron or 1½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 cup water
- 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, in chunks
- 3 small zucchinis, cut into 2-inch rounds
- Small eggplant, diced (optional)
- 1/2 (8-ounce) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 1/3 cup golden raisins
For the meat:
- Preheat oven to 325° F.
- Pat the meat dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
- Prepare your Dutch oven with a few teaspoons of olive oil and set over high heat.
- When the oil is hot, add the meat and sear on all sides. Transfer the meat to a bowl or a large plate.
- Toss the tomatoes, onions, 1 tsp. salt and 2 tsp. pepper into the pan containing the fat from the meat and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the chopped parsley and cilantro and cook for 5 more minutes.
- Put the meat back into the pot with the juices, add water to almost cover the meat, and bring to a simmer.
- Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place it in the oven for about 1 ½ to 2 hours.
- Remove meat and set aside; keep warm.
For the vegetables and couscous:
- Prepare 3 cups of couscous as per directions above. Set aside.
- To the pot in which the meat was cooked, add the turnips, carrots, salt, pepper, and saffron or turmeric
- Tie parsley and cilantro sprigs together with kitchen string and put into pot. Add 1 cup of water and bring to a boil over high medium heat. Cook for 10 minutes.
- Add the remaining vegetables: squash, zucchini, eggplant, and chickpeas, and raisins. Add water to cover. Reduce heat, and simmer until the vegetables are somewhat soft, about 15 to 25 minutes. (The vegetables should be tender enough to cut with the side of a fork, but still hold their shape.) Adjust seasonings.
Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the couscous and mix. Spread the couscous over a large serving platter. Using a slotted spoon, mound the vegetables and meat in the center. Pour some of the broth over the vegetables, and pass the remaining broth at the table.
If you’re looking for a lighter use for couscous, this salad is perfect – and perfectly delicious.
Pearl Couscous with Apples, Cranberries and Herbs
- 2 cups pearl-couscous
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 1/2 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary leaves
- 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves
- 1 medium green apple, diced
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted (see Note)
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. maple syrup
- 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup olive oil
For the couscous:
- Prepare couscous as directed above (however, for 2 cups of couscous use 4 cups of boiling water); transfer to a large bowl and set aside to cool.
- Add the parsley, rosemary, thyme, apple, dried cranberries, and almonds.
For the vinaigrette:
- In a small bowl, combine the vinegar, maple syrup, salt, and pepper.
- Whisk in the olive oil until smooth.
- Pour the vinaigrette over the couscous and toss to coat evenly.
Note: To toast the almonds, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely before using.
Add Couscous to Your Meal Plan
With these great recipes, you’re ready to incorporate couscous into your weekly meal plan. Expand your couscous-based repertoire with even more types of recipes: lighter, heavier, easier, more complicated. Regardless of the direction your menu takes, easy, breezy couscous is sure to become a household favorite in no time.