I think very few people haven’t by now heard of couscous, the Moroccan pasta. Most are probably more familiar with the instant kind that only takes about five minutes to cook up. Nowadays, there are a number or brands of these instant types of couscous that can come in a variety of flavors. One of the leading companies for instant couscous is Near East and is the brand I became familiar with years ago. Near East not only has the original plain flavor, but now also have Roasted Garlic amp; Olive Oil, Herbed Chicken, Toasted Pine Nut, Mediterranean Curry, Parmesan, Tomato Lentil, Broccoli amp; Cheese, and Wild Mushroom amp; Herb. What a fantastic choice! I don’t exactly know just when I thought of eating couscous but I did so many, many years ago, when I first began cooking in earnest about thirty years ago. Since I was always interested in trying anything new, I remember having come across a wonderful recipe for lamb that is braised in a delicious tomato and beef stock, and then just before serving to add sour cream. The recipe recommended serving this lamb dish on a “bed” of couscous, which frankly at the time I never even had heard of before. So I began looking up just what couscous was, and how it was prepared.
People now have the convenience of those instant brands of couscous that cook no longer than five minutes, however the more traditional way, is a lot more time consuming. First of all, couscous isn’t just a Moroccan dish, but is served in most North African countries, such as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, as well as Egypt, however it’s popularity has now spread nearly worldwide.
Just how far back couscous was eaten is anyone’s guess, but it is first mentioned in a 13th century Hispano-Muslim cookbook, which name translates into English as “The Book of Cooking”, one suspects though that the origins and consumption of this granular type pasta goes back even further.(1) Couscous itself is a granular pasta made of semolina wheat and has the look of course raw sugar.
The traditional way of cooking couscous is a lot more involved than the easy instant five minute kind. First what one has to do is moisten the couscous. Ideally one takes about a cup of couscous, places it in a bowl then add two or three cups of water to the bowl of couscous, then simply using your fingers, stir the couscous around for a few minutes, then in a fine mesh sieve, pour the couscous and water into the sieve to drain the excess water. One then has to place the couscous on something like a cookie sheet and spread the couscous evenly on the sheet and make sure of removing any lumpy qualities and quite literally separate each grain of couscous. In order for all the water to absorb and soak into the couscous, one has to allow at least ten minutes to make each grain of couscous swell up.
Unlike the instant kinds of couscous, the traditional way of cooking one never adds water to the cooking process itself for couscous, but is instead steamed. Prior to the newer couscous cookers which are now made out of stainless steel and are known as the couscoussiére, older cookers were made out of glazed earthenware then later copper. The entire couscous cooker comes in two parts…the top part is the section where one places the couscous to steam, while underneath, one would cook either a broth or stew, usually a lamb type stew, that would be served with the couscous. The idea of steaming the couscous this way allowed for the flavors of the broth or stew to saturate into the couscous itself, adding flavor to it, since couscous is rather plain tasting.
After the couscous has swollen up, one can then put the couscous into the top part of the couscous cooker and steam for about twenty minutes. Believe it or not, one has to remove the steamer part and place the couscous in a large shallow pan, and separate the grains once more to get rid of any lumpiness then add about a cup of water, again stirring the couscous grains to separate, then dump on that cookie sheet again and spread it evenly and allow to dry for another ten minutes. Finally replace the couscous into the steamer part of the couscous cooker and allow to steam again for another twenty to thirty minutes.
My goodness! Aren’t you glad we don’t have to go through all this to cook couscous anymore if we don’t want to? I did however, give the instructions of how to cook couscous the traditional should you ever feel you would like to cook it in this manner. I do provide links to websites that do show step by step instructions on how to prepare couscous the traditional way for those of you who wish to do so.
As mentioned, when couscous was prepared the traditional way in the couscous cooker, it was often steamed with a stew in the bottom part of the cooker, and since most Middle Eastern or North African countries eat more lamb, the stew was usually some type of lamb dish. The beauty of couscous however, is that almost any meal can be prepared to go very well and be served with couscous.
For those who want the quicker way of preparing couscous, that is by using the five minute instant types, such as Near East, I recommend only using the Original Plain variety when making any kind of stews. Back when I first decided to have couscous for that braised lamb dish some thirty or so years ago, Near East’s Original Flavor was the only one available, which was just as well. Any flavored kind of couscous one can get, would take away from the taste of a hearty and seasoned stew, whether lamb, or beef. Besides a regular type of beef stew I serve with couscous, I have found it works wonderfully well with the French dish that I often make, Boeuf Bourguignon which is a very hearty beef-type stew made with dry red wine instead of beef stock. The absolutely delicious flavor of Boeuf Bourguignon would be totally lost if one were to use any one of the flavored brands of couscous.
The flavored types of couscous will add a special touch however to any other meal, even a holiday meal. Instead of using rice, noodles, potatoes or any regular type of pastas, have couscous instead. Having a fried chicken dinner? Why not use the Near Eastern Herbed Chicken or Mediterranean Curry couscous. Serve Parmesan or Roasted Garlic amp; Olive Oil flavored couscous with Chicken Parmesan. For that Thanksgiving dinner, instead of having the usual stuffing as a side dish for that turkey meal, why not try the Broccoli amp; Cheese or Wild Mushroom amp; Herb flavored couscous. These flavored brands of Near East couscous can not only be a fresh new way to make any poultry dinner special, but can also be used as a delightful side dish, for any pork, beef or even fish dinners. For instance, I just love the taste of the Toasted Pine Nut couscous with my special Salmon Steak with Julienne Strips of Leek and Carrots with a White Wine sauce.
Since thankfully, no one has to prepare couscous the traditional way unless one wants to, most instant brands of couscous only takes five minutes to prepare, all one has to do is follow the instructions given on the box, but basically one boils one cup of water in a saucepan, add about a tablespoon of of butter, then add the couscous…turn the flame off and cover saucepan and let sit for five minute, then “fluff” up by stirring it up with a fork.
If all of this cooking sounds very tedious and time consuming, you can use your brand new RICE COOKER! If you haven’t heard of one then look at RiceCookerWorld.net they have some more information! This could save you lots of time and make it a much quicker process.
As you can see using couscous, whether the plain or flavored types can truly make any meal just a little more special and a great change from the usual rice, noodles, potatoes or even pasta. So if you’ve never had couscous before I highly recommend it for that next meal of yours.