All About Couscous
Couscous…so good they named it twice! We often eat couscous as a side dish and a fast alternative to pasta or rice. It’s a funny name, and people always wonder what this dish is.
Rice? A grain? I’ll admit that I couldn’t have guessed what couscous is either.
What Is Couscous?
Who would have thought that couscous is just another form of pasta? Nutritionally, couscous is similar to spaghetti—both contain two grams of dietary fiber and have about the same amount of calories (200) per serving.
Many people think that couscous is a grain. Still, the base of both couscous and particular pasta (like spaghetti and macaroni) is semolina, a course wheat middling of durum that is yellow.
The traditional way of making couscous is a pretty cool process. Instead of combining the semolina with water and egg to make a dough for pasta, couscous is produced by moistening it with a bit of water or oil between your hands until it crumbles into tiny granules or pearls.
Traditionally, the couscous grains are dried and steamed in a pretty intricate steaming vessel—known as a couscoussiére—to be served as a base or side dish.
How to Prepare It
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a couscoussiére around my kitchen. But the good news is that instant couscous is readily available to be bought commercially. After buying it from a grocery store, it’s quick and easy to reconstitute couscous.
You must combine 1 ½ cups of water with every cup of couscous plus a half teaspoon of salt. Next, add the couscous before the water has boiled. Unlike pasta, couscous should never be boiled!
The water should be very hot but not boiling. Let sit for five minutes until the grains have swelled. Lastly, don’t forget to fluff the couscous once it’s done to prevent it from sticking together.
Commercially produced couscous, available as regular or whole wheat, is a complicated process. I linked a video below so you can see how it’s done.
Making your own couscous at home with a food processor is possible, but it takes a bit of practice to achieve the perfect grain size. However, if you have a couscoussiére at home, you can make perfect couscous as prepared in some of the finest restaurants.
What's the difference?
When you use instant couscous and add water, you extract some of the starch, causing the grains to stick together. Using a couscoussiére ensures a moist and fluffy result. Check out this excellent video by Williams-Sonoma on making it at home.
How to Serve It
Think about the actual taste of pasta without any sauce—pretty bland, right? Couscous is the same way, which is why it’s typically served underneath a more flavorful meat or vegetable dish or sweetened with raisins.
Couscous is nice and light, and I like it mixed in with a summer salad of cucumbers and tomatoes or stuffed into hollowed-out peppers.
Couscous can be served as a side dish, as I did with my Veal Scallopini and Artichokes, or you can create your dish by adding ingredients to make an excellent curried couscous.
Where Does It Come From?
Some argue that couscous is a traditional meal from Trapani, a city on the west coast of Sicily, but it is generally attributed to originating in North Africa. Couscous is the traditional dish of the Berbers, the ethnic group of North Africa, who named the dish from their language to mean “well rolled” or “well formed.”
Couscous is a principal meal for Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians. The development of wheat farming in the 11th century spread the popularity of couscous to become a widely appreciated taste and texture, with many local variants worldwide.
The traditional North African serving of couscous uses lamb chops or skinless chicken pieces with chickpeas and various spices.
Moroccan Israeli Lebanese
Types of Couscous
One interesting thing I discovered is that there are three main types of couscous: Moroccan, Israeli, and Lebanese.
Moroccan couscous tends to be the tiniest grain and cooks the quickest. Most of us are familiar with this type of couscous, which is the most readily available.
I like the Israeli or “pearl” couscous, which takes a little longer to cook because the pellets are about the size of peppercorns. I bought an Israeli-style couscous blended with orzo, baby garbanzo beans, and red quinoa and used it as a side dish for my roasted Cornish Game Hens meal this past week.
Lebanese couscous grains are larger than the Israeli pearls and cook slowly, similar to risotto. I have never tried cooking with Lebanese couscous, but I just purchased some and will try it and let you know.
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