Considering Couscous

For some reason I am extra loving couscous this summer…

Couscous is traditionally a North African product made from crushed durum or semolina wheat, rolled into pellets by hand and steamed in a special steamer called a couscoussiere.  I once had the unforgettable experience of watching the eminent Paula Wolfert hand roll couscous in the traditional method crouched on the floor using a special sieve – a fascinating but very labor intensive process.  These days it’s easy to find pretty good machine made couscous which is pre-steamed and dried, and it’s usually prepared by soaking in hot water or broth.  You can also steam it by lining your steamer basket with cheesecloth (so the small grains don’t fall through).

Near East seems to be the most widely available brand, and I have always had good luck with their plain version.  If you want to taste the real thing though, I recently discovered M’Hamsa hand rolled couscous.  It’s really a whole different experience!  They also have a version with dried red peppers that I haven’t tried yet.  You can find it online at http://www.southernseason.com

I also love Israeli couscous which is much bigger in size and is toasted, resulting in a chewier texture and nuttier flavor.   Try Red Mill Tricolor or my favorite is Fregola Sarda, produced by Rustichella d’Abruzzo available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rustichella-Abruzzo-Fregola-Sarda-Package/dp/B000B38C6A

Couscous is traditionally served as a side dish to soak up wonderful tagines and stews, but I think it’s equally yummy with all sorts of herbs and veggies mixed right in, and I often use couscous to deliver healthy veggies to my kids.

Here’s an easy summer version we tossed together for a recent dinner.  You can easily see how you could creatively substitute in fresh herbs, tomatoes or other vegetables, saffron, a pinch of pimenton, alternate citrus fruits, fresh crumbled cheese or whatever else is at hand.  I’m sure I won’t make this the same way twice, but here’s a good place to start:

Summer Couscous

2 cups couscous
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
4 tablespoons olive oil
Zest and juice of one Meyer lemon
½ cup pitted green or calamata olives, chopped
Small bunch of parsley, chopped
½ cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
½ cup pine nuts
2 small zucchini, sliced into 1/4 inch thick slices
2 Tablespoons capers (or more to taste)
salt (optional)

Bring broth to a low boil in a small saucepan.  Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add couscous and sauté about 4 minutes until toasted and starting to brown.  Add hot chicken broth, stir, cover and remove from heat.  Set aside for at least 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix 1 Tablespoon of oil, lemon zest and juice, olives, sundried tomato and parsley in a large metal or ceramic mixing bowl.   Heat a dry sauté pan over a medium flame.  Toast the pine nuts about 3-4 minutes until golden and pour into the mixing bowl.  In the same pan add 2 T olive oil and heat.  Add sliced zucchini and sauté until golden then add to the mixing bowl.

Add 1 T oil to the same pan and heat.  Carefully add the capers and fry them in the oil until crispy but not burned.  The capers will spit when you add them to the oil and can light on fire if you’re cooking on a gas stove.  Use a screen over the pan, or hold the lid of a pot in front of the pan to shield you from the oil until the spitting subsides.    Add capers to the bowl.

Take the lid off the couscous and gently fluff with a fork until no clumps remain.  Toss couscous in the bowl with remaining ingredients.  Taste all components together and add salt if needed.    Serves 4-6

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