Couscous

Couscous

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

Until a few years ago, couscous was relatively unknown in western kitchens. Today it is marketed everywhere as the perfect convenience food, and even the big food manufacturers are hopping on the Morocco-mania bandwagon, with a range of boil-in-the-bag and ready-to-cook versions. It all seems a far cry from Fez, and its legendary seven vegetable couscous.

Couscous is not a grain or cereal in its own right, but is made from semolina, which is itself a by-product of flour manufacture. Traditionally, the tiny pellets are laboriously rolled by hand to the correct size and consistency, and then steamed over a bubbling fragrant stew. The grains absorb all the flavours in the steam and slowly swell to a delectable light fluffiness.

Couscous is the name of the little granules, and also of the entire dish – including the savoury stew of meat or vegetables and an aromatic broth. Although we think of couscous as being particularly Moroccan, it is, with slight variations, the national dish of the entire Maghreb region (the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria). Algerian couscous dishes are fairly robust and spicy, while Tunisians like the fiery heat of lots of chilli, and often include fish and seafood. Moroccan versions tend to be subtler and more refined; they are often slightly sweeter and can include fresh dates or raisins, nuts and a touch of honey.

Couscous also appears in other Arabic countries, such as Lebanon, where it is known as maghrebia (‘from the Maghreb’). Here the grains are much larger – almost the size of small peas – and are usually cooked in the broth, rather than steamed, with lamb shanks, or chicken and vegetables. Arab-influenced Sicily also has its own version, typically served with fish stews.

Today couscous is eaten as a daily staple throughout North Africa, but it originated as one of the traditional dishes of the indigenous Berbers. In its homelands it can be served in simple Berber style, with smen (the strongly flavoured preserved local butter) or it can be a lavish and complex medley of ingredients, eaten as part of an elaborate banquet or feast. Couscous can even be eaten for breakfast: a sweet version is prepared in milk with dried fruit and nuts, honey and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Traditionally, though, couscous is never served as a main course, but as a fill-up at the end of the meal, to ensure that no one goes home hungry.

Here in the West, we have taken couscous to our hearts and adapted it to our own eating habits. As well as being the perfect partner for exotically spicy tagines, it is the ideal accompaniment to all sorts of braises and stews, as it soaks up all the lovely juices. A handful of couscous thrown into a spicy soup thickens it in a most satisfying way. Couscous is even good just on its own, with a knob of butter, a grind of salt and pepper and maybe a dollop of thick yoghurt.

Selecting and storing couscous

The packaged instant versions are anathema to food purists. However, it is virtually impossible to buy any other sort outside Morocco, and even in the Maghreb countries these days the lure of convenience food is irresistible. Very few Moroccans will make their own hand-rolled couscous, except for special occasions. Here in Australia most supermarkets stock several brands of the boxed instant varieties, which are all perfectly acceptable if cooked properly. In our view, the only ones to avoid are the boil-in-the bag, ready-flavoured versions which, in the way of one-minute noodles everywhere, end up tasting suspiciously similar and usually collapse into a soggy mess.

Some good delicatessens, specialist food stores and Middle Eastern grocers will also stock a fully dried, non-instant couscous. This is far more time-consuming to cook, requiring several cycles of steaming, separating and rubbing with well-oiled hands, but it results in a delicious mound of individually fluffy, light grains.

Using couscous

When cooked, couscous grains should be fluffy and separate, not gluggy and water-laden. Most of the instant versions come with poorly translated and completely inadequate instructions, or instructions in French and Arabic.

For everyday speedy meals, the instant pour-on-boiling-water variety of couscous is really quite satisfactory, although obviously less tasty, as it doesn’t allow the grain to absorb the flavours from the dish cooking below. However, it doesn’t require any fancy cooking equipment, like a couscoussier, but only a bowl a fork and a kettle. The thing to remember, though, is that steaming couscous really does improve the flavour and texture of the end result – and is less likely to cause indigestion. Couscous has an amazing capacity to absorb liquid, and if inadequately cooked will continue to swell in your stomach! This problem is avoided in the traditional cooking method, which requires several sessions of steaming.

As a compromise, we suggest the following slightly-less-quick method. Pour on boiling water, following the instructions on the box. If these are unclear, the rule of thumb is to use twice the volume of water or stock as the volume of couscous. Leave it to stand for at least 10–15 minutes or until the liquid is completely absorbed. Then dot it with butter or drizzle it with olive oil, cover with clingfilm and microwave on medium for around 5 minutes. Alternatively, tip it into an oven-proof dish, add butter or oil, cover it with foil and leave it in a low oven for around 20 minutes. This second step allows the couscous to steam gently under cover and greatly improves its texture.

If you want to jazz it up a little, then add some aromatics (like a stick of cinnamon, a squeezed-out lemon half, a few sliced dried mushrooms, some raisins or even finely diced apricots) before the second heat-through. When you are ready to serve, fluff it up with a fork, season and serve. Or sprinkle on finely chopped parsley and mint, or some lightly toasted almonds.

Recipes in this Chapter

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