Not quite pasta, not really a grain, but definitely tasty and versatile.
Couscous is a traditional North African dish. It is almost always served with a meat or vegetable stew spooned over it. Couscous is a staple food throughout the Berber countries of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya, but like most ethnic cuisine, it no longer has borders. In fact, couscous was elected as a favorite dish of French people in a 2011 study.
Couscous is a rolled pasta made of semolina flour. Semolina is the endosperm or heart of the durum wheat kernel - a hard wheat variety with very high gluten content and high protein ratio.
Durum flour is finely ground and its amber color is what gives semolina pasta its distinctive yellow color. Durum flour produces a very resilient product that can stand up to the pasta making process and retain its shape in cooking, even if overcooked.
In the traditional method of preparing couscous by hand, groups of women would come together and make large batches over several days. Wealthy families would have servant women to make this labor-intensive dish. The semolina is sprinkled with water and rolled with the hands to form small pellets, sprinkled with dry flour to keep them separate, and then sieved. Any pellets which are too small to be finished granules of couscous and fall through the sieve will be again rolled and sprinkled with dry semolina and rolled into pellets. This process continues until all the semolina has been formed into tiny granules of couscous. These would then be dried in the sun and used for several months.
In modern times, couscous production is largely mechanized, and the product is sold in markets around the world. In fact, the couscous that is sold in most supermarkets has been pre-steamed and dried. The package directions usually instruct you to add boiling water or chicken stock to the couscous and to cover tightly for 5 minutes. The couscous swells and within a few minutes it is ready to fluff with a fork and serve. Pre-steamed couscous takes less time to prepare than pasta, or dried grains.
While couscous is used most often for meat or vegetable dishes, in Algeria, Egypt and Morocco it is also served for dessert sprinkled with almonds, cinnamon and sugar.
Couscous is among the healthiest grain-based products. It has a lower glycemic level and more vitamins than pasta.
The best method for preparing couscous is to allow it to steam over the stew with which it will be served. You can do this by placing the couscous in a steamer lined with cheesecloth placed over the pot you are preparing the rest of the dish. In many North African countries they use a pot specially designed for this dish called a “couscousierre.” The bottom is a tall pot, large enough to hold a generous portion of stew and above that sits a steamer with very small holes to absorb the steam as it rises from the cooking meat and vegetables.
There is also a small round pasta called “Israeli couscous,” which is unrelated to traditional couscous. They taste very different and are not prepared in the same manner. Israeli couscous is cooked in boiling water just as any other pasta. Do not exchange one for the other in a recipe.
Moroccan Chicken and Couscous
Try this recipe for a true taste of North Africa and the Middle East.
¼ cup light olive oil
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, grated or crushed
1 cup shredded carrots
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup pitted olives, chopped (any type is fine)
4 cups chicken stock, divided
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 tablespoons pine nuts
1/4 cup slivered or sliced almonds
1 1/2 cups couscous
Handful parsley, chopped
Heat the olive oil in a deep skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil ripples add the chicken and brown 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Add the onions, garlic, carrots, bay leaf and season with spices, salt and pepper, cook 5 to 6 minutes. Stir the fruits into the chicken and vegetables; add the olives and 2 1/2 cups of stock. Reduce heat to low and simmer 10 minutes more. Sprinkle with lemon juice and turn off heat. Remove bay leaf.
While chicken simmers, heat canola oil in a sauce pot over medium heat. Add nuts and lightly toast for a couple of minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups stock and bring up to a boil then stir in couscous. Cover and let stand 5 minutes.
Serve chicken over couscous, and garnish with parsley.
You can make this salad pareve if you leave out the feta cheese, but it sure adds flavor!
1 box garlic-flavored couscous cooked according to the directions on the box and cooled slightly
1 15 ounce can chickpeas
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped
1 English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup light olive oil
2 to 3 lemons, juiced
In a large bowl, toss all the ingredients with the olive oil and lime juice, to taste.