Instant couscous (Recipe: sweet couscous for a crowd)
Last winter, I treated the Ninecooks kitchen to a couscoussier, a double-decker pot used to create traditional Moroccan stews and couscous. The stew goes in the bottom, and rising steam infuses and plumps the couscous resting in the perforated top compartment.
It's a beautiful thing, but I have yet to use it.
I tried. I really did. The #1 Cooking Group made a menu called Preserving the Lemon, which included three dishes inspired by Moroccan cuisine. We used our tagines, but when it came time to set up the couscoussier — and start the slow process of rinsing, drying, steaming and steaming again — we looked at each other and, in unison, said, "Instant couscous!"
Can you blame us? After all, what could be easier? You bring liquid to a boil with some olive oil or butter, add the couscous, slap the cover on, and turn off the heat. The couscous cooks itself in 5 minutes, and all you have to do is fluff it.
Couscous is both a pasta (yes, really), and the name given to stews that often are served with it. Made from ground semolina, couscous originated in the cultures of North Africa and features in those cuisines much the way rice is a fundamental of Asian cooking. You can dress it up or dress it down, go sweet or savory, and mix it with any leftovers in your fridge (roast chicken, shrimp, bell pepper, grilled veggies, herbs).
By the way, couscous does not come in small, medium and large sizes. Real couscous — the small "grains" — dates to 13th Century Berber civilization. The larger Israeli couscous is an extruded and toasted pasta product, which dates to the 1950s, when it was created by an Israeli marketing firm.
One of these days, I'll take that couscous pot down from the shelf, dust it off, and make couscous the traditional way, steamed atop a spicy Moroccan chicken stew. But now I have to get dinner on the table, so it's off to the pantry for a box of the instant!
Sweet couscous for a crowd
Invented for a dinner for a group of study-abroad students and faculty more than 20 years ago, this simplest of dishes was designed to feed 60 people — and used more than 2 pounds of pine nuts! This quantity (4 servings) is a bit more manageable, but you can multiply to your heart's (and your guests') content.
1-1/2 cups water
1 tsp butter
1 cup instant couscous
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup raisins, a mix of brown and golden
Large pinch of cinnamon, to taste
Tiny pinch of salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
black pepper, to taste
In a small pan, bring water and butter to a boil. Stir in the couscous, cover, and remove from heat. Let stand 5 minutes. In the meantime, toast the pine nuts in a dry frying pan until just golden in color, 2-3 minutes. Mix all ingredients with the couscous and serve at room temperature.