Updated November 2010.
Some day, I want to make couscous.
The real way. The fluffing and steaming way. The takes-all-day way. The star of the show, Paula Wolfert, transcendent, main event way.
Some day, but not today.
For everyday, I stick with instant couscous, one of the most frequently replenished items in my pantry.
Couscous, which looks like a grain, actually is moistened semolina, shaped into tiny grain-like pellets approximately one millimeter in diameter. The semolina is sprinkled with water, rolled by hand, dusted with flour to keep the granules separate, and put through a sieve to remove excess flour and undersized pellets, which are then re-rolled into more couscous. Traditionally, in North African villages, the making of couscous is the job of the women, and it is a process that can take several days.
To cook a proper couscous, you steam and dry it two or three times to achieve a fluffy, decidedly not-clumpy texture. Often it's steamed over a tagine or stew in a couscoussier, which is really just a kind of tall double boiler. The top is perforated, to allow the steam from the stew (and the flavor) to penetrate the couscous above -- a pretty wonderful way to cook. I bought my couscoussier at our local Middle Eastern market, for less than $40, but you can indulge at a much higher price point if you want stainless steel or hammered copper.
Instant couscous is pre-steamed and dried, so all that's left to do is the final five-minute steaming. Boil water, add the seasonings of your choice, toss in the couscous, turn off the heat, slap a cover on the pot, and wait five minutes. Then, fluff with a fork.
In the time it takes you to read this wonderful description of couscous from Traditional Moroccan Cooking: Recipes from Fez, published in 1958 by Madame Guinaudeau, you could make a pot of instant couscous:
Couscous is the Moroccan national dish. It will be served to you at the end of a copious meal by your host anxious to saturate your already failing appetite and you will be incapable of tasting more than one or two mouthfuls. On the other hand, if invited informally by friends and sitting round the table you are given couscous, you can, with impunity, stuff yourself with this semolina, each grain separated from the other, so light, smooth and scented, and digested with incredible ease. You must take in your right hand a chick-pea or a raisin with a handful of semolina, press and shape it carefully to form a small ball and an expert twist of the thumb should carry it to your mouth.
If you do manage to master the one-handed couscous-balling thumb-twisting maneuver, you will be rewarded with a morsel of delicious semolina, with a sweet or savory tucked inside. Or, you will find half of it dribbling down the front of your shirt, from which you will scoop it up and into your mouth. Or, you'll eat it with a spoon, and marvel that anything so simple can taste so good.
Sweet couscous with pistachios
Often served as the final savory dish at a banquet, couscous with raisins, nuts and cinnamon is another variation that makes a lovely side dish with roasted meats. [Update note: On the day I made this to photograph for you, I didn't have pistachios. Or cherries. So I made it with pecans and dried cranberries, and I think I like it even better than the original recipe.] Serves 4-6.
2 5.8-oz boxes plain instant couscous
1 tsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp sugar
1/2 cup pistachio nut meats, roughly chopped (or pecans)
1/4 cup dried cherries (or dried cranberries)
Ground cinnamon, to taste (start with 1/2 tsp)
Ground cardamom (start with 1/2 tsp)
Prepare couscous according to package directions, adding butter and sugar to the water in the pot. When the couscous is steamed, transfer to a mixing bowl and fluff with a fork. Add nuts, cherries, and cinnamon and cardamom to taste, and stir to combine. Serve warm.
Other recipes that use instant couscous:
Curried apple couscous, from 101 Cookbooks
Chicken tarragon cous-cous, from Anne's Food
Couscous with kalamata olives, pine nuts and feta cheese, from For the Love of Cooking
Couscous, corn and mushroom salad, from Sassy Radish
South of the border couscous salad, from Albion Cooks
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.