Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dish: Couscous

Couscous is one of those ingredients that you see often showing up on menus as part of an accent to a dish, or as part of the vegetables and sides options. Very rarely does couscous star on its own, partially because not enough people know what to do with it, or how to leverage its unique flavors and texture. Many people often think that couscous is a grain of some sort because of its small circular shape, but in actuality it is technically a pasta, usually made out of semolina wheat. The Israeli version, which is my favorite, is usually slightly bigger and made from a different type of wheat. Personally, I like the Israeli type because it is bigger and each piece is separated and allows you to get more of the soft texture that is almost like a less rich risotto.

Usually couscous is used similar to rice in Mediterranean and African dishes, with vegetables or meat being placed on top. The sauce gets absorbed by the couscous and makes for a hearty, but easy meal to make at home that is much different from the standard carbohydrates most Americans eat. Think about how often you might eat rice, pasta, bread, or potatoes and how different it would be to quickly make couscous instead. In the U.S. most couscous is actually the instant kind (think Uncle Ben's Rice), but outside the U.S. it is cooked traditionally and with quite a bit of care. My favorite ways to have couscous are usually the simplest. Adding some grilled asparagus and squash, fresh herbs, and olive oil for a cold Israeli couscous salad is a trick I picked up from my mom. Another favorite is adding fried chickpeas or lima beans, scallions and small pieces of tomato with beef to make a warm and savory dish akin to a stew. The key is really just thinking about if you want it warm or cold, and after that what flavors you like. Couscous does better with fresh, simple ingredients, and doesn't need to be overwhelmed with strong flavors, cheeses or sauces.

Give Couscous a it's fun to say aloud!

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