A quick version of North African “pasta”
Couscous is among the most famous grain dishes of North Africa. It’s a particular favorite in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. But you’ll also find couscous in many other countries bordering the Mediterranean, including Italy (especially Sicily).
Preparing couscous the traditional way is a lengthy process (one that includes washing and drying the couscous, then steaming multiple times). The dish is wonderfully light and fluffy when prepared this way, but most of us just don’t have the time.
Well, no worries. You can make great-tasting couscous with ingredients sourced at any supermarket, and it’ll take just minutes. But feel free to tell your guests that you slaved over a hot stove all day.
Recipe: Couscous with Dried Fruit
Couscous (sometimes spelled cous cous) is made from semolina, a form of durum wheat that can also be used to make the dried pasta shapes for which Italy is famous. So you can think of couscous as a form of pasta.
As noted above, preparing couscous the traditional way is laborious: People spend hours rolling granules of semolina by hand, shaping it into the tiny “grains” we call couscous. Then they steam it at least twice. These days, however, any modern supermarket sells boxed couscous (usually labeled “instant”) that you can cook in minutes. Despite the “instant” label, you can use boxed products to prepare a traditional, time-intensive couscous if you wish; see Notes.
Couscous is somewhat flavor-challenged on its own. So it’s often served as the base for a tangy tagine (a stew-like dish) made from meat and/or vegetables. Sometimes people prepare it more simply and serve it at the end of an elaborate feast to help diners fill up in case they haven’t had enough (similar to the way rice can be served at the end of an elaborate Chinese banquet).
Our recipe treats couscous as a starchy side dish (one that makes a good substitute for rice or potatoes). It’s great served with roast chicken or grilled meat. Or with a stew—like the Moroccan Kefta and Tomato Tagine I’ll be posting about later this week.
Prep time for this dish is 5 or 10 minutes, with cooking time adding another 10 minutes or so.
This recipe serves about 6 as a side dish. Refrigerated leftovers keep well for a few days if stored in an airtight container.
- ½ cup dried apricots (can substitute another dried fruit; see Notes)
- ½ cup raisins (can substitute another dried fruit; see Notes)
- 2¼ cups stock (see Notes)
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1½ cups couscous (the boxed kind you find in the supermarket; see Notes)
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt (about half that amount if using table salt)
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Chop the apricots and raisins roughly (I generally leave some of the raisins whole) and set aside.
- Bring the stock to a boil in a saucepan, then reduce to a simmer.
- In a separate 2-quart saucepan, melt the butter on medium heat. When the butter is bubbly, add the couscous and sauté for two minutes, stirring constantly.
- Add the apricots, raisins, salt, and pepper to the couscous. Then add the simmering stock and stir to incorporate. Cover the pan and reduce heat to low.
- Cook according to the package instructions until the couscous has absorbed all the stock. For me, this usually takes about 10 minutes, but your timing may vary. I always peek in at the 8-minute mark to see how things are coming along.
- When done, transfer the couscous to a serving bowl. Fluff the couscous with a fork, and serve.
- You can substitute any dried fruit for the apricots and raisins, although I think both work particularly well in this dish. Just use about 1 cup of chopped dried fruit for every 1½ cups of dried couscous (don’t stress over exact measurements.)
- You need about 2¼ cups of liquid for 1½ cups of dried couscous, but follow the package directions. It usually doesn’t hurt if you add a bit more—the dried fruit absorbs some liquid, and couscous also has no trouble absorbing extra liquid. But the cooking time will be a little longer. You can also use a bit less liquid, but be sure to keep a close eye on the couscous—once it absorbs all of the liquid available, the bottom layer can burn and stick to the pot. If you use less liquid, the dried fruit may not rehydrate fully, though it will still be tasty.
- BTW, even if the couscous package instructions don’t direct you to use hot stock, I recommend you do so (because it works better). Hot stock tends to decrease cooking time by a minute or two.
- You can also substitute vegetable stock or water (although with water, the flavor of the couscous won’t be as intense).
- Many brands of supermarket couscous are “instant,” whether labeled as such or not. This means they’ve been steamed once and then dried.
- As noted, the traditional way of making couscous starts with forming the couscous “grains” (by rolling the semolina between your hands). But you can also buy ready-to-cook versions just about any place in the world where couscous is a staple dish.
- To cook couscous the traditional way, you first sprinkle it with water and spread it out to dry, then steam it. Then you spread it out again, work some liquid (often milk) into it, and allow it to re-dry. Then steam it for a second time, spread it out again, work more liquid into it, and let it dry again. Finally, you steam it once more and serve.
- If you want, you can follow this traditional method using “instant” couscous.
- The traditional cooking method makes the couscous incredibly light and fluffy. It’s a lot of work, though! I’ve made couscous this way, and probably will again. But most of the time, I prefer the quicker method outlined in this recipe.
- The traditional way of serving couscous is to heap it on a large platter, then top it with stewed meat and/or vegetables. People eat from this communal dish.
The Case of the Flying Couscous
“Love this,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs, forking a bite of couscous. “The dried fruit is so plump, and the flavor really blossoms.”
“It’s good stuff,” I agreed. “Though if you were eating this in Morocco, you might not be using utensils.”
“Oh, that’s right—I guess traditionally they eat with their hands,” said Mrs K R. “Must be hard with couscous, though.”
“I did manage to learn how when I was living in Morocco,” I said. “You form the couscous into a ball using the first three fingers and thumb of your right hand. Then use your thumb to flick the ball into your mouth. Kind of like shooting a marble.”
“That requires some serious hand-mouth coordination,” said Mrs K R.
“Yeah, well, most of the time my ball of couscous would disintegrate in midair,” I admitted. “So I generally broke down and used a spoon. Plus, if the couscous is too hot, it can burn your fingers.”
“Ouch!” said Mrs K R. “My compliments to whoever invented silverware.”
“Our fingertips thank him,” I agreed.
You may also enjoy reading about:
Moroccan Chickpea Soup (Harira)
Moroccan Carrot Salad
Moroccan Orange and Radish Salad
Moroccan Carrot Soup
Aromatic Yellow Rice
Or check out the index for more recipes