Cous cous is a species of pasta originating in North Africa. Rather than
being in the form of noodles or extruded shapes, cous cous is granular. The raw
pieces are roughly the size of coarse sugar grains.
What I find most appealing about cous cous, the reason it has been a staple
of my diet for several years now, is its versatility. Once you have the basic
recipe down, the things which cous cous will do are limited only by your
imagination (provided your imagination stretches no further than variants of
the pilaf/pilau idea).
There are two basic ways to prepare cous cous:
- the dry way
- the wet way
This method is based on the way cous cous is presented in North Africa. It
produces the dry, bread-crumby texture usually served in restaurants and which,
if the truth be told, most of those who claim not to like cous cous have
The technique (which I confess I have never practised) is to soak the cous
cous in cold water for a few minutes, then to drain and steam it. This produces
separate grains which work very well in mopping up sauces from curries, spicy
sauces, and the like. The result also has less flavour than polenta.
The best example of this variety of cous cous that I have had was in an
Algerian restaurant in Paris where it was served with various spiced vegetable
dishes and sauces, but I would be delighted to hear of readers' experiences of
cooking cous cous using this method.
For those amongst the audience who are cous cous purists, I should emphasise
once again something which I have already mentioned in passing: this second
method is the only one I use and is all I shall discuss for the remainder of
the piece. Please do not take offence, but I like my cous cous this way.
Basic Moist Cous Cous
- 2oz (60g) or 1/3 cup dry cous cous per portion
- 7 fl oz (200ml) or 1/2 cup stock or fluid per portion
- 1 tsp oil
- spices and herbs to taste
- heat the oil in a pan. The pan needs to have a close-fitting lid.
- fry any spices until coloured.
Fry whole spices first, then add ground spices, then wet flavourings (eg
garlic or chilli)
- add the stock to the pan, and bring to the boil.
Depending on your taste, this stock can either be proper stock or a stock
cube added to each portion of water. If you use stock cubes, you're
unlikely to need any extra salt.
- add the cous cous and any dried herbs. Take off the heat, stir and cover.
Dried herbs should be added now to give them a chance to rehydrate. Fresh
herbs can either be added halfway through soaking, or just prior to
serving depending on the effect you want and the delicacy of the herb.
- after ten minutes or so, the fluid should have been absorbed. Stir to
separate the grains.
- (optional) add a little butter or oil, stir and re-cover for a minute or
- serve as a side dish
But that, as they say, is only the beginning...
|Variants (Whatever the Plural of "Cous Cous" Is, This Is It)
As I have already related, the thing I like about cous cous is its
versatility - it will happily take flavourings based on the traditions of
Mexico, Italy, India, even North Africa. All these variants can be achieved by
changing the stock, the spices, the herbs, the contents of the initial frying,
and so on.
Just remember the core recipe: 7 fl oz of fluid to 2 oz of cous cous.
All of these variants are based on the basic recipe given above and
describe only those parts which are significantly different.
Italian Cous Cous
- stock: a light vegetable stock
- spices: garlic and black pepper
- herbs: any of basil, oregano, thyme, or bay
- extras: some sliced black olives or mushrooms; fresh plum tomatoes, roughly one or two per portion; a little good olive oil to finish.
- after cooking the garlic and pepper, fry the olives or mushrooms before
adding the stock.
- slice the tomatoes and add them about half way through soaking
- add some of the olive oil prior to serving.
Serve with a rich tomato sauce, or as a side dish with practically anything.
Indian Cous Cous
- stock: any vegetable stock
- spices: garlic and turmeric, and any of fenugreek, coriander seed, cumin
seed, and cardamom
- herbs: coriander
- extras: 1 oz (30g) red lentils per portion; optionally, some peas.
- cook the spices, then add the lentils to the pan and fry for a couple of
- add water to pan to just cover the lentils, reduce the heat to a simmer,
cover and leave until the lentils have absorbed the liquid (usually about five
or ten minutes). You may have to boil off the last bits of water, but be
careful not to burn the swollen lentils.
- add the stock and, optionally, some peas for a bit of extra colour.
- herbs and finishing are as in the basic recipe
Serve with any curry in lieu of pilau rice.
Another good variant is to omit the lentils, just frying the spices and
adding peas to the stock. This produces what I usually call yellow and green
Mexican Cous Cous
- stock: any vegetable stock
Tip for UK readers: Knorr Mexican Spice stock cubes are a good option here
and reduce the need for spice cooking elsewhere (dependent on taste, as
ever). Check the ingredients, though, as they used to contain beef stock.
- spices: chilli, garlic, small quantities of coriander seed or cumin
- herbs: coriander
- extras: tinned chopped tomatoes (about half a 400g tin per portion); chick
peas; tomato puree (about a tablespoon per portion)
- drain the tomatoes, reserving the juice. Make up the juice to the required
volume of fluid using your stock
- cook the spices, then add the chick peas and fry until coloured.
- add the tomato puree, stir in and cook for a minute more.
- add the tomato juice stock and cous cous in the usual way.
- stir in the drained tomatoes before serving.
Serve with any Mexican food, such as enchiladas, or use it an alternative
filling for fajitas, or have it as a meal in its own right.
Those are three of my favourite variants, but try other pulses or pine nuts
in the initial cooking, try varying the spices or stock (Thai would probably
work, for instance), or any number of herbs.
Cous cous is your friend.