Maggie Cooper

Cool weather calls for couscous

NOW there’s a welcome hint of autumn cool in the evenings, it’s time to start reintroducing a few things to the menu best avoided in the heat of summer. I’m a bit over the whole salad days of the past few months; often the weather was so hot and humid it was all I could do to throw even a simple mix of leaves together.

I’m a big fan of ‘instant’ couscous, that fascinating stuff that comes in boxes and needs almost no cooking.

A few years ago I dated an architect who was quite proud of his prowess in the kitchen; when I served him couscous, he tasted it rather gingerly and found, to his apparent surprise, that it was tasty.

“How did you do that?” he asked. “Every time I cook it, it turns to mush.”

Turns out Mr I’m-A-Good-Cook had failed to read the instructions on the packet and boiled it as he did rice (another mistake; rice is much better steamed). Even regular couscous doesn’t get boiled; rather it undergoes a steaming process involving lining the steamer with muslin to prevent the tiny granules from falling through the holes. It is often steamed above a pot of simmering stew; this way the flavour of the meat or vegetables goes through the couscous as well. A special pot is used, similar to a double boiler.

As I like the taste, and often don’t have the time to go through the lengthy cooking procedure, instant couscous can always be found in my pantry. Pre-steamed and dried, it needs only the addition of boiling stock or water and whatever ingredients you choose for flavouring, and it’s ready to serve – quicker than rice or pasta.

The rule for couscous /liquid proportions is one cup of couscous to one cup water or stock. The grain will swell like rice, and one cup is enough for two people.

Couscous looks like a grain, but it is manufactured (as is pasta) from semolina wheat. It’s a popular ingredient in many African, Middle Eastern and Sicilian dishes. It can be substituted for rice and pasta in a salad. Couscous is also great added to tabouli.

My favourite way of serving couscous is combining it with nuts, dried sultanas and lemon rind and serving it with a sweet yet savoury Middle-Eastern-style lamb stew.

Recipe:

Couscous:

• 3 cups instant couscous

•½ cup sultanas

• finely grated peel of 1 lemon

• 3 cups boiling chicken or vegetable stock

• 2 tblspn butter

•½ cup shelled pistachio nuts

•¼ cup toasted almond slivers

• salt and pepper to taste

Lamb stew:

•¼ cup olive oil

• 1 clove garlic, crushed

• 2 purple onions, peeled and finely sliced

•½ tspn ground cumin

• 1 ½ kg cubed lamb

• 1 ½ cups water

•½ cup red wine vinegar

•¼ cup tomato paste

• 2 tblspn brown sugar

• 3 tblspn toasted pine nuts

•¼ cup raisins

• 1 tblspn ground cumin


Process:

Couscous - Place couscous in a heatproof serving dish. Add sutanas and lemon peel, then pour stock over. Cover and stand for 2-3 minutes.

Add butter and nuts to dish and stir through when butter has melted.

Season and serve immediately.

Lamb stew - Heat oil and gently cook garlic, cumin and onions until soft. Remove and set aside.

Increase heat and brown lamb. Add onions and garlic, wet ingredients and sugar.

Bring to the boil then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 40-45 minutes, stirring once or twice.

Add pine nuts and raisins and cook for a further 10 minutes.

Season and serve with couscous.

Serves 6.

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