How to get perfect couscous

Plain couscous

I confess it: I’m not cooking much lately. I do have excuses: I’ve been in Calabria, and you see, summer in Calabria is a world where cooking is not required. First of all, you can’t cook with the water supply coming and going without notice. And then, anyway, you won’t cook with fruit and vegetables that good. You just don’t bother. You can very well survive on bread and tomatoes and ricotta and watermelon. When you really feel like a cooked meal, you go to a pizzeria – after all, expats have a right to eat as much pizza as they want when they go back to Italy. It is a recognized human right. Another food staple is granita: when you come back from the sea,   you stop at a little place under a vine, you order a ‘granita con la brioscia’ – you can choose between a handful of very good flavours, but honestly more (black mulberry) is the way to go. Whipped cream is optional, although it does decrease the amount of granita you are going to get. La brioscia, a brioche, is not optional.You have a moral obligation to have granita every day – the season is so short, it has just started and it is going to be gone by the middle of September. After that, there may be still  40 degrees and you may still be going to the sea, but this little bar will only serve normal patisserie and excellent coffee, waiting for another short season of shine. It is always deserted outside the season, I wonder how they survive.

I’m back to Germany now so I guess I should start cooking again. And I always start again from the basics.

Of my go-to ingredients that never make it to the blog, couscous is a probably the biggest suspect. I use it quite often, ready in a handful of minutes for a quick lunch salad, or to bulk up a meal, and here I find good, cheap bags of all varieties of couscous at the ethnic shops (I almost choked when I saw how much more it costs at the local supermarket, once..). A no brainer, really. But it is not something I personally would consider for a high-end meal. Precooked couscous has always a bit of a soggy consistency.  When friends make it for me from scratch, or I go to a North African restaurant, the real version is one of the things I enjoy the most. It has a great texture and the flavour of good durum wheat is hard to beat for the pasta addict Italian that I am at heart. By comparison, I’m always a bit underwhelmed by the precooked variety. I think a person that really enjoys cous cous probably sees my lunch salads the way I’ll look at people cooking soft wheat pasta. I understand it has some conforting and convenient charms, but please, do not compare it with the real thing.

Couscous is  a traditional dish in Sicily, so it is a bit Italian, in a way. A long time ago I had a boyfriend who came from Sicily. I went to visit his family a couple of time, and the last time we were quite close to splitting, so we did not really enjoy the holiday. I did not get along very well with his mother, but his grandmother was a fantastic woman (we actually bonded a bit against her daughter, which, with hindsight, was probably very mean of me). A widow, she dressed strictly in black and she lived in the adoration of her nephews and her long gone husband, who was , according to everyone, a very good and loving man. She could cook incredible delicacies, although her health made it hard for her to tire for long hours in the kitchen. She had lived a long time in Libia, when she  was young, and some of her cooking was influenced by it. She used to recall how men would walk in the street at all hours, selling freshly made orange water to perfume the daily couscous. We prepared it together a couple of times, once of vegetables and once of fish. It was one of the moments I remember with most affection of the whole holiday. However I did not remake the couscous at home immediately, and then I kind of forgot the details. I was also taken aback by the idea that a special equipment was needed to make couscous.

In the years I tried several variations to prepare pre-made couscous. Toast and cook in a pan. Add hot water and let inflate in a covered bowl, then fluff up and serve. Wet and bake with a bit of butter. Some of these methods are better than others, but none of them comes close to the real thing. Then I borrowed, recently, a book on Moroccan cooking at the library (fantastic!). There was the usual description of the traditional steaming method, using the traditional couscoussiere, to prepare real couscous. It then just mentioned you could use the same method to prepare the instant variety, just cutting back the cooking time. I decided to give it a try without any proper equipment. I have a large, fine mesh metal sieve I use for everything, from washing vegetables to draining rice. I used that, over a large pot of boiling water, covered (a bit loosely). I could probably use some foil to get a tighter seal. Anyway, it worked, it worked so well that now I am making couscous at all times. It is slightly more time-consuming than other methods, true, but the result is totally worth it in my opinion. Besides couscous prepared this way heats up really well so you can make some in advance and give it the final heat when you need it, making it very quick in the end.

This method has turned very quickly to one of my typical ‘smell’ methods. I barely use timing when cooking, since it does depend on the pot and the heat you have available. If that makes sense, I cook a lot by smell. When food is ready it often changes the way it smells. If you train yourself to recognize it, you are going to have a powerful asset available in your kitchen. One unusual example of cooking by smell is creme anglaise, of all things: it changes smell when it thickens. I do check with a thermometer just to be on the safe side, since I own it, but honestly, the smell is just as clear. Couscous is definitely less delicate – it is not that easy to overcook it with this method and if it is too much al dente you can always steam it a bit more, if you don’t trust your smell sense – but it works just as well.

Ingredients:

200 gr couscous, precooked variety (any grain works, but I find fine grain couscous is the best one for this)

50 ml water, cold

a bit of butter  and salt to taste

Method:

Wash the couscous with plenty of boiling water. Rinse and drain in a colander. Let it stay for a while – the couscous will start soaking up the water. After ten minutes mix it well with a fork or a whisk, to break any lumps. Bring some water to the boil on a large pot, arrange the sieve on top of it, cover and let it steam for ten minutes. When the couscous is hot and it smells good, take it off the heat. Put it into a bowl, add the cold water, one tablespoon at a time, a big pinch of salt and the butter. Mix and fluff up well with a fork or whisk. Then set aside until you are almost ready to eat. Ten minutes before you want to serve it, heat again the water (or use whatever stew you are serving for dinner), top it with the couscous, back in its sieve, and heat gently over steam until the couscous is hot, about again ten minutes. Give it a final stir and serve.

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16 Comments to “How to get perfect couscous”

  1. Calabria sounds like Lebanon; loved your story of your boyfriend from Sicily and his grandmother.

  2. My husband is Sicilian, from Trapani, the town were they are famous for the fish couscous. My mother in law makes it often. It is delicious. She makes her couscous from scratch. His family also lived in Libya for many years but I believe the couscous tradition on that side of the island comes from the Arab domination. I love how you cook with your sense of smell. It is so true what you write.

  3. Such a lovely post! Cooking has so much to do with senses other than taste!

  4. I will definitely try this soon. We do a really good Seitan Tagine which is always let down by my mediocre couscous. I have always wanted to make a more proper couscous. So, have you never tried to make it on you own from scratch? I would love some pointers on this if you fancied trying to remember how you did it with your ex’s grandmother…

    • I’d love your recipe for the seitan tagine! Is it on your site? I’m trying to become more familiar with seitan and this sounds like a great start. I did make couscous from scratch but unfortunately I could not translate it into a recipe. The basic idea is that you put the flour in a big bowl, wet it with a little water and oil, and rub it against the border fo the bowl for what seems like a long time; then you let it dry. Then you do this again and again, and then you steam it, and then rub again with more fat and water. A bit vague as a recipe, sorry … I’ll have to try it again!

  5. Indeed, I can survive “on bread and tomatoes and ricotta and watermelon” and I also think I have a right to eat as much pizza, ricotta, prosciutto crudo, bresaola, scamorza affumicata, ecc. as I wish when I am there. I am familiar with brioscia col gelato, but I have never had a granita con la brioscia. I just had a gift of more di gelso a few days ago: I was in heaven. They were not enough to make a sorbet, though. I have strong memories attached to Moroccan couscous. Your post reminded me that I have not made it in a long time. Thanks for sharing with us a nice method for preparing it properly.

  6. I love the sound of your method. I have a couscoussiere but don’t use it nearly enough. I’m hoping that your recipe translates well to use with a couscoussiere? And I just bought a box of wholemeal couscous. It’s Italian. I think it’s time to try it out. Ever used wholemeal couscous? Thanks for all the details!

    • I’ve always wanted a couscoussiere, and I will buy it, sooner or later. The original method was for the couscoussiere so you should have good results. I often use wholegrain couscous, but I have not tried this method yet. My feeling is that is just needs a longer first time steam, but I’ll let you know when I try :)

  7. Sounds delicious!

    I just steam mine, partially covered and don’t do the cold water step at the end. I wonder if that would make a difference? I flavor the steaming water sometimes for the most delicate of flavors in the couscous too. . .

    Its interesting to see the Arab and Levantine influences in Italy’s cuisine, isn’t it? Its all from the Mediterranean trade between the states. Nice post! Thanks.

    Laura

  8. this is curious. After my recent trip to Sicily I was so wanting to have some cous cous but all my attempts with precooked grains failed miserably. following the package instructions all I got was… glue. I was almost resigned to wait until I learn how to make cous cous from scratch (which I will still try as soon as I get hold of the couscousiera I left at my mom’s place, in Italy) and now I see this!
    THANK YOU. Your way mimic the proper way to make cous cous, which is by steaming the grains.
    Barbara

  9. sounds soo good am cooking it right now – I’ll keep you posted on the results.
    Out of interest – I’m looking for a small fluffy campsite in Italy for myself and my family – I can only find HUGE monster campsites….don’t worry if you dont know.

    • Hi Han! Unfortunately it’s been years since I went camping in Italy. I remember some lovely places, but all in the mountains. Campsites by the seaside are most of the time horrible. I remember fondly a holiday in Val di Mello, in the Alps, but if you’re not into climbing then probably you’re not going to really enjoy the place. Drop me an email if you want more details!

  10. what I’m wondering now – having steamed it perfectly is why I need to add the cold water?

    • I found that my couscous was a bit dry before I added the cold water. The water is cold so that the grains won’t get soggy I guess – hot water cooks them. After the water is added the coucous needs to steam again. It will absorb the water and get really fluffy. It may well be you don’t need this step, depending on the brand of couscous you are using. They vary a lot. Hope this helps!

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