Given the title of this blog site, I suppose it is no surprise that my first cooking post is about couscous. If you have read my Welcome post (also reproduced on the “About” page), you will know that I intend to focus on recipes and tips for the culinary inept and/or lazy. So, if you need a hot carbohydrate to accompany your meal, then nothing is easier than couscous and it has long been a favourite in our family. No peeling, chopping, naked flames, scorching hot plates, boiling oil or oven required. So, it is easy and relatively safe, with minimal risk to life, limb or fitted kitchen involved. The riskiest part is boiling an electric kettle.
Preparing couscous is even simple enough for a teenage male for whom the kitchen is foreign territory. Like our son. Once upon a time, if required to perform a task in the kitchen, he would approach it with a look of such hesitancy and fear that you would think he had been asked to attach a detonator to a nuclear warhead. He would look at the implements with which the task had to be performed as if they were of extra-terrestrial origin. At that age, I like to think I was slightly more advanced in the culinary stakes. I had learnt how to grill a beef burger, cook an omelette and deep fry my right hand. Cooking an omelette is a good place for the junior cook to start but deep frying your hand is not recommended. It bloody hurts.
A couple of years ago, we had our first summer holiday without our first born. He therefore had to fend for himself for a whole week – good preparation for university life which was to begin in a couple of months. During our holiday, we received endless texts from him such as: “How u peel a carrot?”, “how long u cook carrots 4?”, “how u cook couscous?”.
We did not answer the last query but left him to discover this for himself. A short while later we received a further text: “Couscous is God’s gift to man”. The fact that he worked things out himself is testimony as to how simple couscous is to prepare. And our son is not the only person to appreciate the convenience of couscous. It is a little-known fact that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the lunar surface and uttered those immortal words “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, he was not referring to the moon at all. Prior to exiting the lunar module, he had just sucked dry a tubeful of tasty couscous with lamb and chickpea tagine. I may have just made that up.
So how do you prepare couscous (the term “cook” seems over technical)? Well, in a nutshell, you simply soak it in hot liquid such as, er, water. However, I will expand on that with a few tips:-
TIPS FOR PREPARING COUSCOUS
– I use 50g of couscous and 60ml of boiling water per person. And we are talking about standard couscous, the stuff that looks a bit like opaque, yellow granulated sugar. Not the giant couscous that looks like large white fish eggs.
– Use a non-stick pan, the bigger the better. This means the couscous is more spread out and will compact less under its own weight so you are less likely to end up with couscous cake.
– I put the boiling water into the pan first on the assumption that if you were to pour the water on to the couscous too vigorously, the couscous may splash up the sides. You can add a drop of oil (e.g. olive, not Castrol) to the water to help stop the couscous sticking.
– Sprinkle the couscous into the water, trying to make sure it is evenly distributed across the bottom of the pan and all covered in water. If you have a dry plateau of couscous, a little shimmy will help. That’s a shimmy of the pan, not you but if you are listening to music why not….
– Put lid on pan and leave for 4 mins. After this time, fluff up the couscous with a suitable implement compatible with your best non-stick pan and break down any lumps. Taste a bit to see if the couscous is tender. If it is, then serve! If not, cover and leave a bit longer.
– If you get it right, not a grain of couscous will stick to the pan which will be as clean as a whistle. You could even get away without washing it as long as you don’t tell your spouse/partner. I haven’t dared do that yet. Probably best left to students to try that one.
So, the perfect couscous. There is one problem though. It provides a wonderful texture to a meal but, on its own, it is rather dry and bland. It is an ideal accompaniment for something with lots of sauce and a hearty, possibly spicy, taste. Like a classic North African tagine.
However, you can liven up couscous if your sauce ration is meagre or non-existent. The following explains some ways you can do this with increasing levels of complexity and danger (for those who live on the edge…):
1. Add a squirt of tomato puree or ketchup for bit of colour and dash of tabasco for flavour or maybe some other piquant sauce (peri-peri?). Even the incurably lazy could manage this.
2. Add raisins/sultanas, flaked almonds and/or grated lemon peel (avoid grated finger tips, especially if you are serving to vegetarians). You could also use some lemon juice to make up the quantity of liquid in which to soak the couscous. Slightly more exhausting than item 1, especially with the grating but you will have 4 minutes in which to have a little lie down.
Now we are entering danger territory because there is some proper cooking involved:-
3. For a North African vibe, heat a little olive oil in the pan (not so its searingly hot!), add a sprinkle or two of ground cinnamon, ground ginger and turmeric. Cook gently for a few seconds; better too little cooking than too much because burnt spices are worse than no spices. If smoke alarm goes off, rinse out pan, start again or stick to item 1. Add boiling water, couscous etc to the spicy oil.
4. Fry some chopped onion/red onion and pepper in olive oil. The degree to which you cook the onions is really a matter of taste. Sometimes I just “sweat” them until soft and translucent, other times I properly fry them so they are caramelised. Put in bowl and keep warm. Make up couscous in same pan (helps with flavour) and add back onions and pepper when couscous is done.
5. Try combinations of the above! To combine 3 and 4, add the spices when the onions etc are nearly cooked. For 4, try other ingredients, e.g. garlic, mushrooms, courgettes. I sometimes roast more robust vegetables in the oven (sweet potato, carrots) with olive oil plus heartier chunks of red onion, pepper or whatever and then add all of that to the cooked couscous.
Remember, if you make too much, then you have some couscous salad for the next day!
There will probably be a couple of car blogs next.