Couscous is one of those foods that G didn’t used to like. She’s not a picky eater by any stretch of the imagination, but if there was a choice between couscous and pretty much any other filling side the couscous was being left on the bench. So that meant I didn’t really cook it much. To be frank, I could see her point – it’s so often dry and mealy with very little flavour and feels like it’s just there because someone thought their tagine needed a side dish more authentic than rice. Also, why would you go with couscous when you could eat a different more flavoursome grain like freekeh, farro, or Israeli couscous? Well, this all changed when we went to Morocco and realised we’d never had real couscous before. In Western countries we buy instant couscous and it struggles to match the heights of the slow steamed version. Although that is delicious, it’s very time consuming and non-instant couscous is actually hard to buy so I wanted to make instant work. Despite what the guy in this video might say you can make instant couscous delicious! After a few early blander versions, I’ve come up with a few rules that have transformed both G and myself into die hard couscous converts. It can be completely delicious whilst still being fast and easy, can be made in advance for a picnic, is delicious the next day, and goes with everything. It’s so good that if I came home after a few tipples and saw both leftover couscous and left over Chinese food in the fridge, the Chinese food will still be there in the morning!
I’ve found there a few golden rules to making delicious couscous, namely:
- Don’t add too much hot liquid: a 5:3 (or 3:2) ratio of liquid to couscous is perfect in my opinion. That means 500g (or 450g) of hot liquid for every 300g of instant couscous.
- Season it really well: Most couscous you eat is woefully underseasoned and so you don’t get any depth of flavour. Whack in some salt, it’ll take a little mroe than you think. Spice it up with some black pepper too
- Go nuts with the added extras: I like to add some olive oil roasted nuts to my couscous for texture and either slow cooked onions or dried fruit for sweetness with onions for sharpness. The nuts are the secret ingredient though, texture and intense flavour go a long way. If you want to add spices you can really go to town but I prefer to keep it a little plainer as it’s often served with a heavily spiced dish.
- Keep it fresh: Some fresh herbs, some diced tomato or lemon zest wake the flavour of it up and give it much needed vibrancy.
- Don’t let it dry out: Instant couscous can end up a little dry. Adding a good slug of olive oil both intensifies the flavour and makes the coucous feel smooth and indulgent. It honestly makes all the difference
The olive oil toasted nuts were a recent revelation to me. I use them in so many dishes now, whether its for intense bursts of texture in salads, sprinkled over the top of duck breasts or as a crusty top for meat or fish. In fact my absolute favourite use is to mix in some olive oil toasted hazelnuts with butter, parmesan cheese, some herbs and a little chilli and bake in on top of a piece of monkfish. You get this intensely savoury, slightly spicy crumbly topping for the soft yet meaty fish which is just awesome. Here, they make a great add in for the couscous giving both texture and flavour. It’s surprising just how different they taste for being toasted in olive oil rather than simply in an oven. They gain a savouriness that’s quite beguiling. I also find that hazelnuts make a delightful whistling noise if toasted whole as the internal moisture turns to steam and escapes from the tiny cracks in the nut. I love hearing things cook, it not only tells you a lot about what’s going on in the pan but reminds you of the beauty of produce and makes the act of cooking feel whole.
As for making ahead in the TimedEating manner, this couscous dish is ideal. It is delicious at room temperature so can be made days in advance and simply removed from the fridge a few hours before serving. Or if you want to serve it steaming hot, then simply prepare all your add-ins and have the ready. Pour the hot water (or stock if using) over the couscous ten minutes before you want to eat and then mix in everything after the liquid is absorbed. As the Meerkats would say, “simples”. I love serving it with spiced lamb shoulder or lamb breast but you can really serve it with almost everything from a stew, to my favourite chicken pastilla or a pan seared piece of fish.
Nutty couscous with sweet onions
Ingredients: (You can play around to your own flavour combinations but this one is one of my favourites)
- 300g instant couscous
- 450ml white chicken stock (water works just fine)
- 100g pine nuts, whole
- 150g blanched skinned hazelnuts, finely chopped (see note below)
- 150g peeled pistachios, finely chopped (see note below)
- 200g caramelised slow cooked onions (see recipe – if you don’t want to cook onions then use red onions but add to couscous before adding the hot liquid)
- 150g cherry tomatoes, finely diced
- Bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Olive oil
- Place the blanched hazelnuts and pistachios in a food processor and pulse briefly until roughly chopped – you can of course do this by hand but the food processor is much faster albeit a little noisy. Add the nuts to a sieve and shake to remove the “dust” released when they’re chopped. This sieving step is subtle but surprisingly important as the “dust” is almost like a nut flour and will cause the nuts to clump when being toasted.
- Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a pan over a medium high heat until hot and add the chopped pistachios and hazelnuts along with some salt. Cook stirring for a few minutes until golden and toasted. Remove from the pan and add the pine nuts and cook until golden brown but not burnt. Place the toasted nuts to one side.
- Place the couscous in a heat proof bowl and season with salt and pepper, mix in the caramelised onions and stir, if you’re adding dried fruit then add at this stage. Heat the stock (or water) until boiling and pour over the couscous. Cover the bowl with cling film and leave for 10 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove the clingfilm and fluff with a fork to separate the grains.
- Add all the remaining “extras” except the olive oil and parsley and stir to combine. Season well with salt and pepper, it needs a little more salt than you’d first think. Stir in a few large glugs of olive oil to taste. It should feel moist but not greasy and have a deep savoury note from the oil. Add the parsley immediately before serving.
TimedEating tips and tricks for cooking ahead:
- The whole dish can be made a couple of days in advance, it loses a little in texture but the flavour mixes together and almost improves. I prefer to add the parsley and tomatoes shortly before serving to improve the freshness. If stored in the fridge it may clump together. Bring to room temperature and fluff with a fork before serving.
- If you want to serve it hot and steaming then make sure to all your prep before cooking the couscous. Add the boiling liquid ten minutes before you want to eat and simply mix in the pre-prepared extras. It makes serving this for a large bunch of people a breeze.
- The slow cooked onions can be prepared up to a week in advance and freeze exceptionally well. I make them in a large batch and use them for lots of dishes like pork bonbons, onion filo tart or braised chickpeas
- The nuts can be toasted in advance but lose some of their vibrancy if cooled overnight. Therefore I recommend cooking them the same day as making the couscous.
- Leftover couscous makes an amazing stuffing roasted pepper, especially if mixed with a little left over cubes of lamb. That being said, in our house leftover couscous tends to be gone pretty darn fast.