Casual couscous

There's no need to reserve it only for elaborate meals.

couscous 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
couscous 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For years I knew Morocco's petite pasta, known as couscous, as the basis for a hearty, warming entree. This classic preparation calls for steaming the couscous at length and serving it with a grand assortment of meat, poached vegetables and stuffed vegetables, and the finished main course is also called couscous. In the Maghreb countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, where this prized pasta originated, cooks match it with a variety of substantial stews and soups. According to my friend Kitty Morse, the author of Come with Me to the Kasbah, Casablanca couscous includes at least seven kinds of vegetables cooked with meat, tomatoes, saffron, turmeric, ginger and cilantro, then finished with raisins and served with harissa, the North African hot sauce. Like spaghetti, couscous is made of durum wheat semolina. Traditionally it was made at home but it's readily available packaged. The semolina is moistened with water and pushed through a strainer or coarsely ground into small bits. They're tiny - some say that when well made, couscous particles are the size of coarse sugar grains. There's no need to reserve couscous only for elaborate meals. Like other kinds of pasta, couscous is ideal for quick, easy dishes too. It's even faster to prepare than most kinds of pasta because for couscous, there's no need to boil a big pot of water. You just moisten the couscous with a small amount of liquid and let it stand for five minutes off the heat to plump. Broth is the favorite liquid but you can use any hot liquid, even fruit juice. Packaged couscous cooks so fast because it has been pre-steamed. Because of its light texture, couscous is popular for salads, usually dressed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Some cooks toss it with finely diced raw vegetables as for Israeli salad, while others combine it with roasted vegetables, such as eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. For a couscous salad that can be served warm or cold, I mix the plumped grains with pistachios, corn and chickpeas to make a meatless main course. For an elegant seafood salad, I combine couscous with asparagus, mint and pine nuts and add poached or smoked salmon. You can even turn couscous into dessert. On Egyptian tables a simple bowl of couscous sprinkled with sugar, raisins and toasted nuts is a beloved children's treat. I also like it as the basis for a mousse-like dessert with strawberries or peaches and whipped cream. COUSCOUS SALAD WITH ASPARAGUS, TOMATOES, PINE NUTS AND MINT This colorful salad features a garnish of toasted nuts and feta cheese and the popular Eastern Mediterranean flavoring combination of fresh mint, green onions, olive oil and lemon juice. If you have very fresh, slim asparagus, you can add the upper third of each spear raw; you can also use cooked frozen asparagus, or substitute fresh green beans or strips of zucchini. If you like, serve the salad on a bed of fresh lettuce. 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 3 to 5 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil 225 to 250 gr. asparagus, preferably thin 1 cup couscous 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or 6 ripe small tomatoes, diced 1 or 2 green onions, chopped 3 Tbsp. chopped fresh mint or basil 2 Tbsp. pine nuts 1⁄3 cup crumbled feta or Bulgarian cheese 3 Tbsp. walnut halves, toasted (optional) Cherry tomatoes and mint or basil sprigs (for garnish) Whisk lemon juice with a pinch of salt and pepper in a medium bowl. Whisk in 3 tablespoons oil. Trim tough bases of asparagus. Cut each spear in 3 pieces. Add asparagus pieces to a medium saucepan of boiling salted water and simmer uncovered over medium-high heat for 3 minutes or until asparagus is just tender. Remove asparagus with a slotted spoon. Measure 1 cup cooking liquid and return to pan. Bring to a boil and add couscous. Cover pan and remove from heat. Let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk dressing again and drizzle 2 tablespoons of dressing over couscous. Cover and let stand for 2 minutes. Transfer couscous to a bowl and break up any lumps with a fork. Let cool completely. Whisk remaining dressing, drizzle it over couscous and toss gently with a fork. Add halved or diced tomatoes, green onion and mint or basil and toss salad gently. Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. Toast pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat, shaking skillet often, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Add asparagus and pine nuts to couscous and toss salad. Taste and adjust seasoning. Add 1 or 2 more tablespoons oil if needed. Serve salad sprinkled with feta and remaining chopped mint or basil. Garnish with walnuts, whole cherry tomatoes and mint or basil sprigs. Makes 4 servings. COOL AND CREAMY COUSCOUS PUDDING WITH STRAWBERRIES Creamy like rice pudding, this luscious treat is fast and simple to prepare and demands almost no cooking. 11⁄4 cups strawberries, halved and sliced 3 Tbsp. sugar 1 cup milk 1⁄2 cup couscous 1⁄2 tsp. grated lemon zest 3⁄4 cup whipping cream, well chilled 1⁄2 tsp. pure vanilla extract Small whole or halved strawberries (for garnish) Put sliced strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. Toss gently and refrigerate while preparing couscous. Chill a bowl for whipping cream. Bring milk and 1 tablespoon sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Stir in couscous, cover pan and remove from heat. Let stand for 15 minutes or until milk is absorbed. Transfer couscous to a large bowl and stir with a fork to separate grains. Cool to room temperature. Stir in lemon zest. Whip cream in chilled bowl until it holds soft peaks. Add remaining sugar and vanilla and whip cream until just stiff. Gently fold whipped cream into couscous, followed by sliced strawberries and their liquid. Spoon mixture into 4 custard cups, small ramekins or other dessert dishes. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight. Serve cold, garnished with strawberries. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.