Real food, fast: Couscous

Real food couscous imageWhen you hear food preparation described as “pour boiling water over (whatever), wait five minutes and enjoy,” I’ll bet your first thought isn’t healthy, real food. But there is a very real product that is prepared in exactly that way: Couscous (pronounced coos coos). It’s delicious, and, if you choose the whole-wheat version, packed with nutrients and fiber, with only trace amounts of fat and no sodium.

What’s the catch? Mainly only that it is new to many people. In North Africa, couscous is as widely used as our North American potato. There is a wonderful summary of couscous on the Leslie Beck, RD site, so I won’t go into what it is, or what the health benefits may be (my expertise with food is preparation, and eating, not science). What matters to me, is that I can prepare couscous at the last minute, and I can always have it on hand in my pantry. Preparation truly is as easy as I outlined above.

Real food couscous cooked in the microwave
Whole wheat couscous cooks in five minutes.

If I am am making plain couscous, I often boil just over ¼ cup of water in a microwave-safe, glass container with a cover. When the water boils, add ¼ cup of couscous, stir quickly and cover. Five minutes later, fluff it with a fork and serve.This quantity makes two servings as a side, or one couscous has a starring role in a main-dish.

Note: Most instructions for couscous call for equal water to couscous. I always use whole-wheat couscous (I think it has a better texture and I love the taste), and I find that I need just a little more water than the 1 to 1 ratio. Try both. Perhaps I have learned to like a softer couscous than standard.

So, really, what’s the catch? It is very expensive, right? Yes, and no. If you buy the small boxes, with mysterious Middle-eastern images decorating the packaging, you bet it will cost you. I’ve seen tiny amounts of couscous for $4 – $5 per box. However, if you go to a bulk-food store, you should  pay between $2 and $4.50 a pound ($.50 to $1.00 per 100gms). If you have several sources of bulk food, compare. I’ve seen organic couscous at the same price as non-organic couscous in the same store, and one store with a price that is double the price of another in the same city.

However, a pound of couscous is a lot of food. There are approximately 11, ¼ cup portions in a pound. So, even at the higher, per-pound price, you could serve 22, side portions for $4.50. No matter which way you look at it, that’s cheap eats, especially for food with an excellent nutritional score and great, versatile taste.

OK — so what can you do with couscous? I often prepare and serve couscous plain as described above, sometimes with a little butter or olive oil, and even lemon juice with fish. I also use it as a base for curry or stir-fry. Because it is ready so quickly, I often use it as a substitute for rice. If preparing more than a couple of servings, it makes more sense to use a pan on the stove, or even a kettle to boil the water.

There are countless ways to add flavor to couscous as you are cooking, too. Simply substituting any broth for the water changes the flavor completely. You can saute onion and garlic, or any other vegetable, then add liquid and couscous. Cover and rest for five minutes. Couscous is a bland food, so it can serve as the background for whatever flavor is appropriate for your meal.

Real food couscous image
Crunchy Shrimp with Toasted Couscous and Ginger-Orange Sauce from Cooking Light. Recipe at Cooking Light

The best thing I have ever made with couscous, and one of the best things over my entire cooking life, is a prize-winning-salad recipe from Cooking Light magazine. This recipe won the $10,000 grand prize in Cooking Light’s 2005 annual cooking contest. (Watch for an essay in the Real Food has Stories section in the future. There is a story to go with when I first made the recipe, which is why I remember the date.)

Crunchy Shrimp with Toasted Couscous and Ginger-Orange Sauce is not an everyday, after work recipe. Not the first time, for sure. Once you have made it once, you may find that you take the concept and make your own version much more quickly. It’s not difficult to make, just has several sections, and many ingredients, which does slow you down. This recipe is definitely company-worthy fare, however. (As a company meal, and I mean, “putting on a show” company meal, it is pretty quick.)  Note: I have never used watercress. I use whatever salad greens I have at the time, with preference to arugula if I have a choice. Watercress would be wonderful — I just never have it on hand.

Give couscous a try. You can never have too many, last minute tricks.

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