Instant Couscous Improv

All the quinoa talk in yesterday's veggie chat got me hankering for a cold summer salad, and if I couldn't get my hands on those glistening pearls of quinoa, I decided that instant couscous would do the trick just as well.

(Kim O'Donnel)

Made from granular semolina, couscous is a staple of northern African countries, including Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Making couscous by hand is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process that involves rubbing semolina wheat into pellets, then repeated drying and steaming until a uniform grain is achieved. Traditionally, it is cooked in a multi-tiered steamer called a couscoussiere, an experience I've yet to have, but I've got my fingers crossed.

For now, I'll take the instant even though traditionalists say it doesn't even come close to the real thing. But I love the pre-cooked stuff because it is so ridiculously easy to pull off a nutritious, satisfying summer salad by the seat of your pants on a weeknight.

While your couscous "cooks" in just-boiled water off the heat -- it's more like a steaming/absorbing process -- you can pull together your salad fixins. The beauty of the couscous salad is that it plays nicely with practically anything you've got in the crisper or in the pantry; it is the ultimate improv queen and can be anything you want it to be.

On a hot and humid eve like last night, my couscous salad came to the refreshing rescue and cooled us off while we sat on the deck and waited for the breeze.

Do you have a couscous salad trick up your sleeve? Share your wizardry in the comments area.

P.S.: Go here for a terrific backgrounder on couscous, the real thing.

Kim's Ad Hoc Couscous Salad

"Cook" the couscous:
1 ½ cups water
¼ teaspoon salt (optional)
1 ½ cups instant couscous

Bring water and salt to a boil. Add couscous, give it a quick stir and turn off heat. Cover pot for at least 10 minutes, to allow water to become absorbed. No peeking!

Remove cover, and with a fork, fluff couscous to avoid clumping. Pour contents into a shallow, wide salad bowl.

While couscous is still somewhat warm, add vinaigrette, salt and pepper for better absorption. (Your favorite bottled vinaigrette is fine here, too, but add gradually to keep goopiness to a minimum.)

Ad hoc vinaigrette: Squeeze two lemons and pour resulting juice over lukewarm couscous. Add ¼ cup olive oil and stir to coat.

Meanwhile, prep salad fixins. Here's what I used last night:

½ medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
½ medium red bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 scallions, both white and green parts, minced
A small handful of fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
A few sprigs of fresh oregano, picked from stems and chopped
1 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and thoroughly rinsed
10-12 grape tomatoes, sliced into thirds
About four ounces feta cheese, crumbled
What I didn't have on hand but would have loved (there's always next time): toasted walnuts or pine nuts, red onion, a handful of fresh basil leaves

Add salad fixins to dressed couscous and with a wooden spoon, stir to thoroughly combine. Stop and taste for seasoning. Add more acid, salt and pepper as you see fit. It's ready when you are.

Makes four to six servings -- and keeps well in an airtight container for lunch the next day.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 6, 2008; 8:25 AM ET Dinner Tonight , Vegetarian/Vegan
Previous: Vegan and You Don't Even Know It | Next: 'Morning, Sunshine: Is Breakfast on Your Menu?


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Oooh, I have one. We usually just use boxed couscous in summer, so don't hate on me for that, but:
Near East brand Mediterranean Curry couscous, prepared with 1c water 1/4c lemon juice
chopped mango or peaches
a drizzle of honey
a drizzle of soy

all tossed together, and served over greens and under grilled chicken.

Posted by: Pru | June 6, 2008 8:59 AM

Just a note, I usually read the chat after its finished since I can't participate due to meetings around that time....

but I wanted to add that in the bulk organic section of Wegmans you can get quinoa for a song. Couscous, Bulgur and Wheatberries too.

Posted by: Centreville, VA | June 6, 2008 9:21 AM

The recipe sounds great! Very timely since I'm working w/ only a microwave and toaster oven. Couscous is the only grain that is easy to fix.

Posted by: SR | June 6, 2008 9:38 AM

You could use broth (chicken or veg) for added flavor instead of water. Someone gave me a recipe with cumin added to the dressing.

Posted by: Washington, DC | June 6, 2008 10:52 AM

i like dried fruit (figs, cranberries, apricots, raisins - whatever I can scrounge up) and baked eggplant or squash (depending on season) in mine - with lots of cinnamon and cardamom.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 6, 2008 11:08 AM

This is a staple in our household. My husband is a very good Lebanese cook and my two daughters, 6 and 8, love this salad and ask for it often. It's incredibly refreshing!

Posted by: TLC | June 6, 2008 3:25 PM

My current favorite is using a pesto vinaigrette (pesto, a little lime juice, red wine vinegar) and cooking the couscous in chicken broth, and then adding chickpeas, grape tomatoes, additional chopped herbs, and other veggies, this week it was sweet peas from the farmer's market, along with the dressing.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | June 6, 2008 4:15 PM

Kim - I have a couscoussiere in storage that is looking for a new home if you would like it. It was given to me in the late 1990s by the sister of a former English-as-a-Second-Language student of mine, when I was working in Morocco. I complimented the delicious couscous and expressed interest in how the double-layered pot worked, and by the end of the visit, she offered it as a gift. I'll treasure the memory of the visit forever, but I do not have room in my tiny kitchen for the couscoussiere. If you'd like it, just yell! (and let me know how to get it to you)

Posted by: Moxie | June 6, 2008 4:25 PM

Last night I mixed in fresh blueberries and peaches and dressed with Annie's Natural papaya was wonderful.

Posted by: holleahock | June 7, 2008 10:16 AM

Kim, this was a really great meal on a warm night last night. Here's how I made my version.

I stopped at Giant and went to the salad bar. (I only cook for 2 and my partner isn't enamored of leftovers, so I buy for each meal. No waste.) I filled 2 small containers with red onions, broccoli, green peppers, baby corn, carrots, and some grilled chicken. I diced everything and did a quick roast for the onion, green peppers, and broccoli. My couscous was pine nut flavored. Once the couscous and veggies were room temp, I mixed everything together with some fresh garlic, basalmic vineger, and a drizzle of olive oil and chilled.

It was even better today for lunch.

Posted by: GAFF | June 7, 2008 2:22 PM

I always have couscous in my pantry but don't make it often. This recipe sounds lovely and I think it will be prefect to take to work. I will be giving it ago.

sam -

Posted by: Sam | June 9, 2008 6:33 PM

I just want to add that bulgar (especially the fine and medium grain) is nearly as convenient to make as couscous--you can just add boiling water, cover, wait 20 minutes or so for a good texture, and pour off the excess water.

Posted by: Becky | June 10, 2008 1:23 PM

oh, this is amazing. I just finished making it. I did it with quinoa, frozen shrimp, a shallot, scallions, parsley, cilantro, cucumber, garbanzos, and crumbled goat cheese. lemon and olive oil, salt and pepper to dress. I had my doubts that it would be flavorful enough, but it's just delicious -- I look forward to eating it for lunch at work the rest of the week! Thank you!

Posted by: Amber | June 10, 2008 8:26 PM

Trader Joes has whole wheat couscous!

Posted by: patty | June 19, 2008 11:07 AM

Being the queen of one pot meals...
My favorite dish with cous-cous

* Cube a skinliss boneless chicken breast and cook it in the water for the couscous (about 5 minutes at a boil does it perfectly)

*remove chicken to a bowl and drain
* cook Cous-cous as instructed

To the room temperature chicken add
*one thin sliced onion
*one large orange sectioned
*one cup of Pignola or pistachios
*dash or cardomon
*dash of oregano
*Olive oil
*Balsamic vineger to taste
*Salt/ pepper to taste
Toss well and serve over the cous-cous (sometimes I prefer to just throw the cous-cous in the bowl and mix it all, then serve chilled over a few slices of lettuce.

Posted by: Wynn | June 19, 2008 12:33 PM

Harris Teeter has whole wheat couscous as well. It's a staple of my diet.

Posted by: Erin | June 19, 2008 12:46 PM

moxie, i'm dying for a couscouserie. i lived in paris in college and had the real thing in a bunch of restaurants there. if you want to give it i'd love it or for a fair price, i'd be willing to pay for shipping, buy it etc. email me if you're interested.

Posted by: paula | June 19, 2008 2:22 PM

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