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Help me like couscous, please.

A few years ago, a Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco, Aziza, convinced me that I can like couscous. Somehow, the way they prepped the couscous creates a very flavorful and moist dish. Aziza's couscous was not covered in some sort of stew and the grilled meat was not overly spiced.

This new love for couscous prompted me to go to Trader Joe's and buy a box of couscous. I made it according to the box's direction and the result is bland, gritty and dry. My biggest issue with couscous before Aziza's dish is the grittiness and dryness and the odd texture. My question is - am i missing something?

Are there different types of couscous? Are there specific brands that would make better couscous? I googled and searched but some posts actually confirmed the fact that couscous is supposed to be bland, that it's all about the seasoning and pairing with spicy dishes. Aziza convinced me that this is not true - can someone help me?

Thank you!

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  1. The couscous that you bought a TJ is just a type of pasta - small balls of semolina. It is the common instant kind - just add hot water and let it soak in. Without seasoning it is going to be bland. If what you made was dry and gritty, it wasn't hydrated enough (not enough water). It should be fluffy, moist without being wet.

    What did the restaurant do? They could have made their own from scratch, though that is labor intensive. They could have steamed it over a stew. And undoubtedly they seasoned it - at least with salt, maybe some other spices.

    There's another form of couscous, sometimes called Israeli couscous, which is larger diameter balls. That needs to be simmered in salted water, just like other small pasta shapes.

    The Wiki article on couscous gives you an overview of its history, and variety of preparation methods.

    5 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      although it is not a grain, couscous benifits from browning in oil before steaming or soaking.

      1. re: paulj

        Israeli couscous makes a shockingly good, fast "faux-ella" (fake paella). Treat it just like rice. quick brown some boneless thighs cut up into 1 inch pieces, along with some chorizo. Set aside Wipe pan, make sofrito, toast couscous, add the saffron "tea", a splash of wine, and then add the chicken and chorizo back in. Add some chicken broth as it starts to dry up, as needed. the couscous will cook in about 8 mins, so after about 4 mins, toss in some frozen peas, and maybe some thawed shrimp, and finish. (don't forget the pimenton in the sofrito, and as a shake or 2 towards the end.

        45 mins, start to finish, max. Midweek paella! One pot meal. And I actually find I prefer it to rice.

        1. re: ChefBoyAreMe

          The pasta versionof paella is called FideuĂ  (at least in Valencia), though short lengths of vemicelli (fideos) is the most common shape. In Mexico the equivalent is called sopa seca de fideos ('dry soup').

          1. re: paulj

            My understanding is fideo is specific to the shape of the pasta, being, as you say, vermicelli-like (I think the derivation has a literal meaning somehow related to the shape, much like vermicelli is specifically referring to "little worms"; Vermi{say "worm" as if you had a German accent/"verm", and you hear it, plus the diminutive -elli, combined) I'm not sure a "paella", made with Israeli couscous could be accurately refereed to as fideos

            1. re: ChefBoyAreMe

              Yes, fideo is defined as a 'narrow string' pasta. But I don't think Spanish speakers are as picky about pasta shapes, names and uses as Italians. The Spanish Wiki page for fideo is about as broad in coverage as the English noodle.

              The preferred fideo size for these dry applications is only a half inch long. Do the Italians use a vermicelli this size, or is their orozo shape the closest? In any case, any small pasta would cook up about the same. I vaguely recall one source claiming that small elbows (coditos) were best or preferred.

      2. I can't stand instant couscous made according to the instructions on the box either. It is like little bits of cardboard. I doctor it up by using chicken broth, salt, and butter/margarine. I use more liquid than called for, as well. I really enjoy it done that way.

        1 Reply
        1. re: luckyfatima

          I do the same, but usually with vegetable broth. I also like to add in chickpeas and artichokes while the couscous is steaming- adds some flavor and a bit of something extra.

          Leftover couscous is delicious topped with grated muenster cheese & baked

        2. By the way, if I want to steam instant couscous, how is this done? Wrap in cheesecloth and stick in tiered steamer? How long?

          4 Replies
          1. re: luckyfatima

            Pour equal amount of boiling liquid over couscous. Stir and cover to steam for 5 min. Fluff with a fork.

            1. re: scubadoo97

              I meant more like replicating how it is done in Morocco in a couscousiere. I guess I could just do that with a double boiler but how will I prevent the couscous from falling through the holes, how long to steam, etc? Would it taste better using this method or will I still get bits of cardboard?

              1. re: luckyfatima

                I do the boiling water over the couscous to rehydrate it, but I like to then also steam it - it really makes for a fluffier final product. I use a steamer/double boiler lined in several layers of cheesecloth. As for timing - well, we typically like couscous with some currants or raisins, so I just time the steaming by the plumped state of the dried fruit, I suppose! Try the texture while to see where it's at - some instant couscous is coarser than others.

          2. By itself, couscous is wicked boring. It has to have seasoning or a sauce. I love both North African and Israeli couscous, but I don't like them plain, and I do like other plain foods.

            And no matter what you do, take Magiesmom's advice and brown your couscous in a little oil. It really does elevate the flavor.

            1. In my experience, perceived moistness is not only a function of water amount but also the subtle effect of fats (I use a touch of olive oil, butter or both) and gelatin (from broth), both of which I use in the overall liquid. You need to experiment a bit with the cous-cous/broth ratios to get what you like. I generally use just slightly more fluid than cous-cous.

              Measure the amount of cous-cous you need (say 1 cup) and then set it into a bowl. I usually use a broth base from the fridge for this, so I refill the same measuring cup of water and then top it up by another 1/4-1/3 cup. Toss in the broth base, add a whole clove or two of garlic, any herbs and spices you like, and bring it all to a solid simmer. Don't forget salt! (Don't boil vigorously for long or you start losing moisture to evaporation.) Once the fluid mix is at a good simmer or hotter, then just dump in the cous-cous, stir briefly to moisten, take off heat and pop a tight lid on top. Don't open for ten minutes. This really never fails for me. You can dress it with fresh herbs, etc., of course.

              Final note: whole wheat cous-cous is definitely good eats, even for people who don't tend to like things like whole wheat Italian pastas and the like.

              Also, I suggest you find a bulk foods aisle, a health store, or a mediterranean/middle-eastern grocer and buy in larger quantity. Those little supermarket boxes with their nasty spice mixtures are generally a disappointing rip-off.