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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 Fideuà (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.

              1. Thank you so much for the suggestions. I will try browning the couscous + steaming them in extra broth!

                1. If you were to steam white rice or boil pasta with no added flavorings (or potatoes, for that matter) you'd come back saying "gah -- that stuff is awful!"

                  The starches are there as vehicles for other flavors...they don't have much on their own -- and couscous fits solidly into this category.

                  (obviously they fill a dietary need as well, but that's off the point for this discussion)

                  5 Replies
                    1. re: esquimeaux

                      but without anything added to it (and if unfortunately a little undercooked, as the OP alludes to happening with the couscous) it's pretty easy to see how someone could have a hard time liking it.

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        100% agree. Saffron crumbled in the cooking liquid, plenty of EVO, lemon juice, chopped parsley, cubed feta, sliced scallions, baby tomatoes and cucumber. Seasoning. Warm or cold, this makes a great side for steaks or cold meats. Make a day ahead is fine too.

                        1. re: Robin Joy

                          I don't use the saffron, but we eat that regularly as a cold salad in the summertime. Cool and satisfying -- sometimes I use mint in place of the parsley - that's tasty, too. I've been known to toss in some cold boiled shrimp if we want a little more protein.

                          (just for clarity, this is a good use for couscous -- small or medium grain is best)

                          1. re: sunshine842

                            The truth is I used to use a "Perfect Saffron Rice" stock cube, but now I can't find them. Now I normally use a sachet of paella seasoning. Costly saffron is for special occasions only!


                  1. you're getting very good advice here. It's challenging, but you need to think of couscous as teeny tiny grains of pasta, because that is really what it is.the nomads who live in the desert and have little access to water- use it because it is basically already cooked and only takes a little water to rehydrate. so now think about how pasta needs tons of flavorings - to taste like something.

                    i have been lucky, like you, to have the wonderful couscous at aziza. couscous is treated , in the meal, like rice. it can stand on its own, but more often it is paired with stewy foods so it absorbs the wonderful sauce. At any rate, here is a recipe for a cold couscous salad which I am fond of. Hope you might try it. ** As with regular pasta, don't forget the importance of Salt salt salt!**

                    COUS COUS w/ Orange, Pistachio and Cranberries 


                    1 box Cous Cous, Plain or Wheat

                    2C + Chix stock or water

                    ½ C Scallions Chopped

                    ½ C Pistachios chopped

                    2 tsp Orange Zest

                    1/4 C Dried Cranberries Chopped

                    Make cous cous according to directions on package, using 2c. + chicken stock or hot water. Soften cranberries in hot water for 10-15 minutes before you chop.Add the pistachios, orange zest, cranberries and scallions. Mix in cous cous vinaigrette until flavored and right consistency.S. 12-15 for 1/3 c. side starch portion. Flavor improves after 1 or 2 days.May need to season with more salt and pepper.

                    Cous Cous Vinaigrette :

                    6 T lemon juice

                    1 T cumin

                    1/2 T. Madras Curry Powder

                    2 tsp Cinnamon

                    2 Tsps Salt and Pepper

                    1 ½ C Veg.Oil

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: opinionatedchef

                      This sounds very delicious, I cannot wait to try. The vinaigrette alone makes me drool. I travel a lot and have very little time to cook but may be able to sneak this one in this weekend. You're right that I sometimes forget that this is pasta and i need to remember to salt!

                      And thank you everyone for all the suggestions.

                    2. "couscous is supposed to be bland, that it's all about the seasoning and pairing with spicy dishes."

                      Not fair. Many great dishes in the world use the contrast of spicy and bland, crunchy texture and soupy texture. Therefore, having one bland ingredient in a dish is not an original sin.

                      A brilliantly informative hound, Ptipois, who is active in the France forum, wrote a book called "Tout couscous". According to official statistics, it is the number two most pirated book in France, ahead of Harry Potter, LOL.
                      (Sorriest it is, of course, in French.)

                      5 Replies
                      1. re: Parigi

                        parigi, i really don't see the need , or usefulness, for 'bland' anything.All over the world spicy foods are paired with starches- beans, rice, [polenta, pasta, couscous.... but it doesn't mean the starch has to be bland. IMO, for ME anyway, i want my accompanying starch to have flavor enough that it can stand on its own without my having to reach for condiments.

                        1. re: opinionatedchef

                          That reminds me of a thread in which an Korean-American girl worried that her parents would be offended when her American boyfriend asked for ketchup or soy sauce to put on the plain rice. In some cultures staples like rice are 'treated with respect', and enjoyed with little to no seasoning.

                          On the other hand European-American culture likes to doctor up the starches or drown them with sauces and gravies. We want our rice well salted, and topped with butter if nothing else. Our mashed potatoes are rich in fat, and and smothered with gravy. Our sauce/pasta ratio is much higher than in Italy, And our couscous has to be flavorful on its own.

                          Cultures that don't drown the starches tend to pay more attention to their proper preparation (e.g. au dent pasta) and variations in flavor and texture of different strains (of rice, corn, potato, beans).

                          1. re: paulj

                            i don't know but my experience w/ asian (in the broad sense) foods must be very different from yours. maybe you traveled to one side of a country and i traveled to another. from my experience, the Impoverished of any culture- eats their starch plain . they simply cannot afford condiments/flavorings. as you go up the economic chain, condiments and veggies,meat/poultry and seafood - accompany the starch. In Japan, rice is eaten in vast quantities but condiments (a million diff. types of 'pickles' at the very least) accompany that rice. Same in china. no one eats plain starch if they can afford not to. anyway, i'm not going to recommend to the OP that she learn to like couscous by eating it plain. If that's your taste, more power to you; a much simpler path to travel.

                          2. re: opinionatedchef

                            "i really don't see the need , or usefulness, for 'bland' anything"


                          3. re: Parigi

                            Here is a thread in which Ptipois gave an encyclopaedic rundown on "all things couscous". I can't read it any more. Gives me instant craving.

                          4. Why? Don't bother. I have tried multiple kinds and they all leave me wondering WTF

                            1. Plenty of good advice above.

                              Bottom line, couscous is tiny pasta. However, "al dente" doesn't work too well here. If it turns out dry, use more liquid. Or steam it after, as mentioned. Can be made with broth and eaten with butter (better yet, garlic butter or compound butter). You can spice it or sauce it a thousand different ways, serve it under goulash or curry or any stew, tagine, etc. Or with marinara and Parmesan, or just next to a slab of meat loaf. Once you get the consistency right it's almost difficult to make couscous unpleasant.