From Morocco comes pasta that's as versatile as it is small COUSCOUS

June 07, 1995|By Tina Danze | Tina Danze,Dallas Morning News Universal Press Syndicate

Few foods are more mispronounced and misunderstood than couscous.

Yet this North African staple (pronounced KOOS-koos) is as versatile as rice, pasta or potatoes and as mistake-proof as instant cereal. And it goes from box to table in five minutes.

Food maven Craig Claiborne lavishes his highest praise on traditional Moroccan couscous, ranking it among the top dishes in the world.

But it's not this complicated version of couscous that's finding its way into more and more American kitchens.

It's the easy box-to-table style. Even so, there are a few hurdles before some Americans discover its glories.

Get past its funny name, and the most common mistake people make is assuming couscous is a grain. It's actually a tiny pasta made of semolina and water, like spaghetti.

The confusion is easy to understand. It's tinier than any pasta most of us have seen. And when steamed, the granules swell up like rice.

It also sounds like one of those Middle Eastern grains, like bulgur, that need soaking before they're eaten.

Incredibly versatile -- like rice, pasta and potatoes -- couscous marries beautifully with a range of ingredients and flavors. A couscous dish can be sweet or spicy, a hearty one-dish meal or a dessert, Southwestern or Moroccan.

It's also remarkably easy to prepare. It's available plain or in seasoned mixes at the grocery store, or even in whole wheat at natural foods stores. A foolproof method is to bring 1 1/4 cups of chicken stock to a boil, stir in 1 cup of couscous, remove the mixture from the heat and let it stand, covered, for 5 minutes. After you fluff it with a fork, it's ready to serve with a sauce-bathed entree.

Dallas chef Sorin Lazar has cultivated a loyal couscous following. After hooking diners on a plain but aromatic vegetable-studded couscous, he developed a Mediterranean couscous-and-pasta salad bursting with Italian and Greek accents such as sun-dried tomatoes, feta cheese and briny black olives. "The dressing contains every flavor in the book from the Mediterranean region," he says.

Now that his patrons have developed a passion for couscous, Mr. Lazar has introduced a traditional dish called Bedouin Pilaf.

"The true couscous made by the Bedouins features a slow-cooked leg of lamb, which is flaked and tossed together with cooked vegetables, couscous and roasting juices," he says. "It is something phenomenal, usually served at weddings or palaces."

In the American kitchen, couscous can be the primary ingredient in a quick salad, such as Southwestern Couscous Salad. It can even become a homey baked pudding, much like rice or bread pudding.

More complicated, authentic Moroccan couscous gives cooks a greater challenge. A traditional Moroccan couscous is never quick-cooked, according to Paula Wolfert, author of "Mediterranean Cooking" (HarperCollins, $17.50).

The authentic fluffy texture is achieved only through a multistep process of soaking, drying, separating and steaming the couscous granules, Ms. Wolfert notes.

"If you follow the [quick] directions on a 1-pound box [approximately 2 1/2 cups], it yields six cups of couscous," Ms. Wolfert says. "That's fine if you're serving six people, but not if you're feeding a crowd. When I steam it [2 1/2 cups], I get 18 cups."

Traditionally prepared couscous multiplies biblically because it absorbs water while it soaks, then continues to swell with moisture as it steams slowly over a delicious stew.

North Africans steam their couscous in a "couscoussier," a steamer with a generous space between the steamer basket and the bottom of the pot where the stew or water simmers. Ms. Wolfert says you can rig up a fine substitute with a deep pot and a metal colander that fits snugly against the sides of the pot. Although the traditional technique is more tedious, it rewards the cook with a softer, lighter couscous.

"The [finished] couscous is usually moistened with something -- a thin soup, butter, or a sauce," Ms. Wolfert says.

Most Americans would trade texture for convenience any day.

Mr. Lazar says there is a happy medium between the more tedious, traditional preparation and the five-minute method.

The key, he says, is to quick-cook the couscous (covered, off heat) in a hot, homemade chicken broth that is deeply aromatic. He recommends doubling the onions, parsley and carrots that you'd typically use to flavor your chicken stock. To more closely approximate couscous' traditional texture, Mr. Lazar steams the couscous in enough chicken stock to cover it by 1 1/2 inches for 30 minutes. The method is as simple as the five-minute version, requiring only more time and more liquid.

Southwest Couscous Salad

Makes 6 servings

2 cups water

1 3/4 cups couscous

1 large tomato, chopped

3 cups cooked black beans, rinsed

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

2 cups frozen corn, thawed

2 red bell peppers, chopped

dressing (recipe follows)

Bring water to boil. Stir in couscous, cover and remove from heat. Let sit for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Add remaining ingredients.

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