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Global Pantry: What is Couscous?

Photo: Randy Mayor
Couscous makes for a quick, versatile side dish that can be used as non-traditional ingredient in classic recipes.

Most American cooks know that couscous is a staple in North Africa, but not many understand how versatile it can be. Couscous is a tiny pasta made of wheat or barley; wheat couscous is the most widely available version in North America, and most of it is "instant" or quick-cooking. Although couscous was traditionally hand-rolled, these days it is made by machine: Coarsely ground wheat (semolina) is moistened and tossed with fine wheat flour until it forms little round balls (think of the coarse bits as the core of a kind of wheat-flour snowball). In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, couscous is steamed over a simmered stew after being tossed with a little water or oil and water.

But couscous is more than just an accompaniment to stew. You can use it as a filler in beef patties (soak it in water for five minutes and use instead of breadcrumbs—½ cup per pound of ground beef or lamb); add leftover cooked couscous to a salad; or use it in a bread, muffin, or pancake recipe (soak in an equal volume of warm water for five minutes or more before adding it—¼ cup couscous to ¾ cup wheat flour).

But to me the most appealing nontraditional use is this cross between a pilaf and a salad; it's quick to make and a great standby any time of year. You'll find it especially useful if you are cooking for vegetarians or vegans (for whom you can omit the cheese and butter).

View the Recipe: Couscous with Winter Vegetables