Photo: Randy Mayor
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).