Culinary chat rooms clamor with debate over whether couscous (KOOS-koos) is a grain or a pasta. Let’s resolve the foodie feud by saying that, technically, it’s neither. Traditionally, couscous was made by rolling moistened semolina (the hard cracked wheat produced by the first crushing in the milling process) in a bowl of flour. Since it isn’t made with a conventional dough, it’s not a true pasta—and the flour coating takes it past the point of being simply a grain.
Most Western couscous is pre-steamed and requires no actual cooking. Just soften in boiling water; in minutes, it’s ready to eat. Couscous is incredibly versatile. Enhance the taste by adding minced garlic, ginger and green onions and soften with hot stock rather than water. In African and Arab cuisine, couscous forms a bed for dishes that bear its name, and you can create easy, one-pot meals by stirring couscous into vegetable sautés along with juicy tomatoes or stock toward the end of cooking. It also makes satisfying cold salads, perfect for lunch boxes.
Handmade couscous was a staple of the Berber culture of North Africa, ideal for nomads because it required little in the way of implements. It could be steamed in woven twigs or reeds over a pot of stew and scooped with the fingers. If you’re a couscous lover, you may want to invest in a couscoussière, a double-boiler type pot that cooks stew in the lower pan and steams couscous in the top pan.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.