Most cooks will admit they haven’t met any couscous salads they didn’t love. All on its own, couscous has charm, whether it hails from Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, or another locale with its own delicious variation. Couscous, which is the star of many hot dishes, shines most brightly when it is presented as a salad. It is a friendly food, welcoming to everything from fruit to nuts, onions to garlic, ginger to herbs, and steak to tofu.
Moroccan couscous is the traditional food familiar to most folks. When boiling water is added to these irregularly shaped semolina bits, the size of a sesame seed, it takes just two minutes for the cooking to be complete. Israeli couscous, perfect tiny globes of flavor, are denser and therefore take a little bit longer to cook, and Lebanese couscous, about the size of green peas, requires a few minutes longer still.
Perhaps the simplest couscous salad comes as a result of a brief playdate with a little garlic, a good amount of well-chopped parsley, and some best-quality olive oil. Minced or finely sliced dried tomatoes will add a little zing. Then, toasting a handful of pine nuts to sprinkle on the top will make it special.
Of course, few cooks are satisfied with simple, and for them, couscous presents itself as the perfect canvas for whatever paint they choose. It’s an unspoken but nonetheless enforceable law that garlic, whether minced, raw, or sautéed for a minute or two, is a requirement for righteous couscous salads. Most salads will also beg for a major herbal or spicy note, such as basil, curry, or a fruit-flavored oil. It’s fine to layer a few flavors as long as one dominates.
Couscous salads aren’t the least bit shy. They love to frolic with an assortment of raw or cooked veggies, such as carrots, green beans, or sweet peppers. Couscous salad with a vegetable base does well with a few chopped olives, either stuffed green or black oil cured, as well.
There’s no reason to stick to the tried and true. Chopped pears, apples, peaches, or plums will add a little nibble of sweetness that will make the diner smile. Chopped walnuts or pecans tucked into this mix, and perhaps some fresh mint leaves, creates a summertime lunch that provides instant cool.
There are dozens of ways to add protein to couscous salads. Shredded chicken, diced steak, or a few pieces of hard or soft sausage bring the flavor meter to new heights. For nonmeat eaters, diced tempeh that’s been lightly browned in a sauté pan is a good choice. Of course, the simplest couscous salad served with a cucumber and yogurt side will complement the protein and make a meal that would satisfy even the pickiest eater.