Couscous, which many people believe to be a grain, is in fact related to pasta and is a staple everywhere in the Mediterranean. Variations abound with Mediterranean couscous; while some variants are regional and depend upon local ingredients, many have more to do with the whims of the cook. In some cases, the alterations extend all the way to the foundation itself. Many home cooks substitute quinoa, a complete, protein-rich grain that cooks quickly and offers more nutrition, in place of the couscous itself.
Cooks who stick with tried-and-true couscous still have to make choices, though. The traditional North African couscous, like other types, is made with semolina. This type is dried rather than toasted, as are the larger ptitim and matfoul popular in Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and other Middle Eastern countries.
Mediterranean couscous can be eaten hot as a base for stewed poultry, goat, or beef. It is often combined with oil, olives, herbs, and other ingredients and chilled to be served as a salad instead. Cooks know what taste both couscous and quinoa offer is subtle to the point of near invisibility. They may be quiet themselves, but like soft-spoken spouses with outspoken mates, they know how to be supportive without losing sight of their own contributions.
Using a little less water will produce more independent grains that won’t turn to goo when a cook adds oil or vegetables that bring in some additional moisture. Ptitim and matfoul are larger than traditional North African couscous and round rather than irregularly shaped. Unlike smaller, dried couscous that only needs boiling water added to it off the stove to almost instantaneously cook, these larger couscous variants require more cooking time and result in a much denser foundation.
One way to up the flavor ante is by adding hot chicken or pork broth to the couscous instead of just plain water. Parsley is the go-to herb for Mediterranean couscous, but many cooks like to throw in thyme, rosemary, or other herbs as well. Given that the Mediterranean produces mouth-watering fruits year around, it’s no surprise that many of them, such as apples, peaches, and mangoes, jump into a hot couscous dish or a salad with great frequency. Dried raisins, figs, and other sun-baked goodies are also frequent friends.
Onions and garlic, shallots and ginger, and vegetables such as raw or roasted sweet peppers bring color and yet another dimension of flavor to Mediterranean couscous. Whether it is a simple creation or a highly crafted work of art, there are few people who don’t love the interwoven flavors and textures of a hot or cold couscous dish. Inexpensive to make and a great way to use up a wide range of leftovers, couscous is a hit every time.