Couscous consists of small pellets of wheat used as a staple similar to rice or pasta. There are two types of couscous, both of which are used in the recipe below. What I call ‘regular’ couscous is made by creating pellets from moistened semolina coated with fine wheat flour. These are about 1mm in diameter before cooking. The other type, commonly called pearl or Israeli couscous, is about 2-3mm in diameter and is made from hard wheat instead of semolina.
Traditional couscous is hand-made and shaped in a very labor-intensive process. It is often steamed several times until cooked. In North America and Europe, one can purchase pre-steamed couscous which is easily prepared by adding boiling water. This quick-cooking version is popular because it can be prepared in five minutes with minimal fuss.
Early references to couscous date to 13th century Syria and Moorish Spain. By the 17th century it was known in Sicily, Tuscany, Rome and Brittany. Today it is a staple in the Maghreb, and is common but less popular in the Middle East, Southern Europe and among the Sephardic Jewish diaspora. While often topped with meat, fish or vegetables, it is often prepared as a dessert with some combination of nuts, sugar/honey, raisins, coconut, cinnamon, and milk/cream.
I made this couscous as a side dish for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It contains pomegranates which are one of the foods associated with this holiday. It was served with my Aunt Barbara’s Mediterranean chicken. To read about the significance of Rosh Hashanah, see last year’s post for honey cake.
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
6 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups regular couscous
1 1/2 cups pine nuts
1 1/2 cups shallots, finely chopped
2 1/2 cups pearl (also called Israeli) couscous
4 dried bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
zest of 2 lemons
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
3/4 cup golden raisins
black pepper, to taste
1 pomegranate, seeds removed
1. In a large pot bring 2 cups stock, 2 tablespoons butter and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil.
2. Remove from heat, add regular couscous and cover for 5 minutes.
3. Fluff with a fork and set aside.
4. Add 2 more tablespoons butter to the pot, and over medium heat sauté pine nuts until golden brown and fragrant. Set aside.
5. Add 2 more tablespoons butter to the pot, and over medium heat sauté shallots until translucent.
6. Add pearl couscous, bay leaves and cinnamon. Stir for 5-7 minutes until the couscous browns slightly.
7. Add remaining stock and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and simmer for 8-10 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Make sure that the couscous is tender.
8. Remove from heat and discard the bay leaves.
9. In a large mixing bowl, combine regular couscous and pearl couscous. Add pine nuts, lemon zest, parsley, raisins, pepper and half pomegranate seeds. Mix well.
10. Serve topped with remaining pomegranate seeds.