Alimentary, My Dear
Making the Case for Couscous
By Tamia Nelson
July 19, 2011
Since buying a Trangia cooker, I've been rethinking my camp menus. Simple spirit (alcohol) burners are great for getaways and amphibious treks, but they don't lend themselves to complex meals. Of course, there's a lot to be said for minimalist cuisine. After all, a minimalist menu doesn't mean short rations. Far from it. Minimalism defines the approach, not the product. One‑pot or skillet entrées built on a carbohydrate‑rich base fit the bill nicely. Pasta is a long‑time favorite of mine, but while I've devised quick and easy ways to prepare it in camp, even the quickest skillet spaghetti dinner can sometimes be too much trouble. I could resort to freeze‑dried meals, I suppose, but I've managed without them for 30 years, and I see no reason to change now. Not when I have an easy alternative, anyway — one that's both inexpensive and filling, a no‑cook option that only requires that I boil water or broth.
And just what is this magic dish?
That's what. You've never eaten couscous? I'm not surprised. It's not exactly a household word in North America. But I'm confident it soon will be. It's versatile, delicious, and easy to prepare, whether it's the star of the meal or just a supporting player. And it travels well, to boot. What more could any paddler ask? It has history on its side, too. After all, it's been a staple food in North Africa since the ninth century. Made from semolina, the same coarse "middlings" of Durham wheat that are used in making pasta, the little pellets known as couscous were once hand‑rolled from a moist paste and then dried in the sun. Nowadays, however, the process is mechanized. Traditional couscous is cooked in a special steamer, but the stuff you'll find in Western grocery stores is usually the precooked "instant" variety. That's good news for paddlers, since instant couscous need only be steeped in hot liquid before eating.
Simple and good. Those are the watchwords of my backcountry menu. And couscous ticks both boxes. I buy mine in bulk from a local food co‑op — if you keep it in a dry, cool place, it lasts just about forever — but you can also find it in boxes on the shelves of most HyperMarts. Here's a photo showing both:
I'm going to drop the "instant" tag from now on, since you're unlikely to find any other kind outside a souk. You do have some choice, however. I've seen whole wheat couscous on the shelves — it, too, is instant — along with large‑grained "pearled" couscous. But both seem to take a little longer to cook, so it's hard to see what they have to offer backcountry travelers. Weighing flavor and convenience in the balance, therefore, I prefer everyday couscous to either alternative. Now here's a close‑up:
The individual pellets are tiny, but they'll swell to twice their original size as they absorb moisture. The proportion of couscous to liquid is about the same as for rice — one part dried couscous to two parts liquid — and the liquid can be water, broth, or juice. (I'm told you can even use melted butter.) How much should you allow for each serving? For main dishes, I figure ½ cup of dry couscous per person. Say 1 cup of couscous in 2 cups of liquid if you're cooking for two.
Preparation is a snap. Bring water or broth to a rolling boil. Add couscous. Stir. Then cover the pot and remove it from the heat. Wait five minutes. All that remains now is to dish it up. (I said it was easy, didn't I?) If you've never made couscous before, however, it's best to try it at home first:
OK. We're almost there. Is it five minutes already? Then a quick twirl of the fork to fluff the couscous and you're good to go:
NB The burner shown in the two photos above is cold, not hot!
Of course, you won't want to stop here. Couscous's subtle flavor invites elaboration and embellishment. Even "man cooks" will be tempted to experiment. That being the case, let's …
Ring the Changes
Couscous is a true chameleon. It takes its character from its surroundings. If you reconstitute it in hot chicken broth, your couscous will taste of chicken. If you then add herbs and spices, each one will introduce an identifiable flavor note. Armed with this understanding, you're ready to give your imagination free rein. Do you want an authentic ethnic dish? Then add flavorings from North Africa and the Middle East — coriander, turmeric, cayenne, lemon, saffron, and cinnamon. Or adopt a fusion approach, adding whatever you fancy.
So much for ambience. Now let's bulk up. Couscous likes company. Don't make it go solo. Add vegetables, meat, sausage, or fish, alone or in combination. Just make sure that anything that needs to be cooked is cooked before you add it to the reconstituted couscous. A little advance planning is imperative here. For example, suppose you've got your heart set on couscous with fresh carrots and canned chicken, cooked in chicken broth. Begin by preparing the carrots (sliced, chopped, grated, or whole) and boiling them in the broth. Be sure to use a bit more broth than will be needed to reconstitute the couscous, in order to allow for any fluid taken up by the carrots. Then, when the carrots are done, stir in the couscous and chicken (along with the juice from the can, if you're using canned chicken), cover, and let the pot sit for five minutes off the flame. Once you've fluffed the couscous with a fork it's ready to serve. It really is as easy as that.
Couscous also makes a great take‑along lunch on day trips. Make a couscous salad using fresh vegetables and a dressing of lime and olive oil, packing it in a tightly sealed, unbreakable container. It will keep just fine till lunchtime. If you'll be getting an early start, however, make the salad the day before, refrigerating it until the following morning. The flavors will meld beautifully during their sojourn in the fridge.
Need to give a soup some gravitas? If it's made from a dried mix, the answer is probably Yes, and couscous is just what the cook ordered. Measure out a tablespoon or two of dried couscous for each serving, then stir it into the soup as it simmers. Don't use a heavy hand here. If you add more, you'll end up with a stew. That's fine if it's what you want, but if you've added too much by mistake, you'll need to add a little more water to the pot. Problem solved.
Do you have a sweet tooth? Well, if you make couscous with a sugary liquid, you'll get sweet couscous. This opens the door to a whole new world of desserts — and at least one tempting breakfast treat:
Breakfast Couscous Stew some dried fruit (your choice), stirring in the couscous after the water boils and the fruit softens. (Make sure you have enough water at the start.) Cover the pot. Remove from the flame. Let it sit for five minutes. Then sweeten to taste with brown sugar or maple syrup. Serve.
No sweet tooth? In that case, you may want to try one or more savory dishes, instead — main meal, rather than breakfast, fare. And here are some examples:
Chicken Couscous Make chicken broth by dissolving a bouillon cube or some powdered broth in boiling water. Stir in the couscous, then add chicken from a can or shelf‑stable packet. Don't forget to add any juices, too. Finish off by adding dried herbs. (I favor rosemary.) You can also toss in some fresh, dried, or freeze‑dried vegetables when you first bring the broth to a boil. Be sure the veggies are cooked through before you add the couscous, though.
Savory Orange Couscous You'll need a fresh orange for this one. Peel it, chop the flesh into bite‑sized pieces, and mix them into fresh, hot couscous. If you want to take the time, make some zest from the peel and sprinkle that in, as well, for a more intense orange flavor. Add pistachio nuts for crunch, or stir in pre‑cooked chicken or tuna from a can or shelf‑stable pack. Serve as a main dish, or use as a side dish with satays. Season with a sprinkling of cardamom if you like.
Couscous Pilaf Pour a little oil into a pot — not too much; just enough to cover the bottom — then chop up a small onion and a carrot and heat till the onion begins to soften and turn transparent. (Olive, corn, or canola oils are equally good.) Now add water and bring it to a boil. Next, dissolve a bouillon cube — chicken or vegetable; the choice is yours — and stir in a couple of tablespoons of raisins, along with the couscous. Cover the pot, remove it from the flame, and let it sit. Serve.
Mulligatawny Couscous Add oil to the pot as before. Then add a small amount of finely chopped ginger, a clove of garlic (minced), and a chopped fresh onion. Cook the vegetables until they're fragrant. Stir in curry powder, then add water or chicken broth and a few tablespoons of raisins, along with a coarsely chopped fresh or dried apple. Bring the liquid to a boil. Add couscous. Cover. Remove from flame. Let sit. Dish up.
Tomato Couscous Bring water to a boil. Stir in couscous and a handful of dried tomatoes, a pinch of dried basil, a clove of garlic (chopped fine), and a tablespoon or two of olive oil. Cover and remove from the flame. Let sit. Garnish with pine nuts and grated parmesan. Serve.
That's just a start, of course. Couscous is versatile stuff. So let your imagination run wild. Don't overlook nuts like almonds and cashews, or dried fruits like cherries, apricots, and cranberries. Moreover, just about any fresh or dried vegetable is a candidate for inclusion in a couscous dish, as are legumes like chick peas and black beans, along with every sort of meat or fish. The only caveat? Try out each new dish at home first, before taking it on the trail. It's always best to make your mistakes where they can be easily remedied, rather than somewhere down the river, fifty miles from the put‑in.
Couscous is a natural for minimalist meals, and minimalist meals make a lot of sense in camp. Of course, a minimalist menu doesn't mean starvation fare. Preparation will always be short and sweet, but portions can be any size you like. And couscous fills the bill to perfection, requiring no more effort to make than it takes to boil water. Interested? I thought you would be. But then, that's alimentary, isn't it?
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