Couscous is one of our biggest staples for quick weeknight dinners for a good reason. This grain-like pasta cooks in the blink of an eye and is absolutely foolproof. If you can boil water, I guarantee you can make couscous.
Most types of couscous sold today, even the ones we produce at Martino, are what we call instant couscous. This is couscous that has already been steamed and dried, so it’s easier for preparation. It only needs to be mixed with hot water and allowed to sit undisturbed for a few minutes before being ready to eat.
The proportions for cooking couscous are generally 1:1. Less water makes drier couscous, good for salads or serving with sauces. More water makes softer and slightly sticky couscous. One cup of dried couscous makes about four cups of cooked couscous.
How to Steam Couscous?
Couscous is steamed one, two, or three times over broth. The number of times one steams is based on personal preferences. In Tunis and Algeria couscous is steamed at least twice, but it should never submerged in the liquid; it is always steamed.
Couscous is cooked in a special kind of cooking ensemble called a kiskis, which is known by the French word couscousière in the West, except in Italy, where it is called a couscousiera. A kiskis is made of two parts: the bottom portion is a pot-bellied vessel for the broth while the top part fits over the bottom part and has holes in its bottom for the steam to rise through, which cooks the couscous. In North Africa, they are often made of earthenware or aluminum. A makeshift couscousière can be made by placing a colander over a like-sized pot. The Berbers of Morocco call this bottom portion the ikineksu, while the top potion is the tikint, the bottom portion of the kiskis or couscousière is called a makfūl in Tunisia, a pignata in western Sicily, and a qidra in Morocco and Algeria. The top portion is also called a kiskis in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Cover the holes of the top portion of the couscousière with cheesecloth and transfer the couscous on top of the cheesecloth. This way it is easier to move the couscous around for its several dryings. Add whatever spices, herbs, vegetables, meat or fish the recipe calls for, and bring the water or broth in the bottom portion of the couscousière to a gentle boil. Stir the couscous gently. Mix ½ cup flour with enough water to form a dough that can be rolled out into a thin rope as you would roll out play dough. This flour-and-water rope is used to seal the top and bottom portions of the couscousière together so steam doesn’t escape. (This step is not always necessary and it depends on how much steam appears to be escaping.) Cook over low heat for 1 hour. Remove the couscous to a large platter and rub with salted water or butter or whatever the recipe calls for and leave to cool 15 to 30 minutes. This step is necessary; the initial steaming should not be too long because you do not want the couscous to become sticky and form a pasty dough.
Put the couscous back into the top portion of the couscousière and steam another 30 minutes. This second steaming can continue until the couscous is fully cooked. The couscous can rest for 30 minutes, covered, if desired, before serving. Some Algerian cooks steam the couscous a third time.
You can also steam couscous in a regular saucepan. For this purpose, you will need pour 1½ to 1¾ cups of liquid into a medium sized saucepan. The liquid can be water or vegetable stock or meat stock. Using stock adds more flavour to the dish. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil and a pinch of salt to the liquid and bring it to a boil. Add 1 cup of couscous to the boiling liquid. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let it stand for about 6 minutes. Do not lift the lid until the required time has elapsed. Afterwards, the couscous needs to be fluffed up with a fork and it’s ready to be served.
An endless variety of other ingredients may be added to the couscous to provide more flavor. Chopped dried fruit or chopped nuts are popular additions, as well as various seasonings, such as cinnamon, ginger, cumin, black pepper, garlic, or the zest of citrus fruit.
Although it takes a bit more time, the proper way to prepare couscous, is the traditional way. Even if you’re buying a pre-packaged product with instructions for easy cooking on the side of the box – steaming couscous in a couscousière will bring out its true qualities. Steamed couscous is light, ethereal, fluffy, and full of flavour.
Steaming couscous is a bit time consuming, but it’s meant to cook on top of whatever stew or tagine or other dish you are preparing.
The basic technique is tossing the couscous with olive oil to coat. Then it is tossed with water, placed in a steamer basket and steamed either over water or over whatever you are cooking. You steam the couscous for about 10 minutes, then you remove it from the heat to rest, fluffing it, and repeat the process. If you’re short on time, two steamings will suffice, but thorough cooks will do as many as four steamings to really bring out the quality of couscous.
Couscous is then typically served plain alongside a flavorful stew, kind of like rice in the Chinese cuisine. One of the ideas behind steaming the couscous over the stew (besides being economical) is that the couscous takes in some of the flavor of the stew. This produces a dish that is flavourful as well as nutritional and healthy in addition to being easy to make. But every now and then, taking some extra time to steam the couscous several times as is traditional will produce even better results even with store-bought products like Martino’s.