I think, a bit like with polenta, liver and mussels, cous cous is one of those things that has a slightly unjustified bad reputation. I understand it, too: when we visited Marrakech some years back, I was really excited to eat the local food and, whilst my sensations were driven to delight by the Tangias, the freshly fried seafood, the delicious and ubiquitous breads, the merguez and the cheap, delicious wine (yes, despite being a 99% muslim country, Morocco knocks out some pretty decent wine and beer), the cous cous left me a little underwhelmed. My feeling about it was the same complaint you hear from everyone who dislikes it: it was a little bland.
Now, I’m not about to consign an ancient culinary tradition to the skip on the basis of a holiday meal. Tastes vary, and what is considered delectable by some can elicit a resounding ‘meh’ from others (I will bore anyone willing to listen at great length about my sampling of the legendarily disgusting Horseshoe Crab at a local festival in southern Thailand, but another time. Another time) and that is just fine, but, in my inimitable style (that, probably, is actually quite imitable) I shall now trample roughshod over culture and tradition and provide you with a cous cous recipe that I like and I think you will too.
The fact is, on a purely scientific basis, cous cous is an amazing vessel for flavour; throw a few spices and acids into the mix and those tiny grains wear them like a lovely jacket of taste. Prepared carefully, you make a light, zingy, fresh and substantial salad that is neither claggy nor bland. It nods towards Tabbouleh but, instead of the herbs being the star of the show as it is in that most wonderful of salads, here, the grain itself is.
The lack of mention of Morocco or the Middle East in the title of this recipe is intentional. This isn’t intended as a version of, or even a homage to any other dish, it’s just a meal I like to prepare for and eat with my friends and family.
This recipe is vegan, and will do you either as a main course salad, or a part of a larger meal.
You will need:
- 200ml Cous Cous, regular or wholegrain
- 400ml Hot Vegetable Stock (or indeed any other kind of stock)
- The juice of a Lemon
- 1tsp Ground Cumin
- A Good Slug of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- A Courgette, topped, tailed, sliced in half lengthways, then cut into half-moons, 2cm thick
- A Head of Garlic, separated into cloves and lightly crushed, leaving the skins broken by intact
- One large or Two Small Red Onions, cut into one-inch dice
- A Big Handful of Walnuts
- The Seeds of a Pomegranate
- A Small Bunch of Flatleaf Parsley
Put the cous cous into a large mixing bowl. It’ll look a little lost in there at this stage, but this salad will grow and grow. Pour over enough hot stock to just about cover the surface of the grains (you won’t use all of it, so go easy), cover the bowl with cling film or a moist tea towel, and leave alone for five minutes.
Meanwhile, warm a pan over a medium heat, cover the bottom with a neutral oil (I always use rapeseed), and pop in the courgette pieces, frying for a few minutes per side, til mottled golden brown all over. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon, top up with oil if needed, then add the garlic cloves, repeating the process, giving them the odd press down with a spatula or the back of a spoon. When they look appealingly brown (but definitely not at all black) remove them to the same plate, and add the onions, leaving for a couple of minutes at a time, then giving them a turn and a shake, til their surfaces become blistered and caramelised but, again, not at all burnt. Remove to the same plate, then pull the skins off the garlic cloves now they’ve cooled a little.
In the meantime, your cous cous will have swollen to at least double its original size. Fluff it up a little with a fork, then add the cumin, half the lemon juice, a hefty slug of extra virgin olive oil and a generous seasoning of salt and pepper, then mix well. Taste a few grains, then add a little more lemon juice and/or seasoning if it feels like it’s needed.
Chop any large tough stems off the bunch of parsley, then fold up into a tight mass, and chop into fine, 1mm slices, ‘feeding’ the knife as you go.
Add all the ingredients to the cous cous bowl (you’ll see why you needed a large bowl at this stage), not forgetting the pomegranate seeds and walnuts, and fold everything together til you get a nice uniform mixture. Either serve straight away, or refrigerate til needed, taking out of the fridge about half an hour before serving to bring to room temperature. It’s one of those things whose flavours are done absolutely no harm by spending an night in the fridge.
This recipe is endlessly customisable: For the spice, use allspice, smoked paprika or ground cardamom. Use another oil, like Argan, Almond or cold-pressed Rapeseed Oil. Use any soft herb, or indeed any combination; mint, thai basil, tarragon, young thyme (plus flowers if you’re lucky enough to have any) or coriander. Use any nuts or seeds whatsoever, toasted or untoasted. Regarding the more substantial ingredients, use what you have or what you like: aubergines, sweet potato, grilled leeks, peppers, beetroot, sweet roasted parsnips, chestnuts or, if you’re straying away from vegan territory, any leftover roast or barbecued meats, pulled apart or diced. Really, the only important thing is to follow your instincts, and make a delicious, hearty, personal salad.