I used to find couscous about as appealing as a mouthful of hot sand. Somehow, food manufactures managed to create a product both mushy and dry simultaneously, with a flavor profile lingering between corrugated cardboard and sawdust.
It’s so easy to blame a faceless corporate entity for my couscous contempt.
I’ve changed though!
Since I discovered hand-rolled couscous my hostilities towards this pasta relative have faded. And no, this is not a paid post.
It turns out that we—Americans, anyway— have been duped into thinking that the instant boxed stuff lining our supermarket aisles is couscous. The reality is that it’s a sad facsimile of the real thing, stamped out in a factory somewhere off the Jersey Turnpike. It’s about as close to couscous as Cool Whip is to whipped cream. Or Mrs. Butterworth’s is to maple syrup.
Authentic couscous, however, is a revelation. Rather than tasting of wet particleboard, it has a deep nutty flavor, with an aroma of freshly harvested wheat drying in the summer sun. It’s pleasantly chewy rather than gritty, and like most things made with human hands, it’s slightly misshapen, evidence that it did not come off a conveyer belt.
Not surprisingly, creating something this delicious requires much effort, as I learned from food historian Clifford Wright. His 2,000-word treatise on traditional couscous preparation immediately dashed my briefly held dream to attempt it at home. It did, however, leave me with a newfound respect for this starch I once spurned. Read it yourself here, or take my word that it’s a process that cannot be replicated by machinery or anyone with less than 100 square feet of kitchen space. Thankfully, Tunisian producers Les Moulins Mahjoub are doing the work for us, and their product can now be found on store shelves around the country.
Have I convinced you to try hand-rolled couscous yet? Maybe I could entice you with a recipe featuring juicy chicken sausages and crunchy za’atar seasoned chickpeas, nestled atop a warm mound of couscous and spinach, and finished with a tangle of bright herbs?
Herby Couscous with Sausages, Spinach and Za’atar Chickpeas
15 oz. canned chickpeas
1 Tbsp. olive oil
¾ tsp. salt
2 tsp. za’atar seasoning blend (I used La Boite, or make your own, if you are so inclined) 1 cup mixed herbs (dill or fennel fronds, mint, parsley, chervil or basil)
1 tsp. salt
1 cup hand-rolled couscous (I used Les Moulins Mahjoub)
1 ½ cups water
12 oz. garlic and fennel chicken sausage
6 oz. baby spinach
1 tsp. olive oil
Additional olive oil for drizzling
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (from half a lemon)
Heat oven to 400 degrees. In a colander, drain and rinse chickpeas. Place chickpeas on a clean kitchen towel and pat dry—you want them to be as dry as possible before roasting. Move chickpeas to a rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roast for about 30 minutes, or until chickpeas begin to brown and turn crispy. Remove from oven and toss with za’atar seasoning.
While chickpeas are roasting wash, dry and roughly chop the herbs.
Cook Couscous and Sausages
Heat either a grill pan or large frying pan to medium heat.
In a medium saucepan, bring the water and 1 teaspoon salt to a boil. Stir in the couscous, cover and immediately reduce heat to low. Simmer for 2 minutes, then remove from heat. Keep pan covered and allow couscous to steam for 8-10 minutes. Remove lid, fluff couscous with a fork and add half of the spinach.
Cover pan again and allow spinach to steam for 2 minutes until slightly wilted. Stir spinach into couscous to incorporate, then add remaining spinach and cover again for another 2 minutes. Combine spinach and couscous, drizzle with 1 tsp. olive oil and season to taste with salt and pepper. Return lid to pan and keep covered while sausages cook.
If using a grill pan, brush with oil once hot. Place sausages on grill and cook until lightly charred on one side, about five minutes. Flip sausages and continue cooking until lightly charred and heated through, about another five minutes.
For a frying pan, add oil once pan is hot. When oil shimmers, add sausages, turning until browned on all sides and warmed through. Total cooking time should be 7-9 minutes.
Mound the couscous and spinach mixture onto a large platter. Arrange cooked sausages on the couscous, then top with half the chickpeas (save the rest for salads or snacking). Scatter with herbs, and drizzle with additional olive oil and lemon juice.