What it is
Couscous is a grain product made by drizzling salted water onto coarsely ground hard durum wheat to form tiny balls of dough. The balls are rubbed until uniform in size, then dried. Its texture is nuttier than long-grain rice, and the instant variety cooks in far less time than most rice or pasta.
A staple of North African cuisine, couscous has been turning up on North American tables due to its ease of preparation and ability to marry many flavours and dishes. Whole wheat and regular couscous are both available in supermarkets.
Pearl couscous, also referred to as Israeli, Middle Eastern or maftoul, is a pearl-size pasta that cooks like other pasta to the tender but firm al dente stage.
Where to buy it
Couscous is available in a bag, box or often in bulk in the rice-and-grain aisle of grocery and speciality food stores.
Pearl couscous is becoming easy to locate at Middle Eastern, Jewish and specialty markets and some grocery stores. It is often toasted before cooking. Regardless of the variety, couscous keeps in an airtight container in the cupboard for up to one year.
How to cook it
Granular couscous is prepared in one of two ways. Traditionally it's cooked in a couscousière, a tall double-boiler pot that plumps the grains to several times their size. (The bottom holds a simmering stew, while the top cooks the couscous in a tight-fitting steamer.) However, the more convenient method consists of pouring a boiling liquid (usually water or stock) over couscous, covering it tightly and letting it absorb the liquid for five minutes. Fluff with a fork and it's ready to serve.
Pearl couscous is boiled in salted water much like other pastas. Another popular cooking method is to prepare pearl couscous as a risotto by adding wine and/or stock to simmer until most liquid is absorbed and the couscous is creamy.
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