Couscous is steamed. So you will need a steamer. Not any steamer will do however: only one that can force steam through couscous in the perforated container without any possibility of side leaks. Indeed, couscous offers strong resistance to the flow of steam, and the slightest opportunity of leak through a non-tight connection between the boiler and the perforated container will prevent the steam to build up enough pressure to push through the grain, which will never be cooked as a result. Also, the flow of steam must be free to dissipate and should not be trapped under a lid, so the grain must not be covered. Covering it will provoke condensation and soak the couscous into a paste. Therefore, Chinese steaming baskets will not do, and neither will most commonly available vegetable steamers. You must use a special steamer pot designed specially for couscous (and can also be used to steam other food). It is commonly available in countries with sizable North African communities such as France (where it is called a “couscoussier”). In North America, you may be able to find one in your local cookware supplies store, although good ones can easily be ordered through Internet. You will find many suppliers by surfing the net: do shop around as prices vary wildly. I recommend models made of stainless steel rather than aluminum (here’s what mine looks like).
Here I am very picky. We, Kabyles (Berbers from Northern Algeria), consume exclusively fine grained couscous. Indeed, the finer, the better. Commercially available couscous comes in three grain calibers: coarse, medium, and fine. The coarse kind is rarely used and only for other kinds of recipes, but the medium one is the most commonly available in non-Kabyle venues. Call it cultural bias if you wish, but for me, medium-grained couscous is just too coarse and cannot compare with the fine-grained in fluffyness and “melt-in-your-mouth” creaminess. However, the finer the couscous, the trickier it is to be well-moistened free of lumps. However, done right, fine-grained couscous has a delicate texture and a feel one is not likely to forget. Many were puzzled with my bias until they tasted the difference for themselves – and are now as picky as I am… Unfortunately, I have not been able to find fine-grained couscous anywhere I looked in North America. So every trip I make to France, I stock up enough to last for a while (that makes heavy suitcases but worth the weight…) Be that as it may, both kinds are prepared similarly.
I give here the preparation of the grain, regardless of how you will accommodate it or serve it with. Once prepared this way, you can use it for cold dishes with milk, clotted milk, steamed raisins, or fresh fruit (great for breakfast), salads, or hot dishes with stew (with any kind of vegetables and/or meats), mixed with steamed vegetables (what we call aqfel in Kabyle), or simply as a side dish, pretty much as rice or pasta could be used.
The preparation of the couscous grain is in fact simple – the difficulty is only in the doing. There are three phases:
- the moistening;
- the first steaming;
- the second steaming.
Before you start any of this, put the boiler filled about halfway with water on high heat so that it should be in full boil by the time the couscous moistened and ready to go on it. Do not overfill – the boiling water must not touch the bottom of the steaming basket.
1. Moistening the couscous
This is the most critical part (and may get you a sore arm). The more you can manage to make the grain take water without pasting up, the lighter and fluffier your couscous will be. However, it is easy to overdo it, and ruin the whole thing as an iota too much water, or too much at a time, will make the mixture turn into pasty blobs and lumps. (Saving it at this point is possible but requires knowhow and an expert’s tour de main that only experience can bestow… This is why couscous-making is best learned as live apprenticeship with the presence of a master!)
I (with years of practice) can make 1 kg of couscous “drink” 1 liter of water. Depending on how confident you feel, you may wish to limit the water to about 0.8 liter for 1 kg (1 kg of couscous will feed 8 people; for a lesser amount use a proportionate amount of water). Here is how to do it.
Pour the grain into a large bowl (I use a large stainless steel one like the larger of those – mine is about 20″ in diameter). Pour water over your cupped hand a little at a time (about a 1/3 cup amount) sprinkling it over the grain. Then, with your hand shaped in a claw, mix vigorously in wide circular motions, occasionally scraping the bottom with your hand, ensuring that water does not gather in one spot, and breaking lumps as they may appear. The grain will first feel slightly sticky to your hand, but will gradually feel dryer as it absorbs the water. Keep adding water in the same way, very gradually, always making sure to break lumps apart, constantly stirring as you wait for the grain to absorb all the water evenly. Breaking lumps apart can be done by using both hands to fluff up the mixture, scooping the grain from the bottom of the bowl and lightly rubbing your palms together with fingers spread apart, using your finger tips to separate any lumps you may feel (do not press your hands together – doing so will make the grain clump!). Of course, the process becomes trickier as you progress since the more you add water, the more the grain tends to clump. You must prevent the formation of unbreakable lumps by adding lesser amounts of water at a time in the latter part of the process, and making sure that the grain has enough time to absorb all the moistness and regains some dryness each time before you add any more water.
When all the water has been absorbed, and the grain is well-separated, fill the perforated couscoussier container with the couscous, scooping it lightly from the bowl with both cupped hands and separating it as you sprinkle it into the steamer basket, spreading it evenly. Do not tamp it down! Use your finger tips lightly in circular motions to even out the surface of the grain as you fill the steamer basket each time you drop some more in (a bit like raking sand in a Japanese garden). This is important as the couscous should offer an even resistance to the steam as it cooks (high pressure steam will prefer weaker paths and this will result in unevenly cooked couscous). When all the couscous has been so transferred, install the basket on top of the boiler, keeping it on high heat.
2. First steaming
Once the couscous is in the steamer, wait until you see the steam flow through the grain. From this point, let it cook for about 15 minutes. Then, put the basket as is (i.e., leaving the grain in the steamer basket) in the large mixing bowl or your (clean) kitchen sink, and slowly and evenly pour over it the same amount of water that you used for moistening it (e.g., 1 liter for 1 kg). Let it sit as is for about 20 minutes until the grain has puffed up.
Then, pour out the couscous into the large mixing bowl in one swift motion (it may tend to keep the shape of the basket as a mold). Using the thin edge of a large flat spatula (I like to use what the French call une écumoire ), break the large pieces sticking together into smaller ones to free steam out. Let it rest for a few minutes, and repeat the process scooping up the bottom to free more steam. When the grain has cooled enough that you can touch it without getting burned, use your fingers to break lumps apart and separate the grain as well as you can. When the couscous has cooled enough, add about 2 table spoons of (extra virgin) olive oil or butter to help separate the grain thoroughly, making sure to mix it evenly.
Make sure that enough water is still steaming in the boiler (if not, replenish it ahead of time to have it boiling for the next steaming). Then, proceed as before filling the steaming basket with the couscous, and set it out to cook again for 15 minutes (after you see the first steam flow through the couscous).
3. Second steaming
After 15 minutes of steaming, pour the couscous out in the mixing bowl (it should crumble apart freely now, and not keep the molded basket shape). Use your flat spatula’s edge as before to “open it” out to free steam as before, separating it. Let it rest for a few minutes. Repeat the process until the grain is “touchable” by hand. Use your hands to eliminate any remaining lumps. Then add salt (2 full table spoons for 1 kg) and mix it in well. (Use less if you want to use salted butter, and more if you intend to add steamed vegetables to the couscous as in aqfel.)
If you prefer to use butter rather than olive oil, it is better to add it while the couscous is still slightly hot to the touch to ease the melting and the mixing. Use about 1/2 a cup of butter for 1 kg of couscous. Mix and squeeze the butter in with the couscous until all is even. If you use olive oil, wait until the couscous is just barely warm, and mix in 2/3 cup of olive oil for 1 kg of couscous – mix well and evenly.
Serve in a large dish (a spaghetti dish works very well), shaped into a round mound.
- Always clean and dry the mixing bowl between each of the phases before you use it again for the next phase.
- After the first steaming, clean the perforated container well, making sure that all the holes are cleared of sticky couscous grain or paste; dry well before the next steaming.
- We (Kabyles) use olive oil for aqfel and couscous that is consumed with stew (bouillon), and butter (usually clarified and salted, although fresh butter is ok too) for couscous eaten with steamed raisins, (clotted) milk, or fresh fruit. In other parts of North Africa, they often use butter for all kinds.
- We never mix any spice directly with the grain – and we especially avoid using cinnamon as sometimes done in Morocco.
- Unless one is French :), one uses a spoon to eat couscous – not a fork! And no, we do not normally eat it with our hands unless we are so poor as to have none! (Sorry to ruin your hope for a “genuine” touch… 🙂
- Reheating couscous is easily done in a microwave oven, or by steaming in a couscoussier for 5 minutes. However, it should never be reheated directly in a pot or pan over the stove as this will quickly dry the grain and take all its moistness away (and what you’d end up eating will be as gritty as sand!).