by John Ryan
Couscous Recipes below.
Early in our relationship I invited my wife-to-be over for dinner. About mid-day it started to snow, which was perfect for what I'd planned—a big pot of couscous and a bottle of red wine. Margaret was coming straight from work and I figured that the snow would slow down traffic a little, but time kept passing. About an hour after I expected her, I got a call. Traffic was so snarled that she had actually left her car and was calling from a phone booth to tell me that she had only moved ten blocks and that she was stranded, unable to get up a hill and surrounded by fish-tailing cars and buses. I turned the fire out under the couscous and jumped in my car. Using sand from my trunk I got her car off the street and into a parking place.
Getting around in a blizzard tightens anyone's nerves, but spending an hour making a ten-minute trip can make you homicidal. Our evening was off to a bad start. But when we got to my place, I could see the tension melt away. Couscous is part nourishment and part aroma therapy. The rich smell of stew promises warmth and nourishment while the exotic combination of lamb, cinnamon, and cumin soothes the soul.
To this day I can't make couscous without thinking of that evening.
Anyway, I was teaching couscous to a class recently and had gotten to steaming it. (In the same way that "pasta" refers to both the noodles themselves and noodles with sauce, couscous refers to the tiny, grain-shaped pasta and the whole dish. Incidentally, couscous is a pasta, but that's another story.) Part way through steaming, the inevitable question came up about why I was going to so much trouble, that the way of fixing couscous on all the boxes seemed so much easier.
That's when it occurred to me that cooking was like language. with language, there's correct grammar and usage as set down in textbooks. Then there's the way we all talk—the slang, expressions, and shortcuts we use every day.
It's the same with cooking. Just about any dish has a traditional, text-book way to prepare it and a whole bunch of variations and shortcuts that might be considered dialects and slang.
Normally, when an ethnic dish is introduced it's presented in the most dogmatic, special-equipment-requiring fashion possible. That's the way it is presented in Moroccan cookbooks.
But everywhere else, slang couscous has become the norm. It's presented as a 5-minute starch. You boil water, dump in the couscous, take the pan off the heat, cover, wait 5 minutes, then voila, it's done.
And it works. Purists get into a snit about it, but it works all the same.
Now I'm not for or against slang couscous. Just as with language, there's a place for by-the-book procedures and a place for quick-and-easy. If I'm broiling a piece of fish and want a simple starch, I'm glad I'm comfortable with slang couscous. But there are other times when I'd rather speak formal couscous. Can you taste the difference? Sure, steaming makes a lighter, fluffier couscous.
Making couscous as a side dish or a salad is a good place for the 5-minute method. But the stew provides an irresistible opportunity to show how the traditional way to prepare the pasta is no big deal, how it folds right in with making the stew...how it even accommodates unforeseen circumstances like blizzards.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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