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Monday, April 12, 2010

Cooking: Couscous Critical Mass

So, how much couscous is too much couscous?

Short answer: anything over 2 cups, dry.

And this is experience talking, not just some opinion. This is stuff learned in the school of hard knocks. And it happened thusly:

In looking for a recipe for a side dish to bring to a large function, I checked the cupboard to see what was available.

Couscous. Right there. Couscous in the cupboard. With children's book title simplicity there was couscous in the cupboard. So I went looking for recipes that matched up with my couscous in the cupboard. Companions in the crisper (the sequel to "Couscous in the Cupboard").

Yet, try as I might, the recipes I found all called for just 2 cups of dry couscous...and served only 4 or 6. I needed more, I thought, so I opted for one recipe that matched up with what was in the fridge and doubled it.

Four cups of dry couscous...surely enough for small portions on a buffet. BUT, that was my undoing. See...serving 4 or 6 as one side of, say, two...healthy portions at that...would likely have sufficed in feeding a BUNCH of people when it was one side of, say, two dozen.

That was lesson ONE. And a good one that could apply to many other foods for future reference.

Lesson TWO was couscous specific.

As it turns out...barring the possession of a commerical sized kitchen, or at least commercial sized cookware, 2 cups of couscous is roughly all a mere mortal can handle without making an outsized mess of his or her kitchen. In short, as I had doubled the recommended amount, there was couscous everywhere (truth be told, 24 hours later, there still is).

Once it was added to the boiling water and allowed to sit and expand it well overtook my capacity to handle it effectively, or with any pretense (honed from watching many episodes of Top Chef) of skill, aplomb, or just plain competence.

And as I went to "fluff with a fork" the problem increased exponentially. How was I ever going to mix in the other ingredients? There was still asparagus, feta, and a half pound of tomatoes to get into this bowl.

Well, not this bowl...I had to change bowls...twice. Eventually the couscous was heaped like K2 on a cookie sheet in the next room (leaving the requisite trail of semolina granules behind) while I struggled to find a container big enough to hold the mass.

HOLD, as it turns out, is not sufficient. Extra care must be taken to add extra space to TOSS said couscous with said additions. And the dressing.

As it turns out, tossing couscous takes on a literal connotation. When cooked correctly (and unlike rice) couscous does not tend to remain together. Obviously the gravitational attraction that keeps rice together when tossing is inverted when dealing with couscous. Couscous tends to fly apart with the application of any outside kinetic energy.

Which it did.


I fancy myself an adequate cook. I measure, but add flair; I clean up as I go but I don't like it sterile; I am attentive but like to drink when I cook. However, at the end of this endeavour...when the mixture was in the bowl and ready for presentation...the counter (and floor, sink, table, and more than a few kitchen chairs) looked as if a great couscous battle had be waged...and our side was outgunned.

I could hear Padma whispering in my ear, "Corndog, pack your knives and go."

Ok, yes...I'll go. But I go a wiser man. Seemingly betrayed by a favored ethnic starch I realized the fault was my own. Those that had come before had previously determined that 2 cups was all that could be handled, yet I chose to ignore it. An unnecessary lesson learned...but learned well. Add flair. Experiment. Drink whilst cooking. But there there are some universal laws of the universe that must be upheld: oysters disappear if you boil them; no one REALLY likes eggplant...they only tolerate it; and anything more than 2 cups of dry couscous is far too much.

Believe me.

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