Couscous is one of my favorite foods. I didn’t eat much of it until I became part of Sephardic Jewish culture, but couscous is part and parcel of the traditional diet of North/West Africa where it can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. I am particularly fond of the fact I can take an inexpensive amount, prepare it as a starch with vegetables and proteins as a side, and then turn around and make it into a breakfast cereal with butter, honey and dates or dried cranberries and then it becomes the basis of a savory salad. Couscous is always delicious as the basis of a starch for stews like tagines and dafina—a traditional stew that we cook for Shabbat—the Sabbath day. Of course you have to remember that couscous is not necessarily a “health food,” it’s just not French fries…It is a glutinous food for you gluten free folks– and should be eaten in balance. (Substitute cooked millet if you have a gluten condition.)
Couscous is a form of pasta. It comes in various forms. Traditional couscous are crumbs of semolina and water that are cooked by steaming in a special utensil called a couscousier. This is common across the Maghreb and south into West Africa. Much of the couscous on the American market is a precooked version that is ready in a matter of minutes. All you have to do is follow the directions and put the couscous in boiled water, broth or juice and allow the couscous to sit and absorb the liquid. Israeli couscous—or pearl couscous—is uncooked and requires a little more work but can be used in similar ways. Israeli couscous holds up better when added to stews and soups and works great for salads.
You may be asking yourself, what is this Black boy of supposed Southern origin doing talking about couscous? Well couscous is a part of both my African and Jewish selves. It was brought into West Africa by Arab and Jewish traders who then stayed and became part of the population. Yes, Virginia there were West African Jews in medieval times! In North America, words like “kush,” and “coush-coush” became part of the language of the American South. In the Southeast, kush referred to cornmeal scramble—and it looks very much like couscous even though the flavor is not the same. Coush-coush is “Acadian French,” (it’s really Bamana, Manding, Fulani and Wolof influence from Senegambia—in Louisiana). It refers to a cornmeal porridge made in the old days, often eaten for breakfast with cane syrup. It makes sense that the very region from which enslaved Africans from the Muslim world came would bring those tastes to the New World.
People AND food are complicated. Nothing is as it seems. We are constantly reinventing our food culture as a species. We can trace people’s lives and stories even as we trace the movement of food. These little details connect us to our past and bond us with the generations that have gone by, those whom we share our planet with, and those who will follow us and tell our stories and prepare our recipes.
PLAY with this recipe. This is edible jazz!!! IMPROVISE! DANCE IT!
Couscous likes things like dried fruit and almonds and “sweet spices,” turmeric, and ginger. It also loves mint, onion, garlic, allium flavors and broths and essences. It’s extremely versatile. This salad is a fantastic quick side dish or base of a main dish for a spring or summer lunch. As we move into onion and garlic and pepper seasons—you can add whatever you like to your leftover couscous salad.
Leftover Couscous (Or Millet) Salad
2 cups of COLD cooked leftover couscous (prepare it according to package directions—tip—use a low sodium broth for more flavor) (If you have a gluten condition substitute cooked millet.)
2 tbsp of finely chopped yellow bell pepper
2 tbsp of finely chopped green bell pepper
2 tbsp of finely chopped red bell pepper
2 tbsp of finely chopped red onion
2 tbsp of thinly sliced green onion (chiffonade)
2 tbsp of fresh Italian parsley
2 tbsp of dried cranberries or golden raisins
Kosher salt to taste
Coarse black pepper to taste
(Use your own judgment with spices—I add salt-free herb or spice mixes to punch up the flavor and add color…you can do a pinch of this or that..but keep it simple and keep it sparing.)
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp of honey or light agave (optional)
Put it in a bowl and mix it. Add more vinegar or olive oil and cover and allow it to chill and set for an hour or two.
You can add almonds or peanuts, tofu or tempeh, meat, poultry or seafood to make this a more “main course,” salad. Mint can be substituted for parsley if you are serving it as a side salad.
Excellent salad for Shabbat or Kwanzaa