Food blogs, cookbooks, recipe comments are all rich ground for a curious cook. But sometimes, I want to strike out on my own. It feels a little unsettling, a little daring, a little uncalled for – I mean, there are a zillion recipes for whatever is in my cupboard, along with tricks and tips and shortcuts and replacements. Why venture out without a guide? Do I really think I can throw things together and come up with anything new?
What if the outcome is terrible? What if it’s inedible? What if I combine tuna and mint and pear and discover it’s downright awful?
Well. Messing up is risk. But it’s low risk, high potential return. I figure (1) there’s always the pizza place around the corner (2) how else does one really learn?
And to begin? I recommend couscous as an awesome playground.
Couscous is quick to make (5 minutes), and it serves as a blank canvas for any leftovers or weird flavor combinations you want to try. It’s happy with meat, veggies or simply spices. Once you find a combination you like, you can go on to more expensive and complex canvases.
Today, I happened to have bits of leftovers around at lunchtime: a baked chicken breast and 2 random cremini mushrooms (they must have escaped a previous recipe). In the fridge: zucchini. In the pantry: pretty golden raisins. I wondered: Could it all go together? Maybe even with Indian spices, my current obsession?
Basic couscous recipe
Put 1/2 cup of water per person in a pot (a small pot, if it’s just you) and turn the burner on high. Let the water come to a boil. Pour in 1/3 cup couscous per person, remove from heat, stir once so it settles down, cover the lid, and wait 5 minutes. Voila, cooked couscous, ready for flavor additions!
Note: You can also do this by boiling water in the microwave, pouring in the couscous and then covering the container.
Here’s the route I took today, which turned out to be yummy. But the whole point is that you can use whatever you have around, whatever spices are whispering your name. Basil? Cumin? Or maybe Old Bay?
I do like to add a brightness of acid at the end – like vinegar or lemon – but that might not be your thing.
How do you like to make couscous? What are some of your favorite flavor combinations these days?
Couscous with Golden Raisins, Zucchini, Chicken and Fennel
- 1/3 cup couscous
- 2-4 small mushrooms, diced
- half a zucchini, diced
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 1 tablespoon of golden raisins
- 1/2 teaspoon of fennel seeds
- sprinkle of ground coriander, cumin, red chili flakes, to taste
- 1/2 chicken breast, chopped
- 1 lemon slice
- olive oil
Bring a little more than a 1/2 cup of water and the golden raisins to boil in a small pot. (The raisins will soak up some of the water.) Once it boils, add the couscous, turn off the heat, stir once, and cover. It needs to sit for at least 5 minutes.
To a skillet, add a swirl of olive oil and the shallots. Turn to medium and wait until the pan is sizzling. Add the fennel seeds, zucchini and mushrooms. Stir, and let them cook for a few minutes, to your liking. Sprinkle with ground coriander, ground cumin. Add a tiny bit of red chili flakes, or more if you want it spicy. (Skip the chili flakes if you don’t want it hot at all.) Stir, and let it cook a minute more.
Fluff the couscous with a fork, then add it to the skillet. Stir the couscous in. Add a squirt or two of lemon. If the couscous seems too dry, add a drizzle of water until it reaches the moisture you like.