Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Tag: mushrooms

My Couscous Playground


Couscous with chicken, zucchini, fennel seeds – and whatever else was around.

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.

Ingredients for couscous

The question my ingredients ask: Can we play together?

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.

golden raisins

A bag of golden raisins aching to be used.

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?

fennel seeds

I’m starting to really like a sweet hint of fennel.

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.


Couscous, cooked up with golden raisins. Fluffing comes next!

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
Serves 1

  • water
  • 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.


Couscous, made any way you like.


The Empowerment of Coconut Soup

For a new cook, any delicious spoonful created by your own hands brings with it a stunning epiphany: I have food power.

I never have to wait for that take-out place to open at 5 or the grocery store to be stocked in premade whatever or my good friend so-in-so to invite me over or the occasional trip to Texas/New Orleans/San Francisco/insert your favorite food city.

Any time I want this precise glorious taste, at 4 p.m. or 2 a.m., I can have it.

And the skies open and tea kettles sing.

I feel this same sweet emotion whenever I make something I never imagined I could, something that once tasted so exotic, I had no idea how to begin picking out the flavors.

Like Thai Coconut Soup.

On a chilly snow-slush day like today in Germany, I craved the creamy, warm, spiciness of coconut soup, filled with soft vegetables. A veritable vitamin-packed tropical escape.

Though, in all honestly, I don’t really know how Thai this concoction is. There are no kaffir lime leaves or galangal or lemongrass or ginger even. So let me work on the name. Hmm.

The basic gist is coconut milk, vegetables and spices. The right spices. Fish sauce is also key. If I had had ginger, I would have added it. Ditto on chicken or shrimp and most any vegetable – string beans, okra, zucchini all sound nice to me.

Coconut Soup with a Kick

Serves 4

  • 2 cans (around 13-15 ounces or 400 ml) of coconut milk (ideally at least 1 non-lite)
  • 2 cups of chicken broth, vegetable broth or water
  • 2 sweet peppers, sliced into strips
  • Handful of shiitake mushroom caps, cut into strips
  • 1 small eggplant, sliced thinly into rounds and then each round quartered
  • 1 box of firm tofu, cut into chunks
  • 3+ garlic cloves, minced
  • 2-3 tablespoons oil (peanut, canola or vegetable – not olive)
  • 3 tablespoons red curry paste
  • 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon red chili flakes, more to taste
  • sprinkle of cayenne powder, more to taste
  • fresh cilantro, chopped, optional
  • rice (cook according to package instructions)

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium in a deep skillet or dutch oven. Add the minced garlic and red curry paste. Stir.

Add the eggplant, peppers and any other chopped vegetables you like. (White mushrooms would be good to add here – shiitakes are so delicate, they cook just by simmering later.)  Add the tofu. Let it all cook for a few minutes, enough so the vegetables get a head-start on cooking. Stir periodically. Add a little more oil if things start to stick.

Pour in the coconut milk and broth (or water). Stir to combine. Add the shiitake mushrooms. Let it come to a boil and then adjust the heat so it simmers.

Add the curry powder, turmeric, cayenne, red chili flakes and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce. (If you aren’t one for heat, omit the cayenne and only sprinkle a bit of the red chili flakes. You can always add more.) Let it simmer for a minute or two and then taste. Does it need more fish sauce? More heat? More curry? Add more spices and fish sauce until you hit the right spot for you. This is one of the most valuable parts of your own kitchen. Dinner is exactly to taste – your taste!

Let the soup simmer until all of the vegetables (the eggplant is usually the last to relax) are soft enough to your liking and ready to eat. It won’t hurt to keep the soup simmering a little longer while you set the table and wait for the rice to cook.

Serve with rice and topped with chopped cilantro, if you like.