Couscous with Cranberries and Toasted Peanuts

Couscous is a coarsely ground pasta made from semolina, a type of durum wheat.  Its name is derived from the Berber word meaning “well rolled.” Historically, couscous is a popular staple food throughout the Northern African countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia as well as Italy’s southern-most region of Sicily.

Similar to Italian pastas, couscous is made from semolina flour, but instead of mixing the semolina with a given amount of water and/or egg into a dough, couscous is made by rubbing the semolina between lightly-moistened hands until the semolina combines with just enough water to form hundreds of tiny grains. This process takes a very light touch to prevent the grains from becoming a gooey mess, but once learned, it is one of the simplest forms of making pasta and one that is practiced in villages throughout the Mediterranean basin.

The traditional preparation of couscous involves a special pot called a couscoussière. Steaming couscous is an involved operation, requiring sealing the top of the couscoussière to its bottom with rags and then interrupting the steaming several times to rub the softening couscous grains to insure that they remain separate. However, due to the broad availability of instant couscous (found on the shelves of U.S. grocers), it is no longer necessary to go through all the trouble. This product has already been steamed and then dried again before it is packaged. It needs only to be soaked in boiling water until it swells, a process that takes about 10 minutes.

Since couscous has very little flavor of its own, it works well as a base for vegetable or meat dishes. It also mixes beautifully into salads and can be flavored with herbs like coriander, basil or mint, or even studded with fruit like raisins or apricots. It's a very neutral base for all sorts of dishes and provides a healthy addition to almost any meal. Our favorite flavor profile includes adding dried cranberries to the couscous while cooking and topping with chopped peanuts.

Cranberry Peanut Couscous
  • 1 1/2 cup couscous
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/3 cup peanuts, chopped and toasted
  • 1/4 cup sweetened coconut, shredded (optional)

In a saucepan, add water butter and salt and bring to a boil. (You can use chicken broth instead of water for a subtle flavor.) Stir in couscous and then remove from the heat and allow to steam for another 5 minutes. Be sure to allow the couscous to absorb the water. Using a fork, fluff couscous and place in a serving bowl. The couscous should be light and fluffy, not gummy. Before serving, top with toasted peanuts.