Lemon-buttered couscous

The classic way to cook couscous, by steaming it in muslin over the stew it will accompany, thus absorbing some of the stew’s flavours, is very tricky for a restaurant to pull off, certainly for a restaurant not specializing in couscous - in the same way that pizza is very difficult to graft successfully on to a mixed-culture menu, and is done best by specialists. There is an excellent instruction on steaming couscous in a book called A Mediterranean Harvest by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen which will either charm you or scare you off for life. Well, I admit I don’t steam my couscous. Below is a description of what I do, taking ‘lemon-buttered couscous’ as a simple example. It is a very effective, and easy to control, way to prepare couscous - you get the flavours you want into it, some in the soaking, others at the end. If you want the couscous to have a specific or mixed vegetable flavour, use a stock for the soaking, or the reduced cooking water of a vegetable - fennel and asparagus work very well like that. One of my favourite things to add to couscous is the chermoula, which has such a complex taste that you simply use water to soak the grain and stir in the chermoula afterwards. The same would apply to, say, couscous with coriander-lime oil or with chilli-butter etc. Couscous, like pasta, loves both butter and olive oil, so the choice is up to you.

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  • 500 g couscous
  • rind and juice of 1 lemon
  • a few strands of saffron
  • 450 mls hot water or light stock
  • 50 g butter
  • salt
  • pinch of cayenne pepper


PREPARE THE COUSCOUS 15 MINUTES before serving. In a large bowl, stir the lemon rind into the couscous, add the juice and the saffron to the hot water and stir this into the couscous. Some brands of couscous (it is a processed food, like pasta) seem to take more water, up to equal quantities (mls to grams), but be careful: you can’t get the water back out if it’s too much! Leave to soak for about 15 minutes, then fluff it up with a fork or your fingers. Chop the butter into small dice and stir it into the couscous with the seasoning. The couscous will still be warm, but if you want it hotter there are two things you can do. One is a brief steaming; the grains will be bigger now and shouldn’t fall through a fine sieve. The other is a quick blast in a microwave. If the couscous is not to be stirred into a stew or roasted, as in the pilaff, it is very difficult to reheat any other way - you can’t apply water to it unless you want porridge.