Like most exotic foods in Britain twenty-five years ago, couscous was only readily available in Soho’s French shops. I became interested in so many foodstuffs simply because they were there. My seeing something on the shelf of an épicerie elicited a conversation with the proprietor and a scurry through my cookbooks to get the dish on the menu. (This process is still at work for me today when wandering around Chinatown.) This recipe does not use real couscous, the preparation of which is frankly tedious, but uses the instant variety.
Bring a litre of water to a boil and salt lightly. Tip the contents of the couscous packet into a bowl. Add the oil to the water and immediately pour over the couscous. With a fork stir the soaking grain, breaking up any lumps that form. This process must be done thoroughly and you should use your fingers as soon as it is cool enough to handle. Lightly oil some small pudding basins and pack the couscous in without pressing too firmly. The last thing you want to do with couscous is to compact it: the aim is for a light and fluffy grain. Clingfilm the top of the basins and refrigerate until needed.
To reheat, simply pop in a hot steamer for 10 minutes. Gingerly remove from the steam and pull off the clingfilm. Invert a basin on each guest’s plate and tip out hopefully in a neat dome. Serve the other dishes in the centre of the table. The grain provides the bland bulky heart of the meal and does absorb the stronger flavours to spectacular effect.
© 1999 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.