Instant dinner: why couscous cooks so fast
You know my slight obsession with cake? Well, now I’m eating it for dinner. But it’s okay because it’s couscous cake–leftover couscous mixed with eggs, cheese, and spices and fried up until golden brown and delicious. Not quite as good as chocolate for dinner, but it was pretty tasty.
Couscous is my favorite dinner in a hurry. You know those nights when you get home and feel like you might have to resort to ice cream for dinner because you can’t possibly make anything fast enough? Make couscous. Boil some water, throw in the couscous, and five minutes later you have delicious hot dinner.
What is this magical substance, you ask? It’s kind of a minimalist form of pasta. It’s just flour, water, and salt, and it’s traditionally made by pouring salted water into a bowl with whole wheat flouring and stirring with your fingers to form small bits of dough. Because it’s not kneaded at all, the flour does not form the gluten network that’s so important in bread. This impacts the texture of the beads, and it also means that couscous can be made with pretty much any kind of grain, even though without gluten–good news for anyone trying to avoid it. The alternative grains will lead to a different flavor, of course, but you won’t run into the same structural difficulties as you do when trying to use gluten-free grains in something that depends on the gluten network for its stability.
As I mentioned, the great benefit of couscous is its short cooking time. I usually boil it, but it doesn’t even need that–you can steam it! In its northern African place of origin, it’s often steamed above the stew served with it. The ease of cooking, either by boiling or steaming, comes from its small size. We intuitively know that small things take less time to heat through than large things–cupcakes and cookies bake for less time than cakes, for example. Cutting potatoes into small pieces before you boil them reduces their cooking time. The comparison of pasta and couscous comes down to essentially the same thing. Heat at an atomic level is just the movement of particles: the faster something is moving, the hotter we perceive it to be. Absolute zero, the lowest temperature anything can be, is -273 degrees C–when atoms stop moving completely. Since heat is motion, we’re looking for the hot (fast-moving) water molecules to transfer some of their energy to the cool (slow-moving) couscous. Think of a billiard table. When you shoot the cue ball at a group of colored balls which are close together but not touching, the cue ball transfers its energy to the other balls. It hits the first ball, which hits another, and then maybe two at the same time. If you watch in slow motion, you can see the movement travel to the balls closest to the cue ball, then the next layer, then the next.
The transfer of heat into food is similar: the outer layer heats up first, then the insides. In the case of couscous, the insides are really close to the outsides since the individual pieces are so small, so they heat through very quickly and voila! Instant dinner.
This recipe was born out of a need to use up leftover couscous from the night before, and it should serve equally well with other leftover grains–rice, quinoa, etc. It’s very similar to veggie burgers that use the egg binding, and I think it would be delicious with some beans or veggies added for extra flavor. I topped mine with balsamic vinegar and mustard aioli (mmm Trader Joe’s), and they were fantastic.
Yield: 6 cakes (2-3 servings)
1 1/2 c. cooked couscous
3 cloves garlic
1/3 c. Parmesan cheese
1 T. flour
1 1/2 t. soy sauce
Salt, pepper, and spices to taste (I used 1/2 t. cumin and 3/4 t. paprika)
This is a really tricky one: mix all of the ingredients together (the mixture should hold its shape; if it doesn’t, add 1 T. flour). Divide it into six pieces and form each into a patty about 1/2 inch thick.
Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Fry the patties until golden brown and firm to the touch, about 4 minutes per side. Top with balsamic vinegar, mustard, or anything else your heart desires.