My sister and I went through a pretty intense couscous* phase when we were teenagers: my mother kept a kitchen cabinet stocked with little pre-portioned pouches of semoule that barely needed a minute and a half of boiling before we could snip them open, pour their contents into a bowl, add a bit of salt and butter, and call it lunch. We loved the stuff.
I remember suggesting this very menu to Maxence once, early in our relationship, and he looked at me like I had two heads. (Sometimes I think about this, and my former flame for canned beef ravioli, when people ask, “So, were you always interested in cooking?”)
I no longer make whole meals out of plain couscous (see there, on top of my shoulders? only one head!), but I have retained my fondness for the unique mouthfeel it provides, each forkful soft and pillowy before it bursts into a thousand tiny beads that roll around the tongue.
I favor whole wheat couscous now, for reasons of nutrition and taste, and I serve it as an ultra-easy side to stews, Maghrebi in spirit or not. And in the summer, I like to use it as a base for quick, refreshing salads such as this one.
It is inspired by the North African tabouli, better known in France and more ubiquitous at parties than the Lebanese version: couscous-based where its Lebanese cousin involves bulgur (cracked wheat), the North African tabouli also reverses the proportion of white (grains) to green (chopped herbs).
Unless you make your own semolina, hand-rolling, steaming, and sun-drying the grains, which is crazy but admirable, preparing couscous takes ten minutes and approximately zero effort: the store-bought kind is pre-cooked, and only needs plumping in freshly boiled water. You don’t even need to turn on the stove; an electric kettle will suffice.
Other than that, there will be a little herb snipping involved — I like the well-balanced trio of parsley, chives, and mint, but you can pare that down or go wild depending on what you have on hand — and the slicing of a few cherry tomatoes, but that’s about it. Simple, really, and ideal for satisfying lunches, barbecues, and picnics.
Tabouli ordinarily calls for lemon juice, but I find its sharp trill can overwhelm the other flavors, so I prefer to use bottled verjuice — the juice of unripe grapes — as the acidic component.
The tomatoes in tabouli are usually diced from regular-size whole fruits, the juices of which help rehydrate the couscous grains, but cherry tomatoes tend to offer a sweeter and more concentrated tomato flavor that works nicely here, and is accented by a pinch of cinnamon.
About the cinnamon I use
I am in love with the fresh cinnamon I order from Cinnamon Hill, a small company that specializes in sourcing and selling the highest-quality, freshest cinnamon from Sri Lanka and Vietnam (ordinary cinnamon usually comes from China or Indonesia). I get whole sticks, and grate them with the beautifully crafted (and highly giftable!) cinnamon grater that Cinnamon Hill has designed. Truly, you don’t know what cinnamon tastes like until you’ve tried freshly harvested, freshly grated, top-grade cinnamon, and it makes an amazing difference in this recipe.
* The term couscous can be used to mean either, 1. a pasta of North African origin made of crushed and steamed Durum wheat semolina, like here, or 2. a North African dish consisting of said pasta, steamed and served with stewed vegetables and grilled meat.
- 240 ml (1 cup) uncooked couscous, whole wheat if available (bulgur or quinoa may be substituted)
- Olive oil
- About a dozen stems chives, finely sliced
- 1 small handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
- 1 small handful fresh mint, finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- Harissa, to taste (substitute another garlicky chili sauce, such as sriracha)
- A dash of zest from an organic lemon, finely grated
- A pinch ground cinnamon (I use fresh cinnamon from Cinnamon Hill)
- 180 grams (1 rounded cup) ripe cherry tomatoes, about 20, sliced in halves
- Salt, black pepper
- Put the uncooked couscous in a medium heatproof bowl. Add a good drizzle of olive oil and rub it into the grains to coat lightly.
- Bring 240 ml (1 cup) water to a boil and pour it over the couscous. Cover and let stand for 10-12 minutes (or according to the package), until all the water is absorbed.
- Fluff with a fork or your fingers until no lump remains. Set aside to cool.
- In a medium salad bowl, stir together the lemon juice, a rounded teaspoon of harissa, and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Add the herbs, lemon zest, and cooled couscous. Sprinkle with cinnamon, salt, and pepper, and toss to coat. Fold in the tomatoes, taste, and adjust the seasoning.
- Cover and refrigerate for 1 hour if possible, so the flavors have time to meld, and up to 3 or 4, but not much longer or the herbs will wilt.
This post was first published in July 2009 and updated in July 2016.