Recipe: Rainy Day Couscous

I’ve been putting off making couscous. I don’t mean the boxed, nearly instant kind – I make that fairly often. What I’m tackling today is delicate, fluffy steamed couscous. The kind  you buy in the bulk bin. The kind that fluffs up like a dream. According to Clifford A. Wright, steaming the tiny pearls twice, sometimes three times, is the “only” way to make proper couscous.

Color me intrigued.

While we’ve cooked many countries that enjoy couscous (Libya and Algeria for example), I put off making authentic couscous because I was… well… afraid of failure.

I have a tendency to do that when it comes to trying something new. I dance around challenge, especially when I’m tired. However, on quiet rainy days, when there is nothing else to do, I feel braver. Like I can accomplish anything. Be anything. That’s when I’m most likely to  buckle down and go for it in the kitchen. It’s like there’s a cloudy cushion surrounding me, making it okay. Turns out, Clifford A. Wright is on the same wavelength. He suggests, if it’s your first time, making steamed couscous a rainy day activity.

So that’s what I did. Finally.

Turns out making steamed couscous isn’t as complicated as I expected. In between steps I can work on other recipes, tidy up, or – my favorite – write a love letter. While using a couscousier would have been ideal, I managed to cobble together a perfect steaming device from my very own kitchen supplies. (I’ll get to that later in the recipe).

Serves 6


2 cups couscous (not instant – buy it from the bulk section)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil


Optional additions:
1/4 cup raisins,
1 cup cooked chickpeas
chopped dates, figs, etc.


Think of couscous as edible dunes… drifting and dreamy.

Valley near Oualata (Mauritania). Photo by C.Hug

What a beautiful world.

Now, let’s get happy with couscous!

Step 1: Wet the couscous

First, rinse couscous in a large bowl of water. Drain and spread couscous over a double layer of cheesecloth (or a linen cloth) on a large large, flat tray or platter. This gives the couscous room to fluff up evenly.

Sprinkle evenly with salt, then let the grains swell for 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile heat up the water in the steamer.

Right before cooking, break up any lumps by raking through the couscous with your fingers.

Step 2:  Steam the cous cous

Safe couscous steaming is easy as 123: 1) Pot 2) pasta insert 3) vegetable steamer (remove center pin). Fill water only up to the pasta insert. The vegetable steamer will keep the couscous safely above any bubbling waters.

Using a steamer, couscousier, or colander/pot combo, steam the couscous (simply lift it into the steamer by the cheesecloth to make the transfer back and forth less messy. Gently steam, covered, for about 15 minutes.

While you wait, write a love letter. Address it to a friend, a partner, or yourself. Smile.

Step 3: Wet the couscous again

Now, lift the couscous out of the steamer by holding onto the cheesecloth and lay it all back onto your platter. Drizzle on a 1/2 cup cold water and …

… the olive  oil. Work it into the couscous, breaking up any lumps as you go.  You may
need to use a large fork to rake through the grains if it is too hot for your fingers. Let rest ten minutes. Break up any lumps.

You can add plumped raisins, chopped figs, dates, chickpeas, etc at this stage, if desired

Step 4: Second Steaming

Return the couscous to the steamer and cover. Gently steam until done – 10- 20 more minutes, and serve hot.

It’s yummy with lamb! Just ask Miss Ava.

Do you steam your couscous? Any other tips you want to pass on?

Have a beautiful, happy day!

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  1. Did she really like it, or is the smile a coincidence…?

  2. Richard WESTWELL says:

    What a simple, effective method of cooking cous cous.Well done Sasha.

  3. i love Sasha’s chant!
    What country was this supposed to be then? Morocco?
    glad it finally showed up on my wall. Most times it doesn’t! majorly frustrating.
    So who was YOUR love letter to? ;-)
    we have a snow day today–school’s closed. this is definitely the latest in the year IN MY LIFETIME, which is over 50 years!!!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      This was for Mauritania, but it could have easily been Moroccan as well. Enjoy the snow day … it is pretty late for sure, but I’m biased in Oklahoma :) As for the love letter, it was totally to Mr Picky, of course (not that I addressed him that way)!

  4. OK …now understand what went wrong in Fort Lauderdale….Amanda started the couscous and I took over thinking I knew what I was doing treating it like oatmeal…It was not good.

  5. meganleiann says:

    So may I ask, was it worth it? Is the difference as startling as instant vs. traditional rice?

    • Sasha Martin says:

      I think so – I’ll do it again for sure. I’d say at least try it once… I think the way each tiny piece gets coated in olive oil … the flavor is fantastic. Also, the texture is less dense …

  6. When I make mine I spritz it with warm salt water in between steaming/separating between my fingers.

  7. thanks – looks delicious – i’ll try it this rainy day

  8. I’ve done the “proper cooking” once, ended up making a royal mess in my kitchen, and lost a lot of the grains in the process. I am too clumsy, I think… ;-)

    Now, it is absolutely true that it makes a much much better couscous.

    My only couscous tip when cooking the boxed version is to place it (uncooked) in a shallow dish, so that whatever amount you are cooking is spread wide instead of deep. Add the boiling salted water, cover with plastic wrap and waot 5 minutes before fluffing. What this method does is reduce the “squeeshing” of the grains, they turn out a little fluffier, not as good as steamed, but better than the regular cooking. I guess I should probably mention that next time I blog about couscous… ;-) Plus, you won’t have to wash the pan, just the serving dish!

    • Sasha Martin says:

      I love that idea, Sally! I have some boxes I need to use up and I’ll definitely be doing this, thanks.

  9. I have found out (courtesy of a Moroccan cookbook) that steaming perks up even instant couscous. The method I use is pretty much like the method you line out, only the steaming time is shorter. It turns out way fluffier than normal, and I now use it 80% of the time. It is not complicated once you find out what equipment you can use for it in your kitchen. I use a pot and a fine mesh metal strainer, but I like the cheese cloth idea, probably it will save me from losing so many little grains!

  10. Oh, I appreciated this post! Saturday I had the privilege of meeting Paula Wolfert and for the first time in my life add traditional couscous at Cafe Livre in Culver City, CA, prepared by Chef Farid Zadi. How can I ever pick up a box of Trader Joe’s instant again without feeling a twinge! But the thought of trying it myself seemed just too heroic! After reading your post I thought…I can do that! I am going to try. Thank you.


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