Ways Around the Problem
As is often the case with any grain, they don't have a flavour of their own, but as they will happily absorb any they can soak up, whenever possible use a well-flavoured liquid for this purpose. This can either be stock or lemon juice. If using water as a soaking liquid, then make sure there is enough seasoning/herbs/lemon zest etc to make sure the grain becomes 'interesting' enough to eat.
The Middle Eastern 'Tagine' (recipe not given today) is an exception. The couscous is steamed separately, then served in a big dish with a very well flavoured (usually lamb) 'stew' piled on top. As this has lots of spicy gravy, the cooked couscous soaks this up, so ends up 'flavoured'.
Although not using rice in today recipes, felt it worth mentioning (otherwise I might forget) that recipes suggest one measure of rice should be boiled in two parts of water, but myself find this always makes it too moist and using one measure of rice to one and a half of water works perfectly. Also - by putting the rice into a pan with the cold water then leaving it to stand for several hours (the rice then starts to soak up the water) it will then need only to be brought to the boil and should then take only about four minutes boiling to be ready to eat. Even when cooking for the recommended time in a recipe, keep the pan covered and turn the heat off after ten minutes, then - without removing the lid - allow the rice to cook on in its own steam for a further 10 minutes - by which time it should be tender and all the water absorbed. Either way - this does save fuel.
Rice again can be flavoured by either adding lemon juice (or stock) to the cooking liquid. Risotto rice usually has white wine added before the stock/water. A few spices (cardamom seeds, turmeric, bay leaves) added to the water when boiling will also flavour the rice.
But back to the 'grains'. the first dish today being a simple one using bulgar wheat. This it to prove with two rather boring main ingredients all these need are a well flavoured dressing to bring them together. Bit like a marriage made in heaven.
The recipe uses garlic oil in the dressing, and the easiest way to make this (but never store garlic cloves in oil to flavour it as this can go 'off') is to put the 6 tblsp oil in a small pan with a finely sliced (or crushed ) clove of garlic. Heat to the simmer, then remove from heat and allow to cool, then strain. The oil will then have the flavour of garlic. This can be prepared in advance (make more if you wish and store it in a bottle in the fridge for up to a month). Naturally frozen peas can be used instead of fresh. One tip: when adding peas to a dish always add them at the end of the cooking time, just allowing enough time for them to become tender. Cooking for longer and the peas will change colour to an unpleasant khaki.
When using mixed herbs in a dish such as this, go for those with a more delicate flavour: mint, parsley, marjoram, tarragon, chives, lemon balm etc. The stronger herbs: rosemary, sage, thyme, should be used sparingly and better kept for the 'meatier' dishes.
Herby Bulgar: serves 4
7 oz (200g) bulgar wheat
6 oz (175g) fresh (or frozen) peas
6 tblsp garlic flavoured oil (see above)
juice of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
handful of mixed herbs: mint, parsley, chives (chopped)
Put the bulgar wheat in a saucepan and cover with plenty of boiling water, adding a pinch of salt. Simmer for 1o minutes then add the peas and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside, but keep warm.
Meanwhile make the dressing by blending the garlic oil and lemon juice together, adding seasoning to taste, then pour over the drained bulgar adding the chopped herbs, then fold the lot together and serve immediately. It will probably also eat well at room temperature.
Although this next dish is NOT vegetarian, there are vegetarian alternatives to meat (Quorn for example) so these could be used instead of the chicken. The recipe is given mainly as a way of showing how to add flavour to couscous - the meat (this time) almost an 'extra'.
One-pot Chicken with Couscous: serves 4
8 chicken thighs, skin left on
2 tsp turmeric
1 tblsp garam masala
pinch of salt
2 tblsp sunflower oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced (more if you wish)
1 - 2 cloves garlic, sliced or crushed
16 fl oz (450ml) chicken or vegetable stock
2 tlblsp green olives, stoned
zest and juice of 1 lemon
9 oz (250g) couscous
handful fresh parsley (pref flat leaf), chopped
Mix the spices and salt together and rub HALF over the chicken. Heat 1 tblsp of the oil in a large shallow pan and fry the chicken, skin side down, for 10 minutes, then turn and fry for a further 2 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Add the remaining oil to the pan and - over low heat - fry the onions for 6 minutes, then stir in the garlic and fry for a further 2 minutes, then add remaining spices. Stir-fry for one minute then add the stock and finally the chicken (keeping this skin side up). Cover and simmer for 40 minutes, then remove chicken and place on a warm dish (preferably standing over a pan of hot water so it stays warm).
Remove pan from heat, stir in the lemon juice and couscous and - if necessary - add boiling water, the liquid should just cover the couscous. Cover and leave to stand for 5 minutes or until the couscous has softened.
Fold half the parsley and lemon zest into the grain then sit the chicken on top, scattering the remaining parsley/zest on top. Take to the table and serve.
Two types of 'salad' can be made that are very similar, and in both cases either couscous or bulgar wheat could be used. My favourite is the first one, made using fresh herbs and with plenty of lemon juice, then covered and kept in the fridge for several hours, the flavours get soaked up by the grain and each mouthful then becomes a treat to eat. Although not mentioned in this (traditional) recipe, I also add finely diced cucumber.
Tabbouleh: serves 6 plus
4 oz (100g) bulgar wheat
juice of 2 large lemons
salt and pepper
3 fl oz (75ml) olive oil
4 good handfuls parsley (pref flat leaf)
3 handfuls fresh mint
1 mild onion, halved and thinly sliced OR...
...6 spring onions, sliced
4 tomatoes, halved, seeds removed, flesh diced
Little Gem lettuce for serving.
Soak the wheat in plenty of cold water for 15 minutes, then drain and rinse, pressing the wheat in the sieve with a wooden spoon to remove as much excess water as possible, then put the bulgar into a bowl with the lemon juice and give a good stir. When the juice has been absorbed, stir in the oil. It can then be covered and left for an hour to allow the flavours to develop, the remaining ingredients folded in just before serving although they be added earlier. Serve in a big bowl surrounded by individual Little Gem lettuce leaves - these traditionally being used to scoop up the Tabbouleh (or can be filled with a spoon to be eaten in the hand.
Similar to the above but in many ways completely different (yes, this can happen) is the above made with couscous and some of the same ingredients, others being different - some of these optional but add to the flavour and colour of the dish. This eats well with barbecued meats such as kebabs.
Couscous Salad: serves 4
10 oz (275g) couscous
18 fl oz (550ml) boiling vegetable stock
16 black olives, stoned and halved or sliced
2 small courgettes
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and cut into strips (opt)
1 oz (25g) flaked toasted almonds
4 tblsp olive oil
1 tblsp lemon juice
1 tblsp chopped fresh coriander
1 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
half tsp ground cumin
good pinch cayenne pepper
Put the couscous into a bowl and pour over the boiling stock. Give one stir, then cover and leave to stand for 10 minutes by which time the grain should have absorbed all the liquid. Fluff up with a fork.
Trim the courgettes and cut in half crossways, cutting each half into thin strips (like thick matchsticks, then fold into the couscous with the olives and almonds.
In a jug, mix together the olive oil, lemon juice, herbs, spices and salt, then fold this into the salad.
This next recipe is intended to be cooked on a barbecue, but no doubt would work just as well if oven-baked. Again uses couscous and a good way to use up those green peppers that end up lurking in the fridge, although the red and yellow ARE much sweeter, so use some of each if you can.
Couscous Stuffed Peppers: serves 4
6 bell peppers, any colour
1 oz (25g) butter
1 onion, finely chopped
8 fl oz (250ml) boiling water
1 tsp olive oil
6 oz (175g) couscous
1 oz (25g) raisins
2 tblsp fresh chopped mint
1 egg yolk
salt and pepper
Cut each pepper in half lengthways and remove seeds and membrane. Melt the butter in a small pan and gently fry the onion until softened but not browned.
Meanwhile pour the boiling water into a bowl, add the oil, a pinch of salt and the couscous, stir, cover and leave to stand for 5 minutes, then stir in the onion, raisins and mint. Season well and stir in the egg yolk.
Fill the pepper 'shells' 3/4 full with this mixture (best use a teaspoon to do this), the couscous will swell more as it cooks, then wrap each in oiled foil and cook on a medium hot barbie for 20 minutes or until the peppers are tender. Can be served hot or cold.