Perhaps one of the best parts of growing up is developing a more mature palette. There are some amazing, delicious dishes out there that you don’t even want to hear about as a kid. Lentil? Couscous? These words would’ve no doubt caused instant disgust when I was little, even without actually knowing what they were. Thankfully, we all grow up someday and start trying new foods. Foods that taste amazing.
At any rate, I somehow came into possession of a bag of brown lentils and then a bag of couscous, so I went about scouring the internet for a way to use them.
I ended up settling on this recipe from WhatsForLunchHoney.net, which I found through FoodGawker. I made my own changes, which you’ll see below.
Since the recipe doesn’t cover the couscous itself, and I’ve never actually cooked the stuff, I went about looking that up. The bag itself just tells you to make it similar to rice—combine with water in a pot, bring to a boil, then cover and let it sit for 5 minutes. Certainly a fast, easy way, but is it the “true” way?
If you know anything about me, you know I love Alton Brown. The man knows how to cook, and more importantly, he knows how to teach. He also does things the “right” or at least traditional way whenever possible. I mean, the man made his own tandoor oven just so he could cook authentic Indian curry. So how does he say to make couscous? The more involved steamed way.
What follows is my version of these two recipes, as well as a good, hearty, and surprisingly simple meal. And vegetarian friendly!
Coconut lentils and steamed couscous
2 cups of couscous
200 grams of brown lentils*
1 can of coconut milk (400 ml)
1 can of diced tomatoes (425 ml)
2 garlic cloves, minced
A dash or two of crushed red peppers
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
1 tsp of cumin powder**
2 tablespoons of olive oil plus some for oiling hands
2 cups of vegetable stock
A handful of mint and/or parsley, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper
*Red lentils will break down faster than brown lentils, meaning that cook times will vary based on the type of lentil. I prefer brown lentils because they provide a firmer texture in the finished dish, while red lentils will be creamier or, as I see it, mushier.
**I replaced the tumeric with cumin because I didn’t have any tumeric, I like cumin more, and the flavours are similar enough that it still works. However, cumin tends to be a bit more pungent, and a little can go a long way, so I’d advise just sticking to 1 teaspoon, at least for your first try.
1. Preparation. First, prepare all your ingredients and have them ready to go before you start cooking anything. This step is true for most recipes, but I figure sometimes it bears repeating.
2. Prepare the couscous. Place the couscous in a fine-mesh strainer and rinse well under cold water. Dump onto a large sheet pan (the biggest you’ve got). Sprinkle it with a pinch or two of salt and let it swell for about 10 minutes. Dip your fingers in a little oil and use them to break up large lumps.
3. Start steaming the couscous. Fill your wok (or a large pot) with about an inch of water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Put a damp towel in your bamboo steamer (or a colander that will sit above the water) and add the couscous. Fold the towel over the couscous, cover, and set your kitchen timer for 15 minutes.
4. Start the lentils. Heat the oil in a large pot, then add the garlic and let it sweat a little. Add the onions and pepper flakes and cook until the onion begins to look translucent. Add the cumin powder and cook for an additional minute. This will help develop the cumin’s flavour. Add the lentils, tomatoes, coconut milk, and vegetable broth and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer.
5. Continue the couscous. When the kitchen timer goes off, take the couscous off the heat and turn off the burner. Be carefully handling the steamer, as the steam can be very hot. Carefully pour the couscous back on to the sheet pan, sprinkle with a half a cup of cold water and toss with a spatula until it’s cool enough to work with. Give your hands a very light coat of olive oil (be sparing!) and massage the clumps out of the couscous. Set it aside while the lentils simmer.
6. Finish cooking. Let the lentils simmer and watch their progress. Hopefully, you’ll get an idea for when they’re about 10 minutes away from being done. Basically, the liquid should be fairly thick and the lentils will show signs of break-down a little. They’ll be softer. If you’re worried about time, you can knock the heat up a little, but them be sure to stir occasionally. Once it’s looking good, get the water in your wok back to a nice simmer and put the couscous on for another 10 minutes. You can adjust the heat on the lentils a little if it doesn’t seem to be cooking fast enough or if it’s cooking too fast. The final consistency should be like a good stew, where most of the liquid is absorbed or evaporated and you’re left with a more of a thick sauce.
7. Serve. Top your food with the chopped mint and/or parsley and add a little salt and pepper to taste. We ate the lentils and the couscous in separate bowls, but I won’t judge you if you mix them a little.
The resulting dish is warm and hearty, perfect for the cold months ahead of us. And although you do need to be around in the kitchen watching, a lot of the cooking involves just letting it sit and do its thing, making it a surprisingly easy and relaxing affair. Plus, you get to smell it cooking. Mmm… cumin…