Once upon a time, a man invited a woman over to his house for dinner. She had never been to his house before, and in preparation, he cleaned thoroughly and made the following meal:
Beef shish-ka-bobs with green bell pepper and onion
Broccoli florets with parmesan cheese
He grilled. For dessert, there was blackberry cabernet sorbet. She found him thoughtful, interesting and funny, and a decent cook besides. It was a fun night and all the food was good. He was like an aunt, fussing over the menu, noting that the broccoli was too overcooked, the beef not seasoned properly. It was very polite of her to eat his food, he suggested. Of course, none of this was true, and so she complimented him on the dinner and on each of the dishes, which she remarked “were delicious.”
Okay, so maybe the broccoli was a touch overcooked. She did, however, love the mushroom couscous, made with large pearl couscous. She asked how it had been made and he sheepishly noted that it had come from a box. “ A box, huh? Not bad for a box,” she replied. They continued to see one another and a few months later, at the grocery store, purchased a box of couscous mix together. They went home and this time, she made it at his house. Boil water, add couscous, add dehydrated mushrooms and spice packet. Stir, cover, wait 15 minutes. Done. And it was still good.
She picked through it and decided mushroom couscous could be made from scratch, that it could be better. And so she started experimenting with the recipe. It has now been made more than 50 times. She has served the dish to family and friends and has bored anyone who will listen with the story of its creation. Several years later, they asked the caterer to serve it as an accompaniment to the filet (with pinot noir reduction) at their wedding. The following version is much, much better than the box.
1 ½ cups of dry measure, large pearl couscous
3 cups beef broth
2 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
2 shallots or 1 small-to-medium onion, minced
12 oz. cremini mushrooms, finely chopped
4-6 oz. shitake mushrooms, finely chopped
Fresh or dried thyme, 1 teaspoon dried or 2 teaspoons fresh (a combination of thyme and marjoram is also nice)
Flat Italian parsley, fresh – approximately 2 tablespoons minced
Salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne, or more to taste
A sprinkling of fennel seed, approx. ¼ teaspoon
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Experiment with mushrooms, if you like. White button mushrooms create a lighter couscous. Chanterelles, porcini mushrooms, or a complementary combination of wild mushrooms can make for a more elegant dish. Saute in butter for luxuriousness or add a bit of truffle oil just before serving.
Oh, the possibilities.
Dry toast the couscous in a sauté pan over low heat, stirring constantly until couscous begins to darken slightly and turns a light golden-brown. Remove from heat. Set aside.
Heat the fennel seed in the oil for approximately two minutes. Then add the garlic, shallot or onion, and sauté until glossy and soft. Add the chopped mushrooms and sauté. Season with thyme, salt and pepper.
Once mushrooms are cooked, and the excess liquid has been absorbed, add toasted couscous. Stir to combine all flavors well. Add broth, adjust seasoning –check for salt at this stage; whether more salt is needed will depend on the saltiness of the beef broth—and turn the heat to medium-high. When the liquid begins to boil at the edges, cover, turn the heat to simmer and cook for 15 minutes. I check this dish around the 12 minute-mark, to make sure it’s on schedule. Add parsely, stir and serve.
Note: The ratio of raw couscous to liquid is 2:1; thus, for every 1 cup of dry measure couscous, use 2 cups of broth.