Sep 25, 2008

Miracle Food

It's surprising it's not more popular (maybe it is, and I'm just unaware of it), and I feel pretty foolish for not having taken advantage of it much earlier, but over the past few months, I've realized that cous cous is probably one of the best instant foods out there.

It's not like it's the first time I've had it. I recall visiting a Moroccan restaurant in Boulder, Colorado when I was still in elementary, and thinking cous cous was one of the best things ever. I had the idea that it was exotic and difficult to prepare though, having heard that it was hand rolled from semolina and required a long steaming time.

I didn't really realize until maybe a couple of years ago that the common supermarket version is already pre-cooked and dried, meaning that preparation simply amounts to soaking in boiling water (off of the heat, but covered) for about 5 minutes or so. It's not quite as fluffy as the real thing, but for something that can be prepared in about half the time of cooking pasta, I'd be willing to forgo that Slow Food mentality. And unlike most other instant foods, it's not packed with preservatives, salt or fat. It's pretty much just dried starch.

So although cous cous has that wonderful grainy yet soft-like-rice texture, it's not the most flavourful item out there when prepared with boiling hot water, but since it absorbs liquid so well, using some sort of flavoured liquid gives you a dish that hardly needs a side. As usual, I just throw together whatever's available in the kitchen, but with cous cous, it only takes 5 minutes to make another batch if you fail!

Braised Lamb Shanks with Instant Cous Cous
1. Marinate a lamb shank for as long as you can. I made up a marinade with some soy sauce, oregano, black pepper, bordeaux, chinese cooking wine and paprika. That's what I call fusion. Pretty good too. Use a lot of marinade, you'll end up cooking the meat in the liquid.

2. Chop up an onion and a red pepper (intead of using a red bell pepper, I got this long version, but it's the same idea).

3. Heat up a mid sized pot on the stove at high heat. When hot, add some olive oil and spread it out over the bottom of the pot, and sautee the onion for a minute or two before tossing in the red pepper. Continue to sautee until the onion is slightly translucent, and pour out the onion and pepper into a side bowl.

4. Return the pot to the heat, and before the remaining juices burn, put the lamb shank (without the marinade) into the empty pot. Sear for a minute or so, and then flip it and sear the opposite side for another minute.

5. Turn the heat down low and pour the onions and peppers back into the pot. Also pour the marinade into the pot.

6. Chop a tomato or two and add to the pot. I mostly toss this in for the extra liquid. If it looks like you need more liquid, add more tomatoes. Toss in some fresh basil too, for the taste. Also add plenty of salt. Generally you'd want the liquid to be very salty for the flavour to sink into the meat. Continue to cook at very low heat - a bare simmer, for two hours or so. Check on the fluid level, if it gets low, add some water or water/wine, or some other tasty liquid.

Sure, this takes two hours, but I've found that braised meats keep pretty well, so this is something you can do, say on a lazy Sunday afternoon for a Monday and Tuesday meal. When you're ready to eat, just stick the pot back on the stove, and maybe add a bit of fluid to reheat.

7. When ready to eat, take the lamb shank out. You'll be left with a very flavourful stew of onions, pepper, and tomatoes. Add enough water so that there's about 1.25 times as much stew as cous cous, and bring to a boil. Pour in the amount of cous cous you want for dinner, turn off the heat, and stir until mixed, and cover for about 5 minutes. Uncover and you've got some tasty cous cous to go along with your lamb.

If you don't have time to make a braised dish or stew, you can sauteeing/pan fry a main dish. When done, deglaze the pan with some wine, then add water and bring that combo to a boil, and add some salt to taste. Add the cous cous, stir, and cover for 5 minutes, and voila, there's your starch side.

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