Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Question From My Sister

An aspiring foodie herself, my sister Emma came to me last night in search of some culinary advice. I was pleased with this request, not only because it presented me with a challenge and future blog post, but also because when I still lived at home 3 or so years ago, Emma could barely make herself a bowl of cereal. My, how she's grown! Her question is as follows:

The other night, I made whole wheat cous cous with a little butter, salt, and cumin, then served it with sauteed onions, peppers, and broccoli, with plain yogurt on the side. It was good, but a bit bland. Can you suggest something to spice it up a bit?
Here are some general tips, and some specific ideas for this meal:

My first tip is to pick a flavor theme for this meal. When I'm throwing a bunch of veggies and grains together, I usually am thinking that it will have Indian-inspired spices, or Moroccan-ish flavors. This shouldn't hold you back by any means, but should give you some direction, and hopefully make the meal more interesting.

Next, I'd think about how to cook the grains in this recipe. I almost never cook grains without adding some seasonings. This adds depth of flavor and allows you to mix and match tastes without over-seasoning one element of the meal. When I make quinoa, for example, I usually start by sauteing some garlic and onion in the saucepan, and then adding the water and quinoa. Cous cous is a bit trickier, since you don't cook it in the same way you cook other grains - most recipes call for steeping the dry cous cous in hot water for about 5 minutes or so. However, feel free to add spices or crushed garlic to the steeping water. This will infuse the cous cous with whatever flavors happen to be tickling your taste buds. Another easy option is to steep in broth rather than water. Instant flavor, minimal effort.

Ok, so what to do with this recipe? I have a few suggestions:

Take the Mediterranean/Moroccan route: When cooking the cous cous, add a dash of cinnamon, cayenne, and cumin to the steeping liquid. Throw in a splash of good olive oil, too. You could even try some chopped green onions or other fresh herbs, if you have them on hand. Once the cous cous has steeped, try adding one or a few flavorful accents. I love garbanzo beans, raisins, and toasted pine nuts. The beans and pine nuts also add some protein to this meal.

Now for the veggies. I'd skip the broccoli in this case, since it doesn't really fit the Mediterranean flavor profile. If you still want something green, try sauteing some spinach with those onions. Add some garlic, cayenne, salt, pepper, and cumin, and you've got yourself a flavorful accompaniment for the cous cous. And what about the peppers? In my mind, nothing tops off a Mediterranean meal like roasted red peppers. Roast whole peppers over the burner of a gas stove, or pop them in a hot oven until skins are charred. Let them cool, and then remove the burned skins.

For the yogurt on the side: You could keep things simple by serving Greek-style yogurt with nothing added to it. The rest of the meal is flavorful enough that this is a good option. However, if you want to get fancy, you could try a tzatziki-like yogurt dish. Mix the plain yogurt with shredded cucumber, salt, pepper, and fresh garlic. Let it sit for a bit so the flavors can mingle before serving.

Try any or all of these steps, and see how it turns out. Of course, if you don't want Mediterranean influences, you could also try Indian: curry powder, garam masala, peas, raita-inspired yogurt, tomatoes, and cauliflower; or Latin American: cumin, garlic, chili powder, black beans, sauteed peppers and onions, low-fat sour cream, etc.

Hope this helps!


E said...

I don't appreciate the barb, but I appreciate the advice.


Mitch said...

I like adding dried cranberries to cous cous.