English food writer Elizabeth David described this time of year as "the mayonnaise season," and while I don’t use much mayonnaise in my kitchen, it’s an apt name for the time of year when cool foods are called for. Not many hot dishes beyond corn on the cob draw much interest after we’ve been grilling outside, and even that is prepared in the microwave.
Nope, it’s salad time, whether for side dishes or main courses, and here’s one of the better sides I use. It’s particularly useful for meals when mayonnaise-based dishes are contraindicated, whether for caloric or food safety reasons. And it’s another one of those deeply flexible dishes, depending on the contents of the refrigerator, the rest of the menu and the personal tastes of the diners. This version has no added fat. I found it in some magazine, attributed to Jean-Marc Fullsack, a French chef who’s done serious work in low-fat food.
I use instant couscous. This is not the "Israeli couscous," actually small balls of pasta, that’s found around town on restaurant menus. Instant couscous is easiest to buy in a box at larger supermarkets. (I get it at Schnucks or Whole Foods.) I read the back of the box so I’m sure to buy the kind that has the flavorings in a separate packet. There’s no reason you couldn’t use the flavored kind, but after I’d tasted the wetted-down couscous, I’d do some serious adjusting to the dressing. You certainly could try it with bulgur, giving a sort of tabooleh, or with tiny pasta, or rice. In fact, there’s some coarse-ground oats in my pantry right now that I looked at very thoughtfully when I last made this. (Now there’s something that would take flavor-adjusting, I suspect.) I don’t ever skin or seed tomatoes ever, unless I’m cooking them, so you can skip doing that. I generally prefer to use green onion, especially since I often don’t have parsley and the green helps perk things up visually. All quantities of the vegetables are approximate; I used one and a half large tomatoes, a small Kirby (pickling) cucumber, minus the seeds, about four large green onions and half a tiny red onion last time. And I can imagine it with diced chicken or shrimp thrown in it, too.
In fact, if I were doing riffs on it, I’d consider lime juice and Thai fish sauce for the dressing, no salt, maybe a little sugar and some cayenne, which would make it Southeast Asian, but then wouldn’t that really be better with rice? And off you go in another direction.
I do think this is better the day it's made. If you have leftovers, you may need to re-season it before serving it again; it seems to absorb stuff quite vigorously.
1 c. instant couscous
1 1/2 c. boiling water
1/4 c. lemon juice
1 clove garlic
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
2 c. diced tomatoes (about 1 lb.)
1/2 c. diced onion
1/2 c. diced cucumber
a handful of chopped parsley, if desired
Put the couscous in a heatproof bowl and pour the boiling water over it. Set it aside for 5 minutes or so to absorb the water. You don’t have to be too prissy about the time, a little more is okay.
Meanwhile, squeeze the lemon (one juicy one will be enough; get two to be sure). Mince the garlic or put it through a garlic press and add it to the lemon juice. Add the cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. Give this dressing a stir.
The couscous should have absorbed all the water by now. Tilt the bowl and drain off any that hasn’t been soaked up. Fluff up the couscous with a fork, and pour the dressing over it. Give it another couple of turns with the fork, and add the vegetables of your choice. Mix them in, cover the container and refrigerate until ready to serve.