Toasted couscous is the nutty base for this smoked fish and vegetable salad

Ann Maloney

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sometimes if we’re ambivalent about a certain food, it might just be because we haven’t found an ideal preparation. I rediscovered this recently when making this couscous salad with smoked fish.

I grew up eating pasta and rice, but as an adult I’ve come to embrace a wider variety of starches and grains. Couscous is a favourite because it is inexpensive and so easy to prepare. You really cannot mess up this kind of couscous, which is usually a semolina grain product (not to be confused with pearl) because it quickly steams in boiling water.

Too often, however, it left me just a little let down in the flavour department.

Now, after adding just one more simple step – toasting – I’m finding so many ways to make it part of weeknight eating. Toasting grains, nuts, seeds, spices or breadcrumbs is a simply wonderful step that adds deeper flavour with very little effort.

Toasting couscous gives it a nutty flavour and – as a bonus – fills the kitchen with fragrance, too.

Couscous salad with smoked trout and pepperoncini. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Then, you add boiling water, cover it and let it steam, as usual. While it is steaming, you can make a dressing; then you fluff the still-warm couscous and toss it with that dressing, allowing that small amount of liquid to flavour the tiny pieces without
drowning them.

After that, you can take the couscous in many directions. I like the path I found in The Complete Salad Cookbook. Here, toasted couscous gets tossed in a wonderfully tart and just a tiny bit spicy mixture of extra-virgin olive oil, pepperoncini brine and minced garlic. Then, you add halved cherry tomatoes, sliced pepperoncini and chopped parsley.

To finish the salad, top it with your favourite smoked fish. I love using easy-to-find canned smoked trout in oil, but use your favourite smoked fish, such as trout, mackerel or salmon. If you don’t care for smoked fish, used canned tuna or salmon, or just eat it as is.

Don’t stop there. Toast the couscous and make up your own salad combinations using your favorite vegetables, and top that with poached shrimp or fried tofu.

Try steaming the couscous with a flavourful chicken stock, rather than water, and then add chopped parsley and grated garlic and ginger for a zingy starch that goes great with baked or roasted poultry. Add a little star anise to the boiling water before you steam the couscous, and toss in fresh mint leaves. Or make a nutty side by adding crushed pistachios, sliced scallions, lime juice and crushed red pepper flakes. Serve either of those combinations with a broiled fish fillet.

You may find, as I did, that as the scent of toasting couscous hits your nose, you’ll feel a little burst of culinary creativity. And after all of this stay-at-home cooking, it was the little spark I needed.

COUSCOUS SALAD WITH SMOKED TROUT AND PEPPERONCINI

25 minutes | Four to six servings

Do not substitute pearl couscous because it requires a different cooking method.

INGREDIENTS

One third cup plus one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more as needed

One and a half cups couscous

Two cups water

One quarter teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed

One cup pepperoncini, stemmed and sliced into thin rings, plus thhree tablespoons brine

Two cloves garlic, finely grated or minced

Eight ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

Half cup fresh parsley or cilantro leaves

Three scallions, thinly sliced

Black pepper

Eight ounces smoked salmon or trout or mackerel, skin and pin bones removed

Lemon or lime wedges, for serving

DIRECTIONS

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat one tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the couscous and cook, stirring frequently, until the grains begin to brown, about five minutes. Add the water and salt; stir briefly to combine, cover, bring the water to a boil, then remove the pan from the heat. Let sit until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is tender, about seven minutes. Uncover and fluff the couscous with a fork.

While the couscous cools, in a large serving bowl, whisk together the remaining oil, pepperoncini brine and garlic until combined. Transfer the couscous to the bowl with the dressing and toss to combine. Refrigerate the dressed couscous to cool it for about
10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, parsley or cilantro, if using, scallions and pepperoncini to the couscous and toss gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper and drizzle with extra oil, if needed.

On a small plate, flake the fish into bite-size pieces.

Top the salad with the smoked fish and serve family-style, or divide the couscous among individual plates and top with the fish. Sprinkle with more parsley or cilantro, if using. Serve with lemon wedges.