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April 19, 2010 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Rigged-substitute cookware help: tips on going without a couscous cooker and still getting awesome steamed results

I'd really like to make Paula Wolfert's Tunisian couscous with fennel this week, the sooner the better (I have all the perishable ingredients, including leeks and fennel, on hand right now), but I notice she talks about using a couscousiere (perforated clay couscous cooker). I don't have one, or even a double boiler or standard steamer or steamer basket. Does anyone have any tips on rigging together an approximation? Usually when something simple like, say vegetables or rice call for steaming, I just take a tall stock pot, get a very shallow layer of boiling water going in it, and snugly fit a mesh colander over the pot, cover with a towel, and put the lid on. That won't fly here, because couscous grains are too small and would fall through.

I have a clay conical tagine, but I don't see how that would help me here. I also have a small rice cooker with a plastic steamer basket, but the holes in it are also way too large for couscous. A little help?

And yes, I understand couscous is entirely possible to make without steaming in this indirect way. In the worst case scenario I could just cook the grains separately on the stovetop and add them to the steamed and skillet-cooked veggie mixture. But that pervasive haze of flavors won't permeate the grains in the same way, so I'm hoping there's some other method I'm overlooking...something like taking a relatively safe material thinner than a towel and lining the mesh colander with it maybe? Help!
posted by ifjuly to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have a metal bowl? A metal bowl placed over a pot (preferably, suspended so it's not sitting ont he bottom of the pot, but so that the sides are wide enough compared to the pot to keep it about the bottom) is all a double boiler is, pretty much. If you don't have one, you may be able to pick up a metal bowl cheaply and easily?
posted by brainmouse at 10:39 AM on April 19, 2010

Best answer: I think you've pretty much answered your own question. What I'd do is buy some muslin (you can get it either in cookware or as a baby supply) and secure the couscous inside it in a very loose bag, then pop that into your colander.
posted by howfar at 10:43 AM on April 19, 2010

Line your colander with a clean dishtowel?
posted by leahwrenn at 10:49 AM on April 19, 2010

Best answer: There's a Good Eats episode with the steaming of couscous. Recipe is here. General technique is dish towel + colander/steamer.

(The recipe works well. I've steamed couscous in this manner before, and it's much better than throwing it in hot water.)
posted by ambilevous at 11:19 AM on April 19, 2010

Line the colander with a paper towel. Works great for me every time.
posted by Eshkol at 12:17 PM on April 19, 2010

Response by poster: Some sort of lining for the colander it is--thanks guys, I know it sounds like I already had the answer but I was unsure. Eshkol, I was in fact hoping a paper towel in particular was feasible, so I'm glad you mentioned it--it doesn't melt away and it isn't a fire hazard, then? I guess I'm just nervous for no reason...
posted by ifjuly at 12:19 PM on April 19, 2010

A common shortcut in commercial kitchens for steaming in situations such as this is a brand new j-cloth (the blue and white ones for cleaning surfaces). They are much cheap and thinner than dish towels and you can throw it away after if its stained or unusable. Personally I reuse them after going through the washing on a boil wash, there is no leeching of colour or anything else nasty.

I wouldn't use a paper towel in my opinion as you could get small paper fragments in your food when removing the steamed cous cous from the paper.

Good luck, looks like a great recipe.
posted by camerasforeyes at 1:35 PM on April 19, 2010

Paper towel is often created using bleach, so I'd stay away from it. A basket-style coffee filter might work.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 2:26 PM on April 19, 2010

That recipe includes carrot tops. I have never, ever heard of anyone eating these. I actually had the impression that they were somewhat toxic. I think you ought to check to make sure this recipe is correct.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:47 PM on April 19, 2010

Response by poster: Hey guys, quick follow up:

Joe in Australia, I didn't use carrot tops because I'm not usually fortunate enough to buy the kind that still have their tops on, ha. It didn't faze me because I had a ton of leftover fennel greens anyway (the allure of the recipe in the first place), so I just used all of what I had which totaled the same amount of greens overall. Maybe I got lucky? Anyway, I never use ingredients I'm not familiar with as edible before double checking, and substitute when necessary and try to use common sense and all that. Glad your note is here though in case someone else ever stumbles upon this, thanks.

I wound up making this tonight actually since I had the time to--I made her broiled chicken with yogurt and lemon marinade (also on that website), and that doesn't require anything but marinating all day which is hands off (non-)prep. This side dish was noticeably time-consuming and somewhat labor-intensive, not because anything was difficult but because there are so many intermittent "15 minutes here, 30 minutes there"-type separate distinct steps. But whoa, it was worth it. It made the best couscous I've ever had, and I'd never made my own at home before this. Pretty great! Here's a pic of it if anyone's curious (and again, if this isn't kosher mods feel free to delete the link; I never know).

If anyone reads this later 'cause they need answers too (doubtful) for the record the rattiest, thinnest dish towel on hand works fine; the cooking times were all still spot on (the texture was amazing) and that pervasive greens-and-spices aroma I was going for came through; the grains were fragrant and all those bright yummy flavors permeated nicely.

If you use a dish towel, BE CAREFUL. Do not let even a tiny bit hang off the rim. Fire hazard galore. Don't, um, ask me how I know this. Cut an old towel down to size if need be to keep if from hanging without doubling up the lining/steam barrier.

I do like the muslin/cheesecloth idea and might try that next time. I was too chicken to try the paper towel route (and thanks for reminding me about the bleach thing; I knew that and had forgotten...the coffee filter tip is a good one except I don't have any that are big enough). And I am intrigued by the "commercial kitchens do this" tip--will investigate j cloths at some point maybe.

Really, I guess I just went with my gut, but your reassurances helped me. Thanks y'all for your help.
posted by ifjuly at 9:29 PM on April 19, 2010

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