This couscous salad recipe uses the ancient super-grain Quinoa to make a cool, fluffy, high-protein, low-fat dish perfect for the summer months.
Couscous is one of my favorite summer dishes — loaded with fresh vegetables like cucumbers, red onion and tomatoes — and lean protein from chicken breast, it’s a quick, easy and healthy main course or side dish that takes advantage of summer’s bounty of fresh vegetables. This particular recipe for couscous salad uses a surprisingly tasty and nutritious substitute for the normal couscous pasta — Quinoa.
What Is Couscous?
Traditional couscous (or kuskus, in the U.K) is technically a form of pasta, not a dish unto itself. It’s made with tiny, BB size balls of moistened semolina flour that are then coated with a light layer of fine wheat flour. The pasta is then steamed and served under a stew made from meat or vegetables. Couscous is a staple in much of Northern Africa, in the same way that pasta is a staple in Italy and rice is in Asia. It’s also popular in parts of the Middle East, Israel and even Sicily. In the U.S., many people associate couscous with a dish eaten chilled as a salad.
Nutritionally, couscous is pretty much on par with other semolina-based pastas. You can get quick-cooking versions of couscous made with whole wheat flour in the rice isle at the grocery store, which is healthier than the non-whole-wheat couscous. However, eating grains in their original whole-kernel state is even better. But making couscous salad with something like cracked wheat or whole brown rice wouldn’t result in the fluffy, airy texture that makes couscous so delicious.
That’s where the Quinoa comes in.
What Is Quinoa?
Quinoa (pronounced: Keen-Wa ) is an ancient grain cultivated for more than 6,000 years in the Andean region of South America. The grain is actually the edible seeds of the goosefoot plant, which is uniquely suited for high-altitudes and has been a staple in traditional Andean diets for centuries.
The ancient Incas held the crop to be sacred, but European explorers dismissed Quinoa as “food for Indians.” Turns out they shouldn’t have been so quick to write the grain off — it is extremely high in protein (12%-18% protein), is gluten-free and easy-to-digest, is high in fiber and has a complete amino acid profile. The last point is an important one, because traditional European grains like wheat or rice do not contain all eight essential amino acids. This makes Quinoa ideal for vegetarians, vegans or people who are just trying to add more non-meat sources of protein into their diet. It’s also high in minerals like phosphorus, iron and magnesium.
Quinoa also has an extremely fluffy, light texture and a slightly nutty flavor. This makes it a great substitute for rice — or couscous. And it cooks quite quickly — in under 15 minutes — making it convenient and easy to prepare.