Pastas, grains, garbage disposals


As far as the dumb things I’ve done rank, putting a canister of old couscous down the drain should get an honorable mention. To be precise, it was not only old couscous, but dry and uncooked couscous. One of the most exciting things about couscous is how little preparation it requires. It falls within that magical category alongside Ramen noodles, or rice sticks noodles. The basic recipe is to add it to hot water, let it expand and fluff it up with a fork.

As any cooking snob will be quick to tell you, couscous, while it looks exactly like rice or some other grain, is actually tiny pasta. It’s technically more similar to orzo than it is to rice, which is also something your garden variety cooking snob will be quick to point out. Even using orzo to try to define couscous is like using the word ennui to define listlessness. It’s assembling a sandwich filled with nothing in the middle but pretention.

Even so, I was drinking the couscous Kool-Aid a few summers ago. We had a little backyard get together, and somebody brought couscous. While previously suspicious of it, this particular recipe won me over. There was a light Italian dressing on it, and a variety of wonderful summer vegetables such as cucumber, tomato and zucchini, all finely chopped into the salad.

Do you know that guy, the one who goes on a bike ride with his buddy for the first time and then goes completely overboard buying the $3,000 custom titanium road bicycle along with the skin tight shorts and shirt combo? I was “that guy” in the couscous world. After eating the salad and loving it, I decided it was going into the weekly line-up, and I bought the canister—the large one—of couscous to make sure I was never short of the grain (or rather, pasta).

I almost perfectly replicated the couscous salad recipe. I finely sliced the vegetables, adding my own twist (black olives) and served it alongside another healthy salad to round out a summer dinner. Then, inexplicably, I didn’t make couscous again. I can’t explain it. Maybe it was having to slice the vegetables into such tiny pieces. Maybe it was a subtle difference in how dense the leftover couscous seemed to get the next day. Maybe it was having to explain to the kids over and over that it wasn’t rice. Maybe it was none of these things, and really there is no explanation.

Last Friday, I looked at the date on the canister of couscous. It was three years old. It wouldn’t be responsible to cook it up and serve. . .would it? Of course not! The responsible thing to do would be to dispose of it. What better place to dispose of things than the disposal?

Now, back to the wonderful thing about couscous: it requires no cooking. Just add water. Down the disposal it went, along with some water. Entering into this recipe were a few distractions. Maybe the telephone rang, or some e-mails needed tending to. I don’t know what happened, but when I finally returned to the sink and started the disposal, my couscous recipe was complete. Water had been added and all the pipes were caked with heavy, wet, solid couscous.

When the neighbor arrived with his plumbing tools (yes, we are that lucky), he began to ask some questions to diagnose the problem. “I know what’s going on,” I said, “the pipes are blocked with couscous.” And that they were. In the attempt to clear it all out, couscous had flown around the kitchen out of the disposal, under the sink, on the countertops, in the dishtowels. “I’m never making couscous again,” I said.

Fast forward to last night, when couscous’ snotty cousin made its appearance in our home: quinoa. Immediately the kids were terrified. “I thought we were never having couscous again,” one said. Again, I had found myself serving food that needed to be explained. This one looks like orzo, but it’s not pasta, it’s a grain. It’s not rice, even though it sort of tastes like rice.

I recently read a magazine article that showed various types of grain and small pastas and outlined what each was made of, how to cook them, and what the health benefits are. For now, in our house, they’re all hard to differentiate, and they’re known for the one thing they have in common: they won’t go down the disposal.

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