I always forget about couscous. It's such a good thing to have around and yet, I don't know, I feel like I overdosed on those Near East packages in college and then I owned a few Paula Wolfert books on Moroccan cooking and was ashamed to have ever even thought about instant couscous, let alone eaten it, and then I moved back to Berlin, where couscous is still relatively exotic, and so I end up using far more rice and millet and quinoa and bulgur than I ever do couscous. Which is too bad, because couscous is good! And after all this time, it feels fresh and delicious all over again.
Last weekend, I served it with a Moroccan vegetable stew and then this weekend, after seeing this article by Yotam Ottolenghi and deciding 30 nanoseconds later that that was how I was going to use up the box of couscous I had in the pantry, I made saffron-flavored, feta-and-raisin-stuffed, mint-flecked couscous cakes. Yes, they were just as good as they sounded, better even. And, well, the moral of this story is that I'll never go couscous-less again.
It's silly how easy these cakelets are. All you do is pour boiling water over some saffron and couscous and while the water is plumping the couscous, you gather everything else: feta, some eggs, some sliced chives or mint (I used mint), yogurt. And then, if you're lucky enough to have barberries, you soak them in a sugar syrup to soften their sour bite. If you don't have barberries, you can use currants soaked in lemon juice - I used raisins and they were just fine. You mix all of these lovely little things into the saffron couscous until it's a thick and creamy homogenous mass. Then you portion out little rounds and fry them up - I used olive oil in a nonstick pan, the original recipe calls for butter.
I slid each batch of cakes onto a plate as they finished and we ate them piping hot and then fried more and ate more and fried more and so on. They were so good, so crisp and soft at once, with little sweet-salty pockets of cheese and raisins and the haunting flavor of mint and saffron giving them a sophisticated edge. Afterwards, Max asked me very solemnly to make them again. Each week. He never, ever does that.
By the way, I experimented in flattening some of the cakes with the spatula, but I would advise you to leave the cakes plump - flattening them takes away some of their deliciousness, if you can believe it, and the ratio of crisp to soft gets thrown off balance.
Yotam Ottolenghi tells you to eat these with a tomato chutney, which sounds like it'd be lovely. We were too hungry to do anything but pop them in our mouths just as they were, but Max ate the leftovers later with some incendiary Mexican hot sauce and declared them delicious. So, do as you like: sauce them or don't, just make sure you make these. They'll be a staple at your table in no time, too, I'm sure.
(Warning: the recipe below is in metric. It was originally published in an English newspaper. If you don't already own a kitchen scale (Salter is a great brand, for example), please consider adding one to your arsenal.)
Yotam Ottolenghi's Crisp Couscous and Saffron Cakes
Makes about 20 patties
Note: If you can't find barberries, substitute currants or raisins and soak them in lemon juice instead of the sugar syrup.
½ teaspoon saffron threads
275 grams couscous
30 grams barberries
4 tablespoons sugar
1 lemon (only if using currants or raisins instead of barberries)
140 grams plain whole milk yogurt
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
A handful fresh chives or fresh mint, chopped
100 grams feta, crumbled into small pieces
Salt and black pepper
About 4 tablespoons clarified butter or olive oil
1. Put the saffron in a large bowl and pour over 500 milliliters of boiling water. Leave to infuse for a few minutes, then add the couscous. Stir with a fork, cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let stand for 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, if using the barberries, put them and the sugar in a small saucepan. Add 120 milliliters of water, bring to a light simmer, stir to dissolve the sugar and remove from the heat. Once cool, drain the barberries and dry on kitchen paper. If using currants or raisins (see Note), put them in a bowl and cover them with the juice of one lemon.
3. Fluff up the couscous with a fork, then add the yogurt, eggs, chives or mint, feta, barberries or currants, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well and then shape into approximately 20 firm round patties about 1.5 centimeters (1 inch) thick.
4. Heat two tablespoons of clarified butter or oil in a large frying pan on medium-high heat. Lower the heat to medium and fry the patties in batches, adding more butter or oil as needed. Cook each batch for five minutes, turning once, until crisp and golden-brown. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel. Serve at once, while they're still warm.