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 – often labeled “Moroccan couscous” – is a favorite 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 or Israeli) because it quickly steams in boiling water.

Too often, however, it left me just a little let down in the flavor 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 flavor with very little effort.

To toast couscous, you put a little oil in a hot skillet, add the couscous and stir and toss it until it turns a light tan. This step, which takes about 5 minutes, gives the mild-mannered couscous a nutty flavor and – as a bonus – fills the kitchen with fragrance, too.

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 flavor 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” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2021). 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 favorite smoked fish. I love using easy-to-find canned smoked trout in oil, but use your favorite smoked fish, such as trout, mackerel (be sure to check for small pin bones, if you do!) 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 flavorful 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.

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Couscous Salad With Smoked Trout and Pepperoncini

25 minutes

4 to 6 servings

Tossing the still-warm, toasted couscous with a garlicky, briny dressing helps it absorb more flavor, making it a fine complement to rich, smoked fish, such as trout, mackerel or salmon. While the couscous is cooking, make the dressing. As it cools, prepare the rest of the ingredients, so that the whole salad comes together in about 25 minutes. Don’t like smoked fish? Top the salad with canned salmon or tuna.

Storage Notes: Store leftover trout and couscous separately in airtight containers for up to 3 days.

NOTES: You may use fish packed in oil or water. You may remove the skin or not. Some smoked trout and mackerel may come with pin bones, so check before flaking it into pieces.

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


1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more as needed

1 1/2 cups couscous (see NOTES)

2 cups water

1/4 teaspoon fine sea or table salt, plus more as needed

1 cup pepperoncini (about 5 ounces), stemmed and sliced into thin rings, plus 3 tablespoons brine

2 cloves garlic, finely grated or minced

8 ounces cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1/2 cup fresh parsley or cilantro leaves

3 scallions, thinly sliced

Black pepper

8 ounces smoked salmon or trout or mackerel, skin and pin bones removed (See NOTES)

Lemon or lime wedges, for serving


In a medium skillet over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the couscous and cook, stirring frequently, until the grains begin to brown, about 5 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 7 minutes. Uncover and fluff the couscous with a fork.

While the couscous cools, in a large serving bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/3 cup of 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 (see NOTES).

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.

Nutrition per serving (1 cup), based on 6 | Calories: 354; Total Fat: 17 g; Saturated Fat: 3 g; Cholesterol: 9 mg; Sodium: 653 mg; Carbohydrates: 39 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 13 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.

From Adapted from “The Complete Salad Cookbook” (America’s Test Kitchen, 2021).

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