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Skye McAlpine of From My Dining Table is sharing advice, recipes, and menus that make it possible—and enjoyable—to entertain large groups of hungry guests. For even more tips on entertaining, join our Burnt Dinner Brigade.
Today, why couscous is the most reliable dinner party side—and three menus where it works perfectly.
Couscous is my new favorite thing—and I say that with only a hint of hyperbole. Maybe it’s because it’s summer and I’m all about eating light salads and fresh salad-y dishes. But mostly because it’s a side dish that calls for no space in the oven and takes all of five minutes to cook. You can dress it up as you like—raisins, spices and slivered almonds in the winter, or fresh chunks of grilled zucchini and fresh mint leaves in the summer. You name it and I bet it tastes good tossed in with couscous and a drizzle of olive oil.
This love affair with couscous began with a dinner. It’s a long story, and I won’t bore you with the ins and the outs of it now, but essentially, we started with a plan for a dinner for six that somehow morphed into a dinner for nine. There was no more space in my oven: two ducks roasting in there already, as well as a tray of ruby red plums. So, I turned to couscous. I tossed it in a bowl, covered the grains with freshly boiled water, and that was pretty much it. Then I dressed it up with a few slices of roasted lemon, a couple of chunks of fennel, and a handful of fresh mint. I doused it all in olive oil and sprinkled with salt. I can’t tell you how good it was—a simple but satisfying accompaniment to any dinner. It's now my go-to solution to all manner of dinner party dilemmas.
3 Simple Menus Where Couscous Works Perfectly as a Side Dish
1. A summery lunch
- Barbecued Mussels with White Wine and Parsley
- Gratin Baked Tomatoes
- Couscous, Fennel, Mint and Roasted Lemon Salad
- Almond Ice with Glazed Cherries
Tips and Timing
- Days ahead of time, make the almond ice and cherries well ahead of time (the ice will keep in the freezer)
- The day before, clean and prep the mussels so that they are all ready to be cooked
- In the morning, prepare the tomatoes for the gratin by parbaking them for 30 minutes
- The day of, make the couscous salad and set the table
- Right before the party, cook the mussels and brown the tomatoes in the oven
- When everyone has finished eating their main course, spoon the almond ice into bowls and serve with the cherry syrup
2. An autumn dinner
- Crispy Roast Duck with Braised Grapes
- Couscous salad, made with a few raisins, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and mixed spice (I add the raisins and ground spices to the grains of couscous, then pour over the boiling water and let it all steep together before fluffing with a fork and drizzling with a little oil and salt)
- Apple and Beetroot Salad
- Sweet Plum and Amaretto Pie
Tips and Timing
- The night before, make the plum tart; if you would like to serve it hot from the oven, prep it ahead of time, but don't bake it—cover with plastic wrap and store in the fridge and then, when you take the duck out of the oven, put in the pie so that it can bake while you eat dinner
- The day of the dinner, prep the duck and put it in the oven to roast
- While the duck is roasting, make the beetroot and couscous salads
- Set the table and put the grapes in a roasting tray all ready to go
- Fifteen minutes before sitting down to table, put the grapes in the oven to roast gently
3. A simple make-ahead lunch
- Cherry Tomato, Oregano, and Balsamic Tarte Tartin
- Mozzarella, sliced in chunks and drizzled with olive oil and sprigs of basil
- Couscous, Fennel, Mint, and Roasted Lemon Salad
- Frozen Summer Berries with Saffron Scented White Chocolate Sauce
Tips and Timing
- The night before or the morning of the dinner, make the couscous salad and the tarte tatin
- For the dessert, toss the cream, saffron, and white chocolate into a saucepan and set it aside; when you are ready to serve dessert, just warm it gently to melt thechocolate before pouring the sauce into a jug and serving it at table
- Set the table with breads, the mozzarella, the tart, and the salad
Serves 6 to 8
240 milliliters water
180 grams couscous
1 bulb of fennel
1 bunch fresh mint
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
Photos by Skye McAlpine