Go soak your grains

Couscous With Beets, Greens and Garlic Yogurt.
Couscous With Beets, Greens and Garlic Yogurt.

If you can't cook, soak. That's what I've started doing when I want to prepare grains without raising the temperature — the stove's, the kitchen's or mine.

It's not a new idea. The technique goes back to traditional preparations for that classic Middle Eastern parsley-and-bulgur salad, tabbouleh. Rather than boil water and pour it over the bulgur (parcooked cracked wheat), traditionalists such as the eminent Claudia Roden call for the grain to be soaked for a longer time in cold water, then squeezed dry so it can absorb the salad's other flavors.

I didn't have to make tabbouleh — as much as I love it — to realize the benefits of such a technique when concocting other warm-weather, grain-based dishes.

For instance, couldn't I apply the same idea to another quick-to-cook "grain" (really a pasta), instant couscous? I used to start preparing it the same way as bulgur, by putting a teakettle on to boil, but no more. It soaks up cool water in less than an hour, while the bulgur — the coarse variety, anyway — soaks in about 90 minutes.

The best thing about this way of doing things, besides the no-heat benefit, is that you can combine grains with water (or vegetable broth, for more flavor), cover them and refrigerate them overnight — or all day. When I use a 1:1 ratio of grain to water, the grains soak up what they need and then stay put, not becoming soggy as they sit longer. That means they're pretty much ready when you are, just the thing when you're trying to keep the cooking as flexible and off-the-cuff as you can.

I've been using my soaked bulgur and couscous interchangeably, putting them to good use in two dishes: beets and their greens dolloped with garlicky yogurt, and a cold vegetable-and-chickpea salad doused with a sesame-miso dressing.

In case you're wondering, this soak-instead-of-cook idea isn't something you can do with just any old grain. Many of the bigger/tougher ones — barley, rice, farro and the like — will start to ferment and/or sprout long before they are tender enough to eat raw, so those require cooking.

As it happens, there's plenty of evidence that pre-soaking improves the digestibility and cooking of whole grains. But that's a topic for another column — and for a time when I'm not afraid to turn on the stove again.

(c) 2014, The Washington Post.

Couscous With Beets, Greens and Garlic Yogurt

4 servings

Grains transform a Greek mezze of beets and their greens into a main-course plate, topped with garlicky yogurt.

Here, the couscous is soaked in cold water and the greens are simply massaged. Store-bought roasted and peeled beets are used (to keep the oven turned off), and the dish is served at room temperature. But you can certainly cook the couscous (or any other grain) by more traditional methods, saute the greens and cook your own beets; serve that version warm.

MAKE AHEAD: The couscous needs at least 45 minutes to absorb the vegetable broth and can soak overnight in the refrigerator, where it can keep for up to 3 days. The massaged greens can be refrigerated for up to 4 or 5 days; don't add the lemon juice until just before serving.

Based on a recipe by Martha Rose Shulman in "The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking" (Rodale, 2014).


1 cup whole-wheat couscous (may substitute coarse bulgur)

1 cup no-salt-added or homemade vegetable broth or water

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 bunches Swiss chard, beet greens or a combination (about 12 ounces)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint leaves, dill or parsley leaves, or a combination

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste

1 cup whole-milk Greek-style yogurt (may substitute low-fat or nonfat)

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 pound cooked and peeled beets, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts, for garnish


Combine the couscous, broth or water and a teaspoon of the oil in a medium bowl. Cover and let sit for at least 45 minutes at room temperature, or refrigerate overnight. (If using coarse bulgur, it will be ready after about 90 minutes and can also refrigerate overnight.) When ready to serve, fluff the couscous with a fork.

Strip the greens from their stems; discard the stems or reserve for another use. Rinse and dry the leaves thoroughly, then thinly slice them, transferring them to a mixing bowl as you work.

Pick up the greens by the fistful and squeeze/massage them, repeating until you work your way through the bowlful. Repeat until they turn darker green and silky, a few minutes. Toss them with 1 tablespoon of the chopped herbs, the remaining tablespoon of oil, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper and the lemon juice. Taste, and add lemon juice if needed.

Whisk together the yogurt, garlic and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper in a medium bowl.

Toss the beets with the remaining tablespoon of chopped herbs.

Divide the couscous among individual bowls or plates. Top each portion with, in the following order, the greens, the beets, dollops of the yogurt mixture and a sprinkling of walnuts. Serve right away.

Nutrition Per serving: 310 calories, 14 g protein, 53 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 510 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar


Bulgur, Vegetable and Watercress Salad

6 servings

This cool, refreshing grain-based salad, enlivened with a sesame-miso dressing, comes together quickly — and without heating up your kitchen.

MAKE AHEAD: The bulgur needs at least 90 minutes to absorb the broth or water and can be refrigerated overnight. The salad can be refrigerated, without the dressing or the avocado, for up to 5 days. Dress the salad and add the avocado just before serving. The sesame-miso dressing can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

From Post Food editor Joe Yonan, author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook" (Ten Speed Press, 2013).


1 cup coarse bulgur (may substitute whole-wheat couscous)

1 cup no-salt-added or homemade vegetable broth or water

3 cups no-salt-added, cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 medium cucumber, peeled and cut into small dice

1/2 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, each cut in half

1 scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon white miso paste

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

1/4 cup unseasoned rice vinegar

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon honey

2 cups fresh watercress leaves

Flesh of 1 avocado, cut into cubes


Combine the bulgur and broth or water in a medium bowl. Cover and let sit for at least 90 minutes at room temperature, or refrigerate overnight. (If using whole-wheat couscous, it will be ready after about 45 minutes but can also refrigerate overnight.) When ready to serve, fluff the bulgur with a fork. Add the chickpeas, cucumber, tomatoes and scallion, and toss to incorporate.

Whisk together the miso, sesame oil, vinegar, vegetable oil and honey in a medium bowl. Pour all but 2 tablespoons over the bulgur mixture and toss to incorporate.

Divide the watercress leaves among salad plates or bowls. Drizzle with the remaining dressing. Mound some of the bulgur mixture on top of each portion, add the avocado and serve.

Nutrition Per serving: 380 calories, 12 g protein, 50 g carbohydrates, 17 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 13 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar

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