Healthy Cooking: A pot of couscous is 5 minutes away from festive

As someone who is stridently pro-vegetable, I find it relatively easy to eat healthfully 11 months of the year. But December, ah, December is 31 days of my own epicurean Rumspringa. Toothpicks pass as cutlery. Homemade ricotta gives way to Ro-Tel dip. Saturated fat bombs? Yes, please — and I’ll take some extra for the road, thanks. So what protects my arteries, and my waistline, from sustaining permanent damage? A firm Jan. 1 deadline for returning to culinary sanity, and couscous.

Couscous is a light, low-fat, buttery-tasting grain that works double-time as a main or a side dish. It’s full of fiber and is a plant-based protein, with trace amounts of sodium. Best of all, couscous is crazy-easy to prepare. The basic recipe goes like this: Heat water or broth. Add grains. Drink nog for 5 minutes as they cook. Fluff grains with a fork and serve to wild acclaim. I promise, if you can bring a pot to a boil, you can make couscous.

Because couscous is ready in 300 seconds, it can be your go-to nutritious nosh after a holiday happy hour, your healthy contribution to the work potluck and a peace offering to your vegan daughter-in-law who judges your bacon-wrapped everything. Personally, I eat couscous in between high-calorie events for the same reason I drink club soda in between cocktails. It tastes like an indulgence, but I have fewer regrets the next morning.

You can enjoy the sunshine-yellow grain as is. Or, if you have a few extra minutes, add a saute of festive flavors. Here I’ve given you a recipe for a Moroccan-themed dish, but take the ingredient list as merely a suggestion. If pine nuts and apricots aren’t your favorites, try almonds and pomegranates. (Pro tip: Toast the nuts in a dry skillet to enhance their flavors.) Or go in a completely different direction by dressing your couscous in basil, tomato and feta. If you have leftover shrimp or rotisserie chicken hanging out in your refrigerator, add that, too.

Couscous plays well with everyone. Unless, that is, you’re gluten-free. Couscous is made from wheat flour, making it a close cousin to pasta and a poster child for gluten-rich revelry. Apologies to my GF friends — I suggest you look into millet for the same easy grain goodness.

You can find boxes of couscous next to the rice in your usual grocery store. It’s also a frequent visitor in the bulk foods section, but be sure to check the price. At my preferred store, the bulk couscous costs more per pound than the boxed variety. Which is the sort of realization that blows my mind, and also makes me think I need to spend more time socializing at parties and less time with my calculator in the bulk foods section.

This recipe uses regular ol’ couscous, but you may substitute Israeli couscous, which occasionally travels incognito in packages labeled “pearl couscous” or “Jerusalem couscous.” You’ll need to simmer your Israeli couscous in broth for about 10 minutes on the stovetop, but you’ll be rewarded with happy, round pasta that bursts like chewy Champagne bubbles. You could even go wild and try both varieties. You’ll see, couscous is the perfect “plus 1” for this month’s food-a-palooza.

Couscous with Dried Fruits & Pine Nuts

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

1 1/2 cups couscous

3 teaspoons olive oil, divided

1/2 cup pine nuts

1 large yellow onion, diced

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup dried apricots, quartered

2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Bring the vegetable broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the couscous and 1 teaspoon olive oil. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and remove from the heat. Allow to rest for at least 5 minutes.

In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the pine nuts, stirring frequently, until browned, 3-4 minutes. Set the pine nuts aside. Wipe out the skillet and add the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil. Increase the heat to medium-high and saute the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, raisins and apricots and cook 1 minute longer.

Use a fork to fluff the couscous, and then gently fold in the onion mixture, pine nuts, cilantro, mint and lemon juice. Taste, adding more herbs if desired. Serve warm or room temperature. Serves 6-8.

Per serving, based on 6: 342 calories (percent of calories from fat, 22), 13 grams protein, 56 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams fiber, 8 grams fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 183 milligrams sodium.

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