Mushrooms and Couscous

3 Jul

I first had this dish in a “wymyn friendly” cafe in Observatory, Cape Town. The place was a little intimidating (identifying as I do as a woman 😉 ) but the cooking was outstanding. Unfortunately, it closed down because the chef and the front of house manager were partners, and when they ended, the cafe ended. But while it was operational, I ate here on a regular basis to have this meal. Its charm is in its simplicity and clarity, and yet its attention to colour, texture and taste. Its an easy meal to make, but incredibly satisfying for a vegetarian, and a vegan too if you substitute olive oil for butter, and leave out the parmesan.

I made this for MZ one evening when everyone was exhausted and tired. It was so comforting, you could feel the mood around the table change. It was good.

The other thing I love about this is that is so easy to adapt – you can make it for yourself, or you can serve it on a platter, with the golden fluffy couscous, and the beautiful steaming mushrooms arranged in generous synchronicity. Such pleasure.

I usually make this for 4 – 6 people but feel free to double or halve or even quarter!


  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 white onion, minced
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil or 1 tbsp fresh basil, minced
  • 500 g box of couscous
  • 1 1/4 cups of boiling salted water or vegetable stock (see note)
  • Couple tablespoons of butter or olive oil
  • Salt

First, pour out your couscous and measure the number of cups. Most boxes of couscous can vary by up to half a cup of couscous, though you should get about 2 1/2 cups of couscous in a 500 g box. You will want exactly half the amount of couscous, for your boiling water or stock. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, over medium heat, soften the onion and garlic in the olive oil. When soft and glossy, add basil and a little salt and mix well. Take off heat, and add the couscous. Mix well so that the onion is completely combined with the couscous.

Pour over boiling salted water or vegetable stock, and immediately cover for 5 – 1o minutes, until the water is completely absorbed into the couscous.

Using a fork, fluff the couscous, adding small slithers of butter or a glug of olive oil and tasting for salt. Set aside, covered until ready to serve.


  • 3 -4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 white onion, minced
  • 2 – 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 – 3 cups mixed mushrooms (portobello, white, Swiss brown), peeled and roughly chopped (you want large pieces)
  • 1 – 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp butter
  • 2 – 3 tbsp dijon mustard
  • 1/4 cup red wine
  • 1/4 cup water or veegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup half and half (very optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Handful of baby spinach + handful of fresh basil

In a large frying pan, over medium heat, soften onion and garlic, and season with a little bit of salt and pepper. When the onions are glassy, turn heat up to high, and add mushrooms in batches of 1 cup each. You want them to sear a bit, and burn a bit before releasing their juices. Stir well, and continue moving the mushrooms about the pan.

When all the mushrooms have been added to the pan, add the balsamic and soy sauce all at once. This will quickly steam in the pan, caramelising some bits of the mushrooms, but also encouraging them to release their juices. As the liquids begin to come out of the mushrooms, do not stir. Add a few slivers of butter over the mushrooms and allow the heat and steam to melt the butter into the mushrooms. This will do two things: it will flavour the mushrooms, and bring out their incredibly rich and meaty taste, but it will also thicken and encourage the sauce that is being created from their juices. The alchemy of heat and ingredients!

Add the dijon, wine, water and half and half (if using) and mix extremely well. Taste for seasoning and adjust. Allow to boil down by about half, but ensure you still have some liquid at the bottom of the pan. Set aside until ready to serve, or serve immediately.

Just before serving, reheat gently, and add a handful of baby spinach, and a handful of fresh basil to the pan, stirring to wilt.


To serve this dish you will need:

  • Couscous
  • Mushrooms
  • About half a cup of toasted pine nuts
  • Another handful of fresh basil or Italian parsley, chopped roughly
  • Thin slices / shards of old parmesan (optional)

On a beautiful serving platter, arrange the couscous so there is a small well or dip in the middle. Mound the mushroom mixture into the well, and pour sauce over the sides, so you soak the couscous, but still allow its fluffy goldenness to shine through. Sprinkle the pine nuts over, and then the basil or parsley. Finally top with shards of parmesan if using.


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