The hierarchy of grainy side dishes

This may be one of the most important things you read today.

It’s a conundrum that every cook must think about. Which grainy side dishes are best? Which are worst?

Wait no longer, my friends. The List has arrived.

1. Israeli couscous

Israeli couscous
Israeli couscous (pictured here: the Stoplight Couscous recipe I invented). Photo courtesy of Lia Lehrer’s kitchen

This is by far the best of all of the grainy side dishes. Israeli couscous is big and pearly, where you can almost eat each individual “cou” on its own (I assume that’s the singular of “couscous”). It’s a little chewy and tastes good hot or cold. But be warned: DO NOT confuse this with REGULAR couscous — that, as you’ll see, is clearly inferior. BONUS: Above is the picture of the recipe I invented: “Stoplight Couscous” involves Israeli couscous and sauteed red peppers, yellow peppers, and broccoli.

2. Orzo


Before I met my current favorite (Israeli couscous), orzo was my first love. Orzo looks like rice and tastes like pasta, which is truly the best of both worlds. Add a little butter, margarine, or olive oil and it becomes slippery and heavenly. It serves as a great sidekick to breaded chicken or stir fry or as a side dish of its own. I will often have plain orzo serve as a side dish in itself, or I’ll add sauteed broccoli, celery, and onions.

3. Rice


Rice is, of course, a standard. Sticky or buttery, brown or white, it’s good in all varieties. It doesn’t excite me the way Israeli couscous and orzo do, but it’s like that distant cousin who you don’t see very often, but is reliable and dependable and you’re glad she’s in your family.

4. Regular couscous

Regular (not Israeli) couscous
Regular (not Israeli) couscous

A friend once told me that the reason he doesn’t make Israeli couscous is because the round couscous balls easily roll around — before and after they are cooked — and create a general mess in the kitchen. Well, if you’re looking to make couscous but not looking to make a mess, then this is for you. This is a good grainy side dish, but it’s not that interesting on its own — you really have to add some spices or other vegetables to make it interesting. Or buy the yellow kind and at least then it will add some color to your dish (and then, as dad suggests, if you can’t make Stoplight Couscous, at least you can make “Yield Sign Couscous”). But be warned: This is DIFFERENT from Israeli couscous, and, in my opinion, INFERIOR. So if you know what’s best for you, you’ll just buy the Israeli kind and just make everyone happier.

5. Quinoa


Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a great dish to bring to a vegetarian potluck dinner; but to me, when I’m eating it, I’m secretly wishing that I’m eating orzo or rice instead. It’s fine (AND it has protein); but it just doesn’t have the same softness that the other sides on my list have. BUT — quinoa does serve one very important function, and that is serving as the only thing on this list that can be eaten during Passover. During Passover, quinoa is king — make it as often as you like. But then as soon as the holiday ends — I’m going to heat up the water for some Stoplight Couscous.

6. Risotto


I don’t really understand risotto. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone make it at home, and I rarely see it on menus. What is it? Is it just watery, undercooked rice?? Is it good? Does anyone out there crave risotto over these other dishes?

How would you rank your favorite grainy side dishes? Am I missing any?


4 thoughts on “The hierarchy of grainy side dishes

  1. I agree with you that Israeli couscous is so much fun! You can actually make it yellow like little couscous by just adding some turmeric to the boiling water 🙂 Also, risotto can be super delicious. It’s usually an Italian dish. Thick and creamy.

    • I’ll try the turmeric idea, Beth. You can also make the Israeli couscous light brown by stirring it in a little hot oil (just a few minutes) until it starts to brown.

  2. Remind me to make you a great risotto next time I’m here. For the record, I’ll always take pasta over risotto, but it can be phenomenal. Watery? Never– I don’t know whose risotto you’ve been eating!

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