If there’s one thing that is a certified truth for recipe writers, it’s that they will always underestimate time to hit the magic 30-minute time. If a recipe takes 35 minutes or even 40 minutes, it’ll be rounded down to be a 30-minute recipe. So, when I tell you that this Chicken Couscous recipe is a 20 MINUTE recipe, you can believe it.
I would have no reason to exaggerate by going under the classic 30-minute time. But, this is truly one of the fastest from-scratch dinners I can imagine.
Of course, there are some tricks on how to meet that time but none of it is hard and it will leave you with a really delicious supper that you can be proud to put on the table.
Let’s dive in and see why this recipe is rapidly climbing my list of fast weeknight dinner recipes!
Why I Love Couscous
Couscous is pasta, technically. It’s made from flour and water, but I think it feels like more of a grain while you are eating it. Nutritionally, it’s not true, but it feels somehow lighter than a bowl of spaghetti.
Especially in the summer days, I love the lightness of couscous and how it can be served with a wide variety of proteins and vegetables. You can make a salad out of it like my Couscous Tabbouleh or use it as a base for something like these Buddha Bowls!
Mostly though, I love couscous because it is very fast to make. You just bring water to a simmer (check your couscous for the exact ratio), season it with some fat (butter or olive oil) and a pinch of salt and then add your couscous. Turn off the heat and cover it and it’s done in five minutes. BOOM.
How to cook couscous
While you can substitute pearl couscous for this recipe, I prefer just the fast-cooking tiny couscous. Most boxes will give you basic cooking instructions but if you are smart, you can buy couscous in bulk for pennies and it stores well in your pantry for a while.
To cook it, bring water to a simmer on the stove. A good guide is 1.5 cups per cup of couscous. Once it is simmering, add some fat to the water (either a tablespoon of butter or olive oil) and a big pinch of kosher salt.
Add the couscous, whisking it into the water, and then kill the heat and cover it. After five minutes you can fluff the couscous with a fork and it’ll be perfect.
How to prepare the chicken cutlets
This probably isn’t a surprise but the key to making this dinner a 20 minute recipe (or honestly a 15 minute recipe) is to multi-task a bit.
The chicken is the biggest lift in the recipe so I like to get it started first.
If you start with whole chicken breasts, you’ll want to cut them down to cutlets by slicing through the chicken breast horizontally, making them much thinner and therefore cooking them faster. Two chicken breasts should get you four 4-5 ounce chicken cutlets.
If the chicken cutlets are more than 1/4-inch thick, you can pound them thinner or just cut them down a bit more with your knife, butterflying them open so they are thin.
Then add the cutlets to the flour mixture. I don’t bother even adding the cutlets to an egg or anything before adding them to the flour. Your goal here isn’t to create a thick fried-chicken crust, but to just lightly coat the chicken to give it some texture.
Then fry the chicken cutlets in a large skillet, in about 1/2 cup of olive oil, until they are golden brown and cooked through, 4-5 minutes per side.
Making the fresh tomato salad
While the chicken is cooking, chop up your fresh tomato salad. I keep this very simple but it’s important to have a light, fresh topping for this chicken.
A few roma tomatoes, some sliced red onion, cucumber, and a little crumbled feta is all you need. I don’t even dress this salad with more than a pinch of salt.
How to make an easy pan sauce
Honestly, this is a step you could skip if you want, but I have a hard time staring at a leftover skillet after pan-frying chicken and NOT making a pan sauce.
It’s very easy and takes just a minute or two. Pour off any extra oil and then put the skillet on low heat. Add some butter to it and keep in any bits from the chicken. Once the butter is whisked in, drizzle in the chicken stock and use it to scrape up any bits on the pan.
As the sauce simmers, it will thicken. Once it is a light sauce consistency, season it with lemon, salt, and pepper.
Serving the chicken couscous
If you’re doing it right, about 20 minutes after you start cooking, you are plating this chicken couscous dinner. Scoop some couscous onto each plate, top with some chicken cutlets and some pan sauce and then serve the tomato salad sprinkled around or on top.
Substitutions and ideas
I could create an entire series on just this chicken couscous idea. But here are some ideas.
- Amp up the flour mixture with other spices. Try turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili powder, or Italian seasoning.
- Skip the pan sauce and serve the chicken with a homemade pesto on top.
- Instead of chicken, try very thin pork cutlets or even crispy tofu. (My tutorial on crispy tofu)
Chicken Couscous with Tomato Salad
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 4 chicken cutlets, 4-5 ounces each
- ½ cup olive oil, for cooking
- 1 cup uncooked couscous
Quick Tomato Salad:
- 2 medium Roma tomatoes
- ¼ red onion, sliced thin
- 1 medium cucumber, sliced
- 2 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Quick Pan Sauce:
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 cup chicken stock
- ½ lemon, juice only
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Fresh parsley, garnish
- In a shallow dish, stir together flour, salt, paprika, garlic powder, and pepper. Make sure chicken cutlets are about 1/4-inch thick and add them to the dish. You can pound them thinner if you need to or butterfly them open slightly with a knife. Cover the cutlets well with the flour mixture. It shouldn't be a thick breading.
- In a small pot, cook couscous according to instructions.
- In a large skillet add olive oil over medium-high heat. Once shimmering hot, add chicken cutlets and pan-fry for 4-5 minutes per side until chicken is lightly browned and cooked through. Remove chicken from pan.
- While chicken cooks, you can toss together the quick tomato salad.
- After you remove chicken from the skillet, pour off any excess oil, leaving whatever flour bits are in the skillet. Add butter and turn heat down to low. Whisk in chicken stock and stir until smooth. Continue to cook until thickened into a light pan sauce, 1-2 minutes. Season with lemon juice and salt and pepper.
- Plate the dish by dividing the couscous, topping with chicken cutlet and pan sauce, and then adding the tomato salad to the top or on the side of the cutlet. Serve immediately.