Everyone remembers a budget food that sustained them during college. Studying in Paris, I found the glories of French gastronomy beyond my meager budget so I nourished my body and soul at the numerous Tunisian and Algerian restaurants. There, a small sum would purchase mountains of a North African staple called couscous.

Paula Wolfert, author of "Couscous and Other Good Foods from Morocco" (Perennial Library, 1987), explains that "couscous is the name both of a grain product and a cooking method." When people speak of the former, they are preferring to a sort of pasta made from durham wheat (semolina) and water. Instead of being rolled out or extruded to form noodles, the dough is rubbed through a sieve to make tiny pellets. Wolfert believes the word couscous is onomatopoeic for the sound of the pellets hitting the water.

As for the latter, it is an ingenious cooking method whereby some sort of grain product is cooked in a steamer over a pot of bubbling liquid. The grain product can be pasta pellets, barley grits, cornmeal or even bread crumbs. The simmering liquid can be water, broth, or a meat or vegetable stew.

There are many advantages to this system. Steaming is relatively forgiving, so one needn't worry about precise cooking times. The grain can be prepared ahead and steamed one final time at the last minute. When broth or stew is used for steaming, it imparts a delicious flavor to the grain. And like pasta, couscous can accommodate an almost endless variety of sauces.

Couscous is popular throughout Northern Africa, where, according to Wolfert, it has been eaten since Roman times. Moroccan couscous is the mildest, lightest and fluffiest. Algerian couscous is firmer and denser; it is often served with a fiery condiment called harissa. Couscous turns up in Sicily, where it is prepared with seafood, and in Tunisia, where it can be garnished with pomegranates and orange flower water for desert. Brazilians have several types of cuzcuz, including a sort of molded steamed pudding made with cornmeal and chicken.

Not surprisingly, there are many methods for cooking couscous. Wolfert favors a lengthy process of soaking and steaming the couscous three separate times to swell the grains seven times their original volume. What results is a couscous with the ethereal lightness of a souffle'.

At La Couscoussiere, an Algerian restaurant in Paris, the grain is rubbed with oil, rinsed with water and steamed only twice, with liberal buttering between steamings. The resulting couscous is harder and more compact; each individual grain is tasted when you take a bite.

Other authorities, like Faye Levy, author of "Sensational Pasta" (HP Books, 1988), call for a quick cooking method, wherein the couscous is covered with boiling water, then allowed to stand, covered, for five minutes. This produces a slightly heavier couscous, but its convenience makes up for its diminished finesse.

All three methods have been successful for me: Wolfert's particularly when it is destined to be a dinner party centerpiece, Levy's when the couscous is to be served as a starch accompaniment to an everyday meal.

When buying couscous, look for a brand that is made from pure semolina (hard durham wheat). Couscous made with regular flour has the same disadvantages as non-durham wheat pasta: it becomes mushy during cooking. Paula Wolfert recommends buying couscous in bulk from a Middle Eastern grocery store or health food market. My local health food supermarket sells a whole-wheat couscous that has a wonderful flavor and extra nutrients to boot.

The countries of North Africa have developed a special vessel called a couscoussiere, a tall, barrel-shaped pot into which fits a deep steamer. But for cooking couscous the Moroccan way, any deep pot with a tightly fitting steamer will work. Place a moistened strip of cheesecloth or paper towel between the pot and the steamer to ensure a tight seal.

Here are some recipes for enjoying this healthful grain-like pasta.

COUSCOUS (Quick Method) (4 servings)

This is the quickest, easiest way to make couscous, and if the individual grains aren't quite as light as when steamed, the overall convenience of this mode of preparation makes up for it.

1 small onion (3 tablespoons minced)

2 tablespoons butter, plus 1 tablespoon for fluffing

3 tablespoons currants

1 cup couscous

1 1/2 cups water or chicken stock

Mince the onion. Melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat in a heavy saucepan. Add the onion and currants and cook for 2 minutes, or until the onion is soft but not brown.

Add the couscous and cook for 1 minute or until lightly toasted. Stir in 1 1/2 cups water or stock and bring to a boil. Cover the pan, remove from the heat, and let stand for 5 minutes. Add the remaining tablespoon butter and fluff the couscous with a fork. Serve at once.

Per serving: 282 calories, 7 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 23 mg cholesterol, 93 mg sodium.

COUSCOUS (The Traditional Method) (10 servings)

This recipe comes from "Paula Wolfert's World of Food" (Harper and Row, 1988). According to Wolfert, the milk helps bring out the sweetness and flavor of the couscous.

1 pound (2 1/2 cups) couscous

2 cups milk

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups cold water

Start the morning of the day you plan to serve the dish. Put the couscous in a strainer and rinse it under cold running water until the grains are thoroughly soaked. Spread out the couscous in a roasting pan or wide tub and let dry for 10 minutes. Then rake the couscous with your fingers, lifting and sifting gently, to break up any lumps.

In the bottom of a couscoussiere or in a stockpot, bring plenty of salted water to a boil over high heat. Set the steamer top or a colander over the boiling water; it should fit snuggly. (To insure a tight fit, wrap the base of the steamer with a dampened strip of cheesecloth or paper towel.) Add one-quarter of the couscous and steam it uncovered for 2 minutes, or until hot and moist. Add the remaining couscous and steam it uncovered for 20 minutes. Dump all the couscous into the roasting pan; remove the couscoussiere from the heat, but leave the water in.

Spread out the couscous, using a long-pronged fork. Toss and break up and lumps while you gradually sprinkle on 1 cup of the milk and salt and pepper. Continue stirring and sifting the grains with your fingers to break up any lumps while you sprinkle on the remaining 1 cup of milk. Let the couscous stand, tossing it occasionally and raking to break up lumps, until it is no longer tacky to the touch, 1 to 2 hours.

Return the couscous to the couscoussiere or colander and steam it uncovered for 20 minutes. Dump it back into the roasting pan and gradually rake in 2 cups of cold water. Smooth it evenly and let it dry again, tossing occasionally. (The couscous can be prepared to this point up to 6 hours in advance. Cover it with a kitchen towel and set it aside at room temperature.)

Meanwhile, wet your hands and toss and sift through the couscous again to break up any lumps. Return it to the couscoussiere and steam uncovered for 20 minutes.

Note: The third steaming can be done over chicken or meat broth or over one of the stews below. The holes of the steamer should be well above the simmering liquid. This couscous may seem softer than the way you're used to eating it. "Couscous is not supposed to be al dente," says Wolfert.

Per serving: 201 calories, 7 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 28 mg sodium.

LAMB AND WINTER VEGETABLE STEW (For Couscous) (6 servings)

This earthy stew of lamb and root vegetables makes an excellent winter couscous. To make a vegetarian version of the dish, omit the lamb and use more root vegetables.

1 pound lamb (leg or shoulder)

1 medium onion

1 clove garlic

1 inch fresh ginger root

1/2 pound celeriac

1/2 pound turnips

1/2 pound carrots

1/2 pound Jerusalem artichokes

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon saffron

4 cups chicken stock, veal stock, or water

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/2 cup cooked chick peas

1 small jar harissa* for serving (optional)

Trim the fat and sinew off the lamb and cut the meat into 1-inch pieces. Finely chop the onion. Mince the garlic and ginger. Peel the celeriac, turnips, carrots and Jerusalem artichokes and cut each into 1/2-inch dice.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute' pan. Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper and brown it on all sides over high heat, working in several batches to keep from crowding the pan. Transfer the lamb to a platter with a slotted spoon. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat. Add the onion, garlic and ginger, and cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, or until soft but not brown.

Return the lamb to pan and add the spices and stock. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and gently simmer the lamb for 20 minutes. Add the root vegetables, raisins and chick peas and continue cooking for 20 minutes, or until the lamb and vegetables are tender. Correct the seasoning. The stew can be prepared up to 48 hours ahead to this stage and reheated.

To serve, mound the couscous on a platter or plates and spoon the hot stew on top. If you like your food spicy, dissolve a teaspoon or so of harissa* in a ladleful of broth and spoon it over the couscous.

*Harissa is a fiery chili paste available in gourmet shops and Middle Eastern grocery stores. If unavailable, substitute sambal ulek (Indonesian chili paste) or Vietnamese chili paste.

Per serving: 345 calories, 27 gm protein, 30 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 5 gm saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 640 mg sodium.

CHICKEN WITH EGGPLANT (For Serving With Couscous) (4 servings)

In this easy, Mediterranean-style entree, chicken is braised with tomatoes, onion and eggplant. The cooking juices enhance the couscous. The recipe comes from Faye Levy's new book "Fresh From France: Dinner Inspirations" (E.P. Dutton, 1989).

3 1/2 pound chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces (or 3 pounds chicken parts)

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil

1 large onion, cut in thin slices

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 small eggplant, peeled and diced

3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, or 1/4 teaspoon dried

1 cup chicken stock

Season chicken lightly with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a very large, deep skillet or saute' pan. Add chicken in several batches and brown lightly on all sides. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a platter.

Add the onion and cook over low heat until soft but not brown. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds. Stir in eggplant, then tomatoes, then the bay leaf and thyme. Cook 2 or 3 minutes, stirring often.

Return the chicken to pan and add stock. Cover and simmer over low heat 30 to 35 minutes, or until tender. (Chicken can be kept, covered, 1 day in refrigerator.) Before serving remove the bay leaf and thyme sprig.

To serve, spoon couscous onto center of a large platter. Arrange chicken and eggplant on top and moisten with sauce. If a spicier couscous is desired, dissolve a teaspoon or so of harissa* in a ladleful of the broth and spoon it over the couscous.

*Harissa is a fiery chili paste available in gourmet shops and Middle Eastern grocery stores. If unavailable, substitute sambal ulek (Indonesian chili paste) or Vietnamese chili paste.

Per serving: 522 calories, 61 gm protein, 9 gm carbohydrates, 26 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 168 mg cholesterol, 346 mg sodium.

Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.