Let’s take a moment to reflect on couscous, shall we? My family, as I recall, seems to have discovered couscous some time part of the way through my tenure in high school. I don’t know how my mother stumbled on it or decided to purchase it, all I remember is that she served it for the first time for supper one day (alongside pork tenderloin and acorn squash if my memory serves me correctly, which it tends to when it comes to meals), and it felt like the epitome of novelty.
I was certain we were eating something flashy, exotic, new, the food equivalent of getting the first version of the iphone, right when it came out. And this fit in lockstep with my budding epicurean ideals – which back in high school, I’ll admit, were more about the appearance of sophistication and taste than anything else. High school. Jeez.
Back then we just ate the Middle East brand couscous with the spice packet mixed in. That was fancy enough for us. (to extend the iphone metaphor: my phone gets internet!!! Oh my gosh! It totally doesn’t matter that it can’t seem to actually make phone calls most of the time…) But, as couscous has completely mainstreamed, I think most of us have come to expect a little more in the preparation of this tiny noodle.
Regarding that, couscous really is a type of pasta. I find this befuddling when I think of regular couscous with its tiny grain like shape. How do they make those?! What kind of minute elves do they have rolling them?
Israeli couscous, with its pearl sized beads, makes more sense to me. It looks like something I could have made myself – in a nonedible, colorful version – back in my Sculpey clay jewelry days (days that preceded the high school epicurean ones by, oh, only a third of a decade or so).
I like both varieties of couscous, but I find I often prefer the heartier, satisfying feel of the larger Israeli couscous between my teeth. And, no matter what, I always like my couscous ditted and dotted with loads of colorful vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices. Like the savory, veggie studded side dish answer to a funfetti cake.
The combinations I use vary every time, though given the Middle Eastern origins of couscous, they most frequently tend toward the flavors of that part of the world. This one, however, is a little Latin American-ish because I made it for a dinner party (the self same one at which I served the parsnip and leek soup) to pair with braised shortribs that had a heap of chile powder in them. Why I chose to make couscous as the side dish, I cannot say, but Latin American Middle Eastern fusion can work, right? It actually did, I’d say. At least, very nearly everyone asked for the recipe.
In keeping with the season, I roasted up cubes of sweet golden butternut squash to toss in, as I often do with pasta at this time of year. Then, my mind spinning between salsa verde, cilantro oil, pesto, and a number of other herb-y sauces, I found myself whizzing together a bundle of cilantro with garlic, some musky, citrusy cumin and coriander, tangy lemon juice (lime would also work), and a long slow drizzle of olive oil to emulsify it into a slick, fragrant emerald green sauce.
Toast the couscous before you add hot water, and you’ll find that you coax out a light nutty that is a wonderful backdrop for all these flavors. The tiny spheres become tender, but chewy, and are deliciously cloaked by the sauce. The roasted squash is also tender and caramelized, and if you throw in some finely chopped preserved lemon you’ll welcome its contrasting intense brined floral and citrus flavor. For a contrast in texture, add whatever type of toasted nut you like or some crunchy toasted chickpeas (drain and dry some canned chickpeas, toss them with olive oil and salt and roast on a baking sheet until crunchy, around 30 minutes).
This could be a meal in and of itself, particularly if accompanied by a nice salad. But, it also makes a very tasty side dish for, oh, say, chile braised shortribs, for example. Or, serve it with really almost any protein prepared simply or with some similar warm, musky flavors. It may no longer seem exotic and new, but it still suits my epicurean ideals just fine.
Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash and Cilantro Sauce (serves 4)
- 1/2 large butternut squash (or a whole smallish one), peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 2 small garlic cloves, peeled and coarsely chopped
- 4 cups of loosely packed cilantro leaves
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- juice of 1/2 a lemon
- 3-4 Tbs. olive oil
- 6 oz. plain Israeli couscous (also know as pearled couscous or fregola sarda)
- 2 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1/2 cup toasted nuts of your choice (or toasted chickpeas)
- 1 Tbs. finely chopped preserved lemon (optional)
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Heat your oven to 425F. Toss the butternut squash cubes with a big drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Spread them on a rimmed baking pan and roast in the oven until tender and starting to brown, 25-30 minutes. Stir them once or twice during the roasting process. Remove from the oven and set aside.
- In a small food processor, chop together the garlic, cilantro, cumin, coriander, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Add in the lemon juice and continue to process until finely chopped. Then, with the processor running, drizzle in 3-4 Tbs. of olive oil until it forms a loose sauce. Set aside.
- Bring your 2 1/2 cups water to a boil in one pot. In another medium pot, toast the couscous over medium heat until it starts to turn lightly golden, about 5 minutes. Then, add the water, 1 Tbs. of olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook uncovered until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender, about 12 minutes. Cover and let rest for 5 minutes.
- In a large serving bowl, toss together the couscous, cilantro sauce, roasted butternut squash pieces, toasted nuts, and preserved lemon if using. Gently toss until everything is well coated with the sauce. Taste and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm.