When I started this site, I had forums, where people could chat and post messages. Before we took it down (because my brain was about to implode), one of the burning questions on there was this: Is couscous pasta?
My contention was that it wasn’t, since it wasn’t a ‘paste’ (or as the French would say, un pâte), which is what I believe—in my limited intelligence—that pasta is.
On the other hand, perhaps it is pasta, because couscous is flour mixed with water, then rolled until little granules form. Theoretically, then, it is a paste before it’s broken down into little bits. Which makes me wonder if kig ha farz is pasta, too? (Although back then, no one would have know what that was, so it wouldn’t have bolstered my argument.)
Then, to make matters even more complicated, there’s Israeli couscous, whose springy, chewy texture wouldn’t raise an eyebrow if someone called it pasta.
The issue was never resolved, but if anyone had any problems with Israeli couscous, they can take it up with its toasted, brawny Italian cousin, fregola sarda.
This recipe, which uses Israeli couscous, is one of my absolute all-time favorite dishes and I’ve been meaning to share it forever here. I make it constantly since it goes well with any kind of grilled or braised meat, fish or poultry. And even is good vegetarian fare. It can also be made it advance and I’ve made it for large parties and it reheats beautifully.
The original recipe calls for golden raisins, but I sometimes toss is a few dried cranberries too, which give it a holiday feel. Or dried sour cherries, which are wonderful if serving this with a lamb dish, such as lamb tagine.
A few weeks back, I’d written a story about how I felt about the passing of Gourmet magazine, but never posted it. There was so much going on and so many people adding their voices to the mix, blaming everything from blogs to a bad economy, that I figured enough was said and I let it pass. But for me, what I wrote was that the bottom line for most of us was that Gourmet was “the bar” that so many of us aspired to: if you made it into Gourmet, you’d made it. (I never did, but we’ll let that pass, too.)
I do think at some point it will be back. It was the best of the food magazines and the recipes were always terrific and well-tested. This recipe for Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemons appeared in their magazine way back in 1999, when preserved lemons and the aforementioned Israeli couscous weren’t so well-known.
It’s a shining example of the folks at Gourmet having a lot of foresight and casting their net outside America’s borders in search of lesser-known ingredients, proving they weren’t stodgy, as some critics said. Now, many of the ingredients that I remember reading about in Gourmet way-back-when are easily found in grocery stores, and we keep them stocked in our refrigerators and pantries. And the recipes from the magazine are still gracing our tables, such as this one.
Like a perfect Caesar Salad, in this dish, all the ingredients come together just right, without one dominating the others. So I never veer from the recipe because it’s so well-balanced. Be sure to buy two large bunches of flat-leaf parsley since it takes a lot to make the required amount. Curly parsley doesn’t have the same herbaceous flavor, so I don’t recommend it—unless you live in a flat-leaf parsley-challenged place.
However you do need to use preserved lemons; their salty-lemon bite gives this dish character. You can make preserved lemons or find them in Arabic markets, or online. But they’re quite easy to make yourself and having a jar on hand gives you an excuse to make this as often as you want, which you will.
Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemons
Adapted from Gourmet magazine
I don’t recommend making any changes to this dish. The preserved lemons are pretty important; their salty-tang hits just the right notes with the other ingredients. If you can’t get butternut squash, though, you could use sweet potatoes, another squash, or pumpkin. Whatever you use, be sure not to overcook it.
For some reason, golden raisins meld in perfectly and their darker counterparts just don’t seem right to me. That said, I do like dried cherries (or dried cranberries) in this very much, and they’re especially festive around holidays. So feel free to add them, as directed.
- 1 1/2-pounds (700 g) butternut squash, peeled and seeded
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and minced
- 1 3/4 cup (280 g) Israeli couscous, or Italian pepe-style pasta
- 1 small cinnamon stick
- 1 preserved lemon
- 1/2 cup (60 g) golden raisins
- 1/4 cup (30 g) dried cherries or cranberries, coarsely chopped (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup (60 g) chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 2/3 cup pine nuts, toasted (see Note)
Preheat the oven to 475F (245C).
1. Cut the squash into 1/4-inch (1 cm) cubes and toss them with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a seasoning of salt in a large baking dish or pan.
2. Cook on the upper rack of the oven until the squash is just tender, about 15 minutes. (Don’t overcook.)
3. While the squash is cooking, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and cook the onions over medium-high heat with a bit of salt until translucent.
4. As the squash and onions are finished, scrape them into a large bowl.
5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the Israeli couscous with the cinnamon stick until tender, about 10 minutes.
6. While the couscous cooks, cut the preserved lemon in quarters and scoop of the insides, which you should reserve. Dice the lemon into 1/4-inch (1 cm) cubes, add them to the squash, then press the reserved flesh through a strainer to extract the liquid, and add the liquid to the squash.
7. Drain, but don’t rinse the couscous. Discard the cinnamon stick.
8. Add the couscous to the bowl of squash, then add the raisins, cherries or cranberries (if using), ground cinnamon, parsley, and toasted pine nuts.
Serving: Serve warm, although it can also be served at room temperature.
Do-Ahead Tip: You can make this ahead, up to one day in advance, and rewarm it before serving. If so, leave the parsley and toasted pine nuts out, and mix them in right before serving.
Note: To toast pine nuts, spread them on a baking sheet and toast them in a 350F (180C) oven, checking and stirring them frequently, until nutty-brown, as shown in the photo in the post. Pine nuts burn quite easily so begin checking them after 4-5 minutes, then keep a close an eye on them after that.
Related Posts and Links
Fregola Sarda with Zucchini and Pinenuts (Chocolate & Zucchini)
Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco (Paula Wolfert)
Tunesian Couscous with Fennel, Red Peppers & Garlic (Paula Wolfert)
Tabbouleh (Desert Candy)
Pititim: Israeli Couscous (Wikipedia)
Pearl Couscous with Olives and Roasted Tomatoes (Smitten Kitchen)
What is Couscous and How Does One Prepare It? (Clifford Wright)
Ten Minute Couscous Soup (101 Cookbooks)
Olive, Pistachio and Apricot Couscous (Martha Stewart)