Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash & Preserved Lemons

Israeli Couscous

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.)

flat leaf parsley

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.

preserved lemon israeli couscous blog

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.

pine nuts

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.

chopped parsley

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.

squash on scale golden raisins

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.

butternut

Israeli Couscous with Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemons

Eight servings

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
  • salt
  • 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

How to Peel and Cut a Butternut Squash

Moroccan Preserved Lemons

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)

Couscous (Wikipedia)

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)

chopping parsley

65 comments

  • This looks amazing, David — I definitely want to give it a try. A question for you…I have some wonderful preserved limes at home that I haven’t used in anything yet. Do you think they would be wrong for this dish, or would that be a reasonable substitution?

  • This looks and sounds delicious. I like that the recipe says to cut the squash into such small dice as it’s in scale with the rest of the ingredients. all I seem to see, even when mixed with smaller ingredients, are big chunks of root vegetables. I will miss Gourmet, too. They never failed to bring delicious and interesting foods for their readers to try.

    I can’t seem to get myself to take a liking to pine nuts. Since toasted walnuts are given as an alternative in many recipes, would they be a good alternative in this one?

  • I just moved to Israel, and they sell huge bags of Israeli couscous, alongside mounds of fresh spices, in the Jerusalem market! I can’t wait to buy a big sack when I go tomorrow. Maybe I’ll make a batch of preserved lemons too.

  • Israeli couscous is my FAVORITE kind of couscous!!! I can’t wait to make this recipe :)

  • Just wanted to comment – the “Israeli Couscous” pictured above is actually toasted pasta. In Hebrew, we call it “Ptitim”, and this variety is couscous shaped, hence the mess up with real couscous. Israeli children eat it with schnitzel and ketchup, and it has nothing to do with real couscous.

  • For readers in Australia, golden raisins are sultanas. And this salad is fab!

  • This looks yummy but where do you find dried cherries in Paris? Last year around this time, I looked everywhere and finally gave up. Surprisingly, there are dried cranberries at the neighborhood Franprix for about what you’d pay for them in the U.S.

  • Oh David I am so excited that you posted this recipe! I have been searching for new ways to cook Israeli couscous and preserved lemons. A trustworthy Gourmet recipe is the perfect one to try. Thank you!

  • This looks really good! Can’t wait to try it! I’ve been wanting to make preserved lemons for a long time and I now have the perfect reason!

  • Call it what you will, I love it – and this particular recipe I must try.
    David your photos in this post are beautiful. They are always lovely, (especially the Cognac posts), but the colors and textures and ‘wetness’ you capture here – truly gorgeous.
    Michaela

  • Butternut squash and Israeli couscous are two of my favorite things to cook with. And with preserved lemon, yum.

    I have to admit, I got really excited when I saw the photo because I thought the dark specks were finely chopped olives. Raisins are good, but olives are my favorite thing ever. Hmmm…I wonder if they’d work instead? I imagine they’d compliment the lemon nicely, but not sure about them with squash.

  • Mmm! There is a very similar couscous at the Whole Foods deli where I live and I just had it yesterday :]

  • “It can also be made it advance and I’ve made it for large parties and it reheats beautifully.” there are not many side dishes in my repetoire that I can say that about, and since I love all of the components separately, I know I would appreciate the composed dish. Plus it’s purty. Thank you for sharing this recipe!
    Despite my love for Moroccan food, I haven’t made preserved lemons yet.

  • This looks delicious… I never thought of couscous as pasta, actually. This would be a good way to use preserved lemon for the first time–it’s less scary when combined with delicious ingredients like butternut squash.

  • Thanks for sharing this recipe. I have never really known what do with Israeli couscous. I feel that it is one of those things I should like and use and cook. I bought a box on this theory some time ago, and it has been sitting on the shelf with only one trip to the stove, for an unsuccessful recipe. Butternut squash, preserved lemons and pinenuts are thoroughly appealing, so that box of Israeli couscous will be finally be given another chance.

  • Thanks @Essjayeff, I was wondering about the golden raisins. What a fantastic recipe David! I’m always looking for preserved lemon recipes.

  • Are you blog stalking me? lol…I just made couscous yesterday.

    The way I see it, with change people will always get scared. Traditional media outlets are becoming defunct. But think of all the trees we will be saving. Maybe we are just going green naturally.

    best,

    Christine

    (I rarely comment but I do lurk your blog often..in a totally un-creepy way)

  • I won a Best Blog award, I selected you as a winner of the Best Blog award. See the following link for details.

    I love your recipies, and the photos are “eye candy”…just gorgeous. I love living vicariously through you!
    Congrats.

    http://enchantedtraveler.wordpress.com/2009/11/17/best-blog-award/

  • Oh, I love making preserved lemons (I have a lemon tree in my garden), and I love finding a new recipe to use them up. Our family is gluten-free, though, so I’ll either substitute drained quinoa or steamed & drained cauliflower (pulsed raw in a food processor to the size of couscous) instead of couscous.

  • Yum. ’nuff said.

  • I have never eaten this kind of couscous, but it looks exactly like marmahon- I live in Honduras and it is very common here, though it has some sort of middle eastern roots (which you find in the history of Honduras). They have several sizes and one is very small and looks just like your recipe. It seems like a pasta to me.http://www.marmahon.com/marmahon1.html

  • The first photograph is couscous enticement in a spoon. Fabulous!

    Now I have to go eat chile verde over rice when I really want me some – NOW! – couscous with butternut squash and preserved lemons, yum.

    Thank you, Gourmet. Thank you, David.

  • Couscous is not pasta. However “Israeli couscous” is not couscous at all — it’s not even called couscous in Israel, but ptitim. Unlike couscous, however, ptitim are pasta — it’s baked pasta.

  • Hey David,

    I LOVE Israeli Couscous and Butternut squash!!!!!!! WOW!!!!!!
    Can’t wait to try this recipe………………………..
    I continue to love reading your blog and looking at your BEAUTIFUL food photos. Thank you!!!

    A favorite recipe from me:
    1 large onion, sliced, 4 cloves garlic, carmelize them. Add 3 pkg of israeli couscous and brown like you are making risotto. Add three cans chicken broth and cook til done.
    Add:
    Sliced tomatoes, kalamata olives. cilantro, feta and little olive oil. Fluff till blended. Serve. Yummy.
    From Marlene ( Carolyn’s friend from our time at Ubuntu Restaurant in Napa)
    Remember me?????

  • Genie: I’ve never had (or even seen) preserved limes so can’t advise. Where do you get them? Or did you make them?

    Susan: I don’t know about walnuts, but I would perhaps try almonds or hazelnuts.

    Marlene: I loved our lunch at Ubuntu. I want to go back! (And thanks for the recipe. 2 packages of Israeli couscous? Sounds like you’re running your own restaurant!)

    anna: It seems a few cultures have their own version of tiny round pasta. I remember the first time I had orzo (rice-shaped pasta) and was won over by that, too. I even saw something called Lebanese couscous, although don’t know how that differs from this one. (Although I’m not getting involved in any Middle East conflicts—I know better than that..)

    Anna: Yes, do give this a gluten-free try. You could also use a gluten-free pasta, made with rice flour or another grain, as well. But the cauliflower sounds delicious.

    callie: I actually asked Kitty Morse, a Moroccan cookbook author, who said that couscous isn’t pasta. Which is what I thought. But I can’t quite figure out why it can’t be classified as such? Wish Gourmet was still around, so I could ask them : (

    yeara: The pasta balls that I used were called “pepe”, and from Italy, and they weren’t roasted. Or at least they don’t look that way in the photo of them in the measuring cup. I do have some fregola sarda, which is toasted, and want to give that a try sometime. But perhaps a trip to Israel is in order for a tasting!

  • Oh, i’ve always seen this kind of couscous (I though it was pasta, huh, let’s say I would have called it pasta :D) in the markets here, but I did not know how to cook it and with what kind of other ingredients. I’ve always thought that “one day, i’ll try this”. Thanks to you, I think this day has finally arrived \o/

  • I know, I know, you said not to make substitutions, but would you think this would work with quinoa instead of couscous? Can’t have it (gluten intolerant). I love the mix of flavors going on here!

  • Alta: Anna, above, is also gluten-free and mentioned a few gluten-free alternatives. Since I haven’t personally tried them, I can’t say for sure how they’d work. If there is a gluten-free pasta out there is a similar shape, I would try that.

    If you try it, please let me know how it goes for you as I’m always interested in alternatives that readers come up with.

  • David- your pictures make my mouth water! Literally!!

  • David, the preserved rangpur limes were thanks to Robert Lambert, who sells his fabulous marmalades and chocolate sauces and the like at the Grand Lake Farmer’s Market in Oakland on Saturdays, although I’ve seen his sauces in stores at the Ferry Building and other places around the Bay Area. Here’s a little more information: http://www.robertlambert.com/store/salt.html (Although the limes are sold out, which is sad…). I just happened to stumble across them when I was at market one day and couldn’t resist, although hadn’t used them for anything until last night, when I tossed a chopped lime with some roasted green beans. They’re absolutely heavenly, and since I have all the necessary ingredients for this dish, I’m going to give it a try tomorrow night and use the rangpur lime instead of preserved lemon. I’ll report back in some manner — possibly on my blog!

  • No one in Israel knows Ptitim is called Israeli Couscous. In fact it is not even considered Couscous!
    I had a big laugh the first time I went to Dean-&-DeLuca and saw kid’s food called Israeli Couscous.

  • That looks really beautiful. I’ve been looking for that kind of couscous for ages, so am really appreciating the close up shots, thanks.

  • I see you found your use for your butternut squash with the weird neck! Good for you! Recipe and pics are very nice. I enjoy your “emails” and laugh a lot at them but respect your flare for good taste. Thanks for your “work”!

  • David
    I use mostly Morrocan coucous but this dish sure looks appetizing
    I was making couscous as a side dish for fish the other day and for whatever reason got a craving for couscous with raisins.

    Changing topic, would like your suggestion on Pastry Chef in NJ or NYC who could make a Small but Divine Cake for a Special Occasion…for Saturday this Week

    E-mail me their info if you can come up with some

    Merci
    Serge (the Concierge)
    ‘The French Guy from New Jersey’

  • David
    I use mostly Morrocan coucous but this dish sure looks appetizing
    I was making couscous as a side dish for fish the other day and for whatever reason got a craving for couscous with raisins.

    Changing topic, would like your suggestion on Pastry Chef in NJ or NYC who could make a Small but Divine Cake for a Special Occasion…for Saturday this Week

    E-mail me their info if you can come up with some

    Merci
    Serge (the Concierge)
    ‘The French Guy from New Jersey’

  • David, Gourmet or no Gourmet, I don’t think there’s any question that you have “made it”. :)

    I’m so happy you posted this because I have some preserved lemons I made a while back that have been hanging out at the back of the fridge getting lonely. The sweetness of the squash and raisins sounds like it would be a perfect foil. One question though, would it be acceptable to serve this at room temp, like a (dare I say it) pasta salad?

  • What do you do with the insides of the preserved, reserved lemons?

  • Oop, reread the recipe again because I thought I was missing something. I was. Just a little dumb today.

  • This looks so good I would make it right now if I had a preserved lemon!! I’m going to look for a jar today.

  • Yup, as others have said, in Israel those things are known as ptitim. If you order couscous here, you’ll get the familiar Moroccan-style couscous. It’s quite funny if ptitim is being marketed as “Israeli couscous” in other places!

    That said, ptitim aren’t exactly an upscale dish in Israel, and I don’t think they’ve ever looked so good.

  • Yay, my preserved lemons are just about ready! Perfect timing.

  • This recipe looks absolutely amazing. Simplicity but genius at its best. Fab pictures.

  • This is my dish! I mean, I am very attached to it, borderline territorial, as you can see. Back when I was [gasp] a vegetarian I used to bring this to Thanksgiving every year. I am happy to see I am not the only one enthralled with it. Now give it back.

  • Cheryl: Yes, you press out the juices (and use them), but the pulp gets tossed when you’ve extracted out everything.

    deb: I was wondering why you hadn’t done this one yet? It’s the best…and no, you can’t have it back.

    noelle: As mentioned, it’s fine to serve this at room temperature. Don’t tell anyone, but I often sneak a forkful right out of the refrigerator if no one’s looking…

    Carol & Liz: It’s funny how it got to me called Israeli couscous. Sounds like some marketing team decided that no one in America would use something called Ptitim. Which, admittedly, is a bit harder to pronounce than “Israeli Couscous.” שָׁלוֹם

  • This looks like a fabulous (and easy to convert) recipe Thanks! Quinoa, rice, brown rice pasta, the possibilities are endless =D.

  • Oh, my. I have 8 local butternuts biding time in my garage. I do believe they have this salad written all over them. Off to jot down “organic lemons” on my grocery list…
    Molly

  • I just tasted pepitas side by side with pine nuts and they kind of taste somewhat similar. What do you think about using pepitas instead of pine nuts? I’m thinking dried cranberries and pepitas would be very festive looking.

  • David,

    I am Moroccan and LOVE couscous. I’ve never had Israeli couscous or seen it at the store. It looks light and versatile and reminds me of fregola a little bit. I would love to try it.

    Nisrine

  • This looks gorgeous!

    Unfortunately, there’s a bit of an issue with pine nuts that are sold in the Netherlands, which is where I live. A lot of people (me included) have experienced that eating pine nuts sometimes makes your taste buds go bonkers, and everything you eat tastes like soap for days. It’s quite horrible! Right now, there’s a food safety investigation going on for the pine nuts that are available here.

    So, what would you recommend using instead of the pine nuts?

  • Ilona: The problem, they say, is mostly from Chinese pine nuts. (I actually have a post I’m working on schedule about that for the future.) So you can use Italian pine nuts, or try toasted and chopped hazelnuts.

  • Question re: preserved lemons:

    I’ve only ever eaten the lemons preserved in brine that you can buy at the grocery store, and I didn’t like them. They had a sort of strong chemically flavor that I associate with cleaning products. Are homemade ones better? If so, I will try making my own (directions seem easy enough). Just was wondering if there was a marked difference before taking on this little challenge.

    Thanks. Look good!

  • Megan: I would imagine in store-bought preserved lemons, there would be a variation in quality. I normally make mine myself, but have occasionally purchased them from an Arab olive vendor where they are floating in brine and they taste fine. Although not as good as homemade.

  • Nice salad! I am always looking for new ways to enjoy the preserved lemons that I recently made.

  • David, I couldn’t find any pine nuts from Italy, so I ended up toasting the seeds from the butternut squash, which tasted fine in this wonderful, wonderful dish!

  • I made this dish for Thanksgiving dinner today and it was an unqualified hit! All I can say is wow – a superb combination of flavors, textures, and aromas, and it looks real pretty, too. Thank you for bringing this recipe to my attention. It now has a place at our Thanksgiving table for many years to come (and pot lucks, and parties, and just for the heck of it).

  • hi david! i made this recipe for a pre-thanksgiving potluck with friends and they loved it! i made a lot and between 15 people we didn’t finish it at the table. still, no one would let me take my leftovers home! thanks! love your site

  • Hey David! I have a butternut squash sitting on my dining table waiting for a worthy recipe and this recipe fall on my lap! Where do you find Israeli couscous in France and what is it called in french? Can you find it in the hypermarches or in the health food stores? I have an urgency to cook the squash before it rots before my eyes…

  • Barbara: I go to Arab markets and they usually have small round pasta. Sabah is one that I frequent, by the marche d’Aligre.

  • As an Israeli and as a daughter to a Moroccan mother I would like to add a comment to the question whether Israeli couscous is pasta.
    First keep in mind that couscous and Israeli couscous are not the same thing.
    The north African couscous is made with semolina flour, water, spices and some oil, then cooked over steams. (thought there are different types of couscous, some are made with milk and cinnamon and are eaten as a desert)
    What is called today Israeli couscous is basically pasta. There is a story behind it: in 1949, when Israel was under the regime of austerity (After the 48 war Israel’s population doubled it self in three years and there was not enough food, therefore there was rationing of food and citizens used food stamps.) rice was one of the things that were hard to find, even in the black market. Local food company started to produce pasta that looks like rice (similar to the Risoni pasta) it immediately received the name ‘Ben-Gurion rice’ (named after David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of Israel 1948-53) and later was introduced over seas as Israeli couscous.

    Hope you find it interesting.

  • I prepared this tonight for dinner with grilled lamb loin– superb ! Used pumpkin (which I did have to oven-roast for considerably longer than 15 minutes). Wonderfully satisfying dish. Thanks !

  • Thanks for this recipe! I made it tonight and it was smashing.

  • Nice salad! I am always looking for new ways to enjoy the preserved lemons that I recently made.

  • I made this salad last friday night and it was absolutely delicous and easy to do. Loved it and was happy to see that it kept well in the fridge. I really liked the sweet and savoriness and the different textures. I made too much for us but was able to enjoy it over the weekend. I highly recommend trying this recipe! In fact I’m bringing it to a dinner party this coming friday!

  • There appears to be an error in the weight conversion for the butternut squash.
    1 1/2 pounds are roughly 680 grams and 1.25 kg are about 2 3/4 pounds.
    Going by be picture of the finished dish and the link to the ‘original’ recipe, I’m guessing it’s the kg figure thats the wrong one and the pound one that correct, but it would be nice to be sure before I attempt the recipe. David can you confirm?
    Thanks in advance!

  • OMG. This was sooo good and a big hit with nearly everyone. I think I will make it over and over and over. And, I must agree with David’s advice not to make any changes. It is perfect.