Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Adventures in Israeli Couscous

First of all, I want to apologize for the delay. International travel and jet-lag do not make for good writing and cooking conditions. I really do hope that from this point forward blog posts will be a weekly occurrence.
Now that that's taken care of, let's talk about Israeli couscous. Israeli couscous is not couscous. It's baked pasta. And while it has somehow evolved into an upscale "in" food, in Israel it maintains its role as a humble side-dish served to children in kindergarten or lathered in ketchup by poor students. Which is not to say that it isn't awesome- because it is. It's got a couscous like texture, but is more substantial and has a deeper flavor than regular pasta.  It is endlessly useful and is easily prepared. It can be eaten warm or cold and lends itself to a great variety of seasonings and flavors. In other words, awesome.
So I was plenty pleased when I found myself, on my second week in the kitchen, faced with an enormous pot of Israeli couscous. Even more pleasing was the fact that I was given free range to prepare it as I liked. Just one week into my kitchen experience, and there I was being told to  use my own judgment. It was both satisfying and slightly frightening. I really didn't want to screw up my first real cooking assignment. I got the idea of cinnamon from the following recipe for Israeli couscous with roasted butternut squash and preserved lemon, which I had been making, on and off, throughout the fall and winter, and I like quite a bit. I didn't expect to cause quite the ruckus I did though, when I asked where the cinnamon was kept. Nobody in the kitchen had ever conceived of adding cinnamon to Israeli couscous. It was as if I revolutionized the whole concept. Well, I wouldn't quite call it a revolution, though it was quite good. Now I seem to be to be on perpetual Israeli couscous duty. Any time I'm in the kitchen and Israeli couscous is on the menu, it's pretty much a sure thing I'll be cooking it. At least now I know where the cinnamon is.
This recipe is endlessly flexible. The original recipe calls for preserved lemons. I use preserved limes because that's what I have in the house. Likewise, I have substituted cilantro for the parsley, almonds for the pine-nuts and at some point, having failed to find butternut squash in the supermarket, I once used carrots instead. It is also a really good picnic dish- it travels well and feeds quite a few people as a side dish.

Israeli Couscous with Roasted Butternut Squash and Preserved Lemon

Adapted from Gourmet, Sep. 1999

  • 1 preserved lemon, or lime
  • 1 1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled and seeded, and cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 3/4 cups Israeli couscous or acini di pepe (tiny peppercorn-shaped pasta), about 1 pound
  • 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, or cilantro
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 475

Toss squash with 1 tablespoon oil and salt to taste in a large shallow baking pan and spread in 1 layer. Roast in upper third of oven 15 minutes, or until squash is just tender, and transfer to a large bowl.
Cook onion in 1 tablespoon oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to turn golden. Add to squash.
Cook couscous with cinnamon stick in a large pot of boiling salted water 10 minutes, or until just tender, and drain in a colander (do not rinse). Add couscous to vegetables and toss with 2 tablespoon oil to coat.
Add lemon peel and juice, parsley, nuts, raisins, ground cinnamon, and salt to taste. Toss to mix well. 
Serve at room temperature.


  1. A few weeks back I stumbled upon a blog that talked about the history of Israeli cous cous. Apparently David Ben Gurion contacted Osem and asked if they could whip something up to feed all the starving Mizrahi immigrants. Their staple grain was rice, which he couldn't provide, and the company came up with the wheat-based cous cous.

    I've just stumbled across your blog via Sweet Amandine. I've always enjoyed your comments, I can't believe it took me until now to follow them.

  2. Hi, cheapbeets. Welcome! I'm glad you're here.

    I have heard that story about the origins of Israeli cous-cous. I think that's part of the reason why Israelis have such a hard time thinking of it as anything other than students/kid food.

    Thanks for your lovely comment about my comments :) Jess's blog is so lovely that it hard not to want to live up to that.

    Again, glad you're here.